The Right Person Should Ask

There can be no mistake, the quintessence of successful fundraising is the careful and sometimes imaginative matching of askers to givers.

But who precisely is the right person to do the asking? From my observation, the old adage of peer-on-peer may not necessarily be the only answer. Indeed it may not be an answer at all.

This represents a great departure from what has been a sound and long-cherished concept. Namely that volunteers, particularly peers of the prospect, are the most effective solicitors.

But according to my research, that’s not always the case. Every situation is an opportunity for a highly thought-out and considered plan.

Respect is the key! It’s important who asks for the gift.

Dorothy Simmerly gave the largest gift to a national campaign for the Episcopal church. The person who made the call, who asked for the gift, was the national head of the church, the Archbishop.

“It was the first time I’d met him,” she said. “I was greatly impressed with his tremendous energy and vision. I was sold from the beginning and I must say, it felt good being called on by the highest man in the Church.”

Dortch Oldham was one of Nashville’s most respected citizens. A leader, a doer, a giver. Before selling it to the Times Mirror company, Oldham owned the Southwestern Corp., a company that employs college students each summer to sell a variety of books door to door.

Oldham had great regard for the president of his alma mater. That was an important element in his making several million-dollar gifts to Richmond University.

He says there isn’t anyone who can raise money like the chief staff person. It’s a key factor, according to Oldham.

Arthur Rubloff was a rags-to-riches story and a chronic giver. Some say he owned most of downtown Chicago, and a suburb or two. That’s an overstatement, of course. But not by much.
Rubloff gave $5 million to both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Here’s what he told me about those gifts. “It wasn’t a case of special loyalty to either institution—  they’re both distinguished universities. I didn’t attend either.

“The president of each called on me and, for these two projects, I think the president was the right person. Maybe I wouldn’t have reacted as well to a volunteer.”

But other million dollar donors don’t seem to care who calls on them, so long as it’s someone they respect.

“It’s important who asks for the gift,” said venture capitalist, Robert Saligman. “But to me it doesn’t matter if it’s a staff person, a volunteer, or a friend. It just needs to be someone I respect.”

Using practically the same words, here’s what Leo Roon had to say on the subject. “It can be a staff person or a board member – that doesn’t really matter, just so I have a high regard for them. It doesn’t have to be a peer, either, or someone who will give as much as I will.”

It was the same for W. Clement Stone. “When [naming one of Chicago’s leading industrialists] walks in the door and says ‘Clem, I really need your help,’ you can bet I always make a gift. But the right staff member can do a good job, too.”

Compelling projects, not friendship is a key factor

One thing that may surprise you is that friendship with the solicitor doesn’t necessarily play a pivotal role.

“Once in a while a close friend will call on me and because of our relationship,” said Leo Beranek. “I feel compelled to do something. But if it’s an organization I’m not particularly interested in, it will be a very small gift, a token, a couple thousand dollars.”

Leo Roon concurred: “If a friend asks me for a gift and I’m not especially interested in the organization, chances are I’ll do something. But I certainly won’t make a large gift to the organization.”

And Cyril Magnin agreed: “It is the project that attracts me, that compels me. Not the person. Even if a friend, a dear friend, called on me, it wouldn’t make any difference. I’ve learned to give only to programs where I feel my help can make a difference.”

What my interviews show is this. The solicitor can be a staff person, a volunteer, or a peer. Any of them, as long as they command respect. But you must know your prospect well enough to identify just who the right person is.

Where a personal friend or peer can make a difference is in securing the appointment with the prospect. It is a plain fact of fundraising that it’s often far more difficult to get an appointment than the gift.

The known philanthropist has been called on before. Many times. And faced with the never-ending pleading for gifts, he has developed a hide the thickness of a rhinoceros. Getting the interview can be the most important strategy of all.

The Magic Partnership

Whenever possible, have a peer or a friend call for the visit. Have them accompany you on the call, along with a staff person. That can be a formidable combination. I call it the Magic Partnership. The peer needn’t say much. Have the staff person do the talking, even ask for the gift.

Running through most of my interviews is another thread that refutes what has been said so often it has become gospel— that two people can make an effective call, but more than two can overwhelm.

Not true!

I find it can be very persuasive and impressive to have three or four attend one of the early sessions with a donor. Try it. A friend, the chief executive officer, the chairman of the campaign, and a person who has made a gift at the level you seek. (I say take the Marching Band if you think it will help!)

The prospective donor knows he’s in for a formidable time, but somehow seems to enjoy the fuss.

He is impressed that so many important people are taking time to make the call. It must be important to them. It must be an important program. It must be a gift at an important level they are seeking.

Just make sure you carefully orchestrate the discussion so there’s a role for everyone. That’s important.

There’s one last hoary tale I’d like to lay permanently to rest. It holds that the person who solicits should have already made a gift equal to the one he or she will be asking for.

Over the years, this axiom has been repeated so often it’s now considered Holy Grail. But it’s rubbish!

Here’s the rule you must follow. It is irrefutable.

The person asking for the gift must have made his own gift, and it must be at a tiptoe level. If it is a sacrificial gift, or the largest he has ever made to anything, all the better. But it doesn’t have to be equal to the prospect’s anticipated gift.

One closing note. It is interesting that of all the million dollar gifts I reviewed, only one presentation was made at lunch. There is no scientific data to substantiate this, but a meal— with all of the clang and clatter, table-hopping, and irrelevant chatter— takes away measurably from the focus of the meeting

A waiter asking for the dessert order at precisely the wrong time can cause an unnerving  interruption. While you may savor a fine raspberry torte, the magic moment can be lost forever.