38259434_mOne of the questions I hear from smaller organizations that are just beginning working with major donors is “When is someone ready to give a gift?”

My reply, “It depends.”

Assuming you are doing your donor research, there are some guidelines you can use to assess the best time to make “the ask.”

  • Gift proposal – the elements of a gift proposal are as follows:
    – Amount of the gift request
    – Purpose of the gift request and restrictions
    – When the gift will be made (e.g. now, over a period of time)
    – How the gift will be made (e.g. cash, stock, planned gift)
    – How the gift will be recognized
  • Past Giving – If the person you’re soliciting made a gift in previous years to your organization, even if not at the level you are now requesting, it helps to inform you. Look at the giving history. Does the major donor prospect give at a certain time of year? If so, try to time your request accordingly.
  • Cultivation – Before you make any ask, you need to go through a cultivation process. This means that you are engaging them in multiple conversations. As you discuss your organization and its work, you are peeling the onion and uncovering what interests your prospects about your organization and why. What programs? What motivates them? Do they want to give only to program expenses? Or, are they open to helping support operational expenses understanding the total needs of the organization? To what extent do they want to become involved in your organization and how do they prefer to remain engaged? Are they someone who requires a lot of details or do they prefer to see the big picture? Are they individuals who make decisions quickly or do they prefer to take their time and process? Outside of your organization, what are their interests? How do they like to spend their time? What’s their passion?
  • Data – While it’s true the people give to people, not many are going to give a major gift just because you asked them and they like you. If that approach ever did exist, those days are gone. Today’s major donor funders are expecting not only to learn as much as they can about your organization, but they are looking to see what your numbers look like. They want to understand that your financials are in order, so be prepared to answer questions about your financial position. This should be something you’re used to and as a best practice, you should post your latest annual report, 990s and any other relevant financials on your website. Transparency is highly important. However, it’s not only financials that matter. Donors also want to know the metrics around your programs. How are you assessing results? What are those results and how do they compare year to year? Are your programs successful when they are evaluated objectively or are they not? Is there room for improvement? Can that be something of interest, potentially, to the donor?
  • Objections – Oftentimes when a fundraiser has worked up to make an ask, there might be some objections and further conversations to be had. Not always is it a straight affirmative answer. At this point, the fundraiser needs to get at the root of the objections. Why is the prospect not prepared to give the gift at this time? Is the request too high? (Note: in fundraising, there is a general rule to err on the side of asking for a high gift rather than too low. Asking a millionaire for $5,000 may be a waste of time because the prospect will know that gift may not make a systemic impact. However, asking for $50,000 or $75,000 could potentially be programmatically significant). Other objections you may encounter may have nothing to do with your program or nonprofit. Perhaps, the prospect is in the midst of significant life change that is impacting his or her financial decisions and donations. Depending on the objections, the fundraiser should then work on eliminating those objections by addressing them to the satisfaction of the prospect. When the fundraiser reaches the point of returning to the ask, he or she should be on more solid footing.

Many elements in fundraising are “science,” with best practices and principles to help inform and guide you. Other elements are much more of an art. You need to be able to feel when the timing is right and you have done what you could in building a solid and informed relationship. This is important for you to be able to create a win/win situation where you receive the funding you require and the donor feels that he or she is making a significant contribution toward a positive outcome.

Author of “The Rise and Fail of Charities In the 21st Century: How The Nonprofit World Is Changing And What You Can Do To Be Ready.”

© 2015 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.