Time Can Be On Your Side

Time.  It can be our biggest enemy.  Especially as we enter the craziness of the end of the year. “I can’t,” my client told me, “possibly see 3 potential major donors every week.  I’ve got the end of the year appeal, the holiday party, and our newsletter to get out.”  Not to mention the myriad other things on her plate.  I know.  But I can’t help but wonder if she is making the right choices for how she is spending her too precious/too little time?

She might be—the answer won’t be the same for everyone.  There were organizations that I worked for where our end of the year appeal made our work possible and segmenting the lists, writing specific appeals, doing follow up calls (especially doing follow up calls), really was worth the time and effort we put into it.  But in many places, I found that the annual appeals were just placeholders and I would get much much more bang for my buck cultivating potential larger donors.

Ideally, there is enough time (which usually means enough staff) to do both.  But for most of us, ideally is a fantasy and nice as it can be to indulge in fantasy daydreams, we do (alas) have to live in reality.  And the reality for most of us is that we are the main (or perhaps the only) fundraiser on staff, and for most of us, that is only one of the hats we wear.

That means planning.  An overused word to be sure, but an important one, nonetheless.  I love dictionaries and definitions, so I’ll indulge here.  Planning, according to the Free Dictionary is “A scheme, program, or method worked out beforehand for the accomplishment of an objective.”  Do note that word “beforehand.”  Not “just in time,” not “at some point in time,” but now—before you get on the road and ensure that you are on the right road.

For fundraising, planning means more than picking a number goal for the year.  That, at best, is your (short term) destination. Knowing how much you need to raise, and especially how much more than you have been regularly raising annually, can help in developing your plan.  It defines for you the methods by which you have to go about raising those funds.

But make no mistake, important as an annual giving program is—and it IS vitally important for many reasons—the real money is in major gifts, be they gifts from individuals, corporations or foundations.  Corporate and foundation grants, however, have gotten ever more competitive and while some foundations are moving more toward operating grants, those still tend to be the smaller grants.

The big money is in individual giving.  And that still happens because of personal relationships-as in being face to face with the prospect—and not via mass communications or social media.  And they are gifts that can take a long time.

There’s that word again.  Time.  Major gifts are a lot like the rich—different from the rest of the pack.  Annual giving tends to rely on inclination:  Someone’s interest in your cause or organization.  Once you know of the interest, you ask for support.  Oftentimes these ask are at a distance (mail, phone, a large event) and while effectiveness rates are low (the number of yesses relative to the number of asks), the number of asks are high.

Larger gifts add a wrinkle—involvement. Another word for involvement is cultivation.  Whatever you call it, it really means building a relationship between the prospective donor and the organization.  People will start the relationship and yes, people do give to people, but serious major donors give to people who represent organizations they want to support.

Like all relationships, the best ones take time and nurturing.  And they don’t end when the question is popped.  While each major gift is singular, major donors tend to be plural.  That is, once someone makes a major gift, more major gifts are on the horizon.

Beyond time is math.  You need far fewer major gifts to reach a goal.  Moreover, the cost to raise a dollar goes down as you get closer to your donor.  Direct mail can cost almost as much as you raise.  Telephone calls cost less, but are also less effective than face-to-face meetings.

One out of two prospects with whom you meet will become donors.  And they are likely to make gifts hundreds of times larger.  Seems to me that it is well worth making the time to meet with those who can give larger gifts.  But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that one major donor is all you need.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that one can be a very dangerous number for a nonprofit.  If that one stops loving you, you will be left very much in the cold.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to build robust fund development programs and Boards who actually want to be a part of the process.  Contact her at janet@janetlevineconsulting.com and check out her website at http://janetlevineconsulting.com.