Don't Be a Cannibal

Last year—as he had for several years—John (needless to say, not his real name) made $1,000 gift to the annual fund. Based on that, Shelly (also not a real name), the development director, asked John this April to be a sponsor at the $1,500 level for their gala, which happened in June. John said yes—at the $1,000 level. So far, so good.

But then the annual appeal went out three weeks ago, and John quickly let Shelly know that he had “already made his gift.” Yep, you guessed it! The $1,000 sponsorship for the gala.

What went wrong?

Shelly did the right thing by looking at loyal donors to see who might be a prospect for a gala sponsorship. People who already care about your organization are the most likely donors. But—and it is a big but—the ask was not done in an integrated and effective way.

As with too much fundraising, it was an arms length ask. A letter went out to all supporters of the organization, asking them to consider being a gala sponsor. The only segmentation that was done was a slightly different letter went to last year’s sponsors than the letter that was sent to new sponsor prospects.

Follow up calls—when they finally occurred—only happened a few weeks before the gala, and many weeks after the mailing. The calls simply asked the recipient if they could be counted on this year.

You can understand John’s confusion. He makes his gift every year. This was early—6 months early—but the organization clearly needed his support. Support he was ready to give.

Rather than sending the letter cold, Shelly would have been better advised to first contact John and, if possible, set up a face-to-face meeting. If that meeting was impossible, at least schedule a 30-minute telephone call.

The purpose of the meeting would be to discuss John’s support for the organization this year, This should be made clear to John right at the start: “Hi John. I’m calling to set up a meeting with you to discuss your support of our organization this year.”

See how simple that is.

Now, John is very likely to respond with words to the effect of, “No need for a meeting, Shelly. I’m happy to continue my annual support at the $1,000 level.” To which Shelly would reply, “That’s wonderful to hear, John and (Sidebar note—I love that word, “And”) I’d love to get together to talk about the directions the organization is heading, get your input on those, and talk more about what matters to you and why you support us. Can we meet on Thursday for 30 minutes?” I always ask for 20-30 minutes….and I usually get two or three times that amount of time.

During that meeting, Shelly needs to be very clear how important John’s annual support is.

“As you know, John, annual support allows us to do the important work that makes our organization so critical. Knowing we can depend on your annual gift allows us to budget intelligently. Your support really means a lot.”

At this point, John may have some questions, comments, and your job is to go with that flow. For a while. But then you need to pivot.

“I also wanted to talk with you about some of our other initiatives and see if any of them interest you sufficiently that you would consider an additional gift.”

At all points in the rest of the conversation(s), you must be clear—this is not instead of your annual support. It is in addition.

So for the gala, Shelly could have said, “Our gala is our signature event, and sponsors get a lot of recognition in our community. You could even use the sponsorship to promote your business. Is that something that matters to you?”

If John says yes, Shelly would have talked about the benefits of sponsorship at different levels, finally getting John’s assent that he will be a $1,000 sponsor. And here it is critical that Shelly reminds John that this would be in addition to the $1,000 the organization is counting on at the end of the year. In fact, if John wanted to, Shelly would work with him to structure a payment schedule for the $2,000 to be paid by December 31st so that it would be comfortable for John.

In this way, Shelly is being clear what the organization is hoping for—and getting clarity about what matters to John. And neither of them have any unhappy surprises down the road.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising results.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the free newsletter. contact Janet ( for a free 30 minute consultation!