Excerpted from the second edition of Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face: A 1-Hour Crash Course on Raising Major Gifts for Nonprofit Organizations

"You can't handle the truth!" is Jack Nicholson's memorable line in A Few Good Men.

Fortunately, your board members are a hardier lot than Tom Cruise's character. They can in fact accept the truth—in this case, threefundraising truths—if you carefully explain the validity of each.

Go FigureSay you're approached by a fellow worker and asked to pitch in for the comptroller's wedding gift. The first question you typically ask is, "How much do you have in mind?" or "What are others giving?"

What you're seeking is a frame of reference.

The same dynamic plays out when you approach prospects. They want a sense of what you're looking for or what their peers are giving.

Are you talking $500, $5,000, or $50,000, they want to know.

You need to be specific. To many, that can be unnerving. Heck, it's hard enough to ask for "any amount you can give" or "whatever you can afford," but the temerity of naming a number—that's like asking "How much do you make a year, bud?"

But if you've done your homework—which is to say, you haven't plucked a figure from thin air—then you won't upset your prospect, especially if you phrase the request tactfully: "We're hoping you'll consider a gift in the range of $50,000" or "Will you consider joining me in giving $25,000 to this worthy cause?"

Another way to frame your request is to mention what others are giving, naming names if you've been given permission. Or, you can stress how your campaign needs several friends to contribute at a certain level and you're hoping the prospect will be among them. Here, you might actually share the gift table you developed.

When you bring your car in for service, the mechanic diagnoses the problem and gives you a quote. What if instead he said nothing? You wouldn't know whether you could afford the repair, or even if your car is worth fixing. It would make you uncomfortable—you'd also question the mechanic's ability.

Don't put your prospect in a similar position. Suggest the amount you have in mind, a "quote," if you will. No one's going to slam the hood on your fingers.

Each According to His or Her MeansThis book would be a lot more interesting if I used my whole brain. But like you, I'm stuck using 10 percent.

And I'd have an easier time typing this sentence if I stopped cracking my knuckles. It's making me arthritic.

Which, to tell you the truth, is turning my hair gray, the stress from it all.

I suspect you recognize these statements for what they are—commonly held misconceptions. (Actually we use all of our brains, just at different times; knuckle cracking is harmless; and aging turns our gray hair, not stress.)

Fundraising has misconceptions, too. Here's one: "If we ask each person for the same amount, our job will be a cinch." All it takes to raise $100,000, for example, is ask 100 people to give $1,000. Presto.


Here's why. First, this one-size-fits-all "strategy" ignores reality. Not all of those 100 people will give. In fact, you'll need to approach 3 or 4 prospects to secure one gift.

Second, not everyone will contribute $1,000, which means to achieve an average gift of $1,000, you'll need gifts of far greater amounts.

Third, asking for $1,000 in effect limits those who could or would give $5,000 or even more.

If these aren't reasons enough, here's another: This approach is grossly unfair. Located at 420 Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, is Bijan, the world's most expensive store. You need an appointment! to shop for its $75 socks and $15,000 suits. Would it really be fair to ask Leonardo DiCaprio, who's been spotted at Bijan, for the very same $1,000 as his Shelter Island key grip?

Recognize the one-size-fits-all approach for the misguided notion it is. Instead, research your prospects, carefully rate them, and then seek a generous and proportionate gift.

Keep in mind what Irving Warner, a veteran fundraiser, said years ago:

The man who suggests you need 1,000 contributions of $10 each for your $10,000 project:

  1. Knows arithmetic.
  2. Thinks he's given you a brilliant solution.
  3. Won't give more than $10.
Those Who Ask Must Give FirstImagine an investment-savvy friend drops by, all excited about an upcoming IPO. "This is the surest thing since Google," he says. "You gotta buy it."

Tantalized by the prospect of easy money, you log onto Stocks R Us and ask how many shares your pal has bought. "None yet," he says, "but if I were you I'd load up!" With that ringing endorsement, you log off.

It's the same with fundraising. Before you can hope to persuade a friend or colleague to support your cause, you have to believe in it yourself. And nothing says conviction better than a generous gift. Personal giving accomplishes two things (three if you count your organization's ledger): It makes you a more enthusiastic advocate and gives you added leverage during your visit.

It's quite effective when you can say, "John, I've contributed $5,000 to this project myself. I believe it's that important. I'm asking you to join me." Think of the credibility gap if you're asked about your own level of support and you personally haven't given.

"Well, um, you see. ..."

That would be when your prospect logs off.

David Lansdowne
© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Excerpted from Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face: A 1-Hour Crash Course on Raising Major Gifts for Nonprofit Organizations; excerpted with permission.

Remember MacGyver? He could blast his way out of an underground tunnel using his watch, a stick of gum, and a shoelace. He didn't suffer from what Gestalt psychologists call functional fixedness -- a cognitive bias that makes people see objects only for their intended use.

But too many nonprofits do. They're trained to wear organizational blinders. If it's all about the organization, then it's not about the donors. That matters a lot when it comes to getting good stories for fundraising. Stories engage and motivate donors. They show what their gifts do. Donors remember stories far more than they'll ever remember how heartily an organization has patted itself on the back.

But getting good stories is hard. It takes time, too. That's why too many organizations wait for stories to fall into their laps, rather than actively seeking them out.

So what's a time-sapped, budget-strapped charity to do? Here are six steps to mining for story gold:

  1. Always listen. Let those on the front lines of your charity's work tell you what they see and do every day. Take in all the ways, big and small, that your nonprofit (or your nonprofit client) makes an impact on someone's life. Remember those. They're the storylines you want to share with donors.
  2. Channel your inner story scout. Be on the lookout for donor-focused stories at all times. Keep your antennae raised, because you never know when some little tidbit you hear might lead to gold.
  3. Get in there! Go stand in a food pantry line. Visit a homeless veteran. Find out what your charity or your client's charity does firsthand. You'll be able to share those details a lot better when you've experienced it in the field, and not from behind your desk.
  4. Use this as your mantra: Everyone has a story. Some stories may not pan out, but there's a good chance that you'll be able to mine a few shiny nuggets that tug at donors' heartstrings.
  5. Focus on the outcome. Put away the process, and start focusing on how someone's life was changed. That's the message donors care about.
  6. Make the donor the hero. In every story, every time.

Do these, and you'll not only capture good stories — you'll capture donors' hearts. And that's the real pot of gold you're looking for.