The Right Gift

It was a fundraiser’s nightmare. We had finally found a time when my president and major donor prospects (husband and wife) could meet. And then, as we starting talking about the campaign, the husband stopped us. “You do know that we just make a commitment to the college of education?” he asked.

My president and I looked at each other. We didn’t know. In fact, the college had been specifically told that these donors “belonged” to central and they were to leave them alone.

In our silence, the husband told us that they had agreed to buy a table for $5,000 for the college’s upcoming gala.

Not missing a beat, my president beamed. “That’s wonderful!” he said (lying through his teeth). “This brings you 1% closer to the gift I came here to discuss with you. But first let me ask you, is the College of Education your primary interest at the University?”

Our research indicated not, but research is only a starting point and it is always wise to ask the donor. In fact, asking the donor about lots of things is the most important cultivation technique I can think of.

Over the next hour, we talked with the prospects about their interests, their involvement with the university and about what we hoped they would do in the future. We didn’t ask for a gift, but we did outline what we hoped for including what that would cost, and asked for their thoughts, concerns, dreams and hopes.

Over time—and it takes time to get a commitment for $500,000—we had many of these conversations. The focus of the gift changed a bit; the recognition they wanted got firmed out; we got clarity on the specifics of how the gift would be given.

And you know, that $5,000 gala table never, ever came up again.

Over the course of my fundraising career, I’ve heard a lot of stories about big gifts getting co-opted by small ones; about asking for too little and leaving money on the table. I think that by and large those are excuses for not doing your fundraising job.

Yes, of course, if a donor is asked for a lot less than he or she could give, they will happily give that lesser amount. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come back, talk about the good their smaller gift has done and ask them for an additional gift. Or, like my president, acknowledge that they have done something and then continue onward, talking about the gift you really want to get.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and build more engaged boards.  Learn how she can help your organization at or email her directly at