I had the chance last week to talk with some colleagues about the most important part of the fundraising process: closing the gift. It’s a topic that often gets overlooked because so much emphasis gets put on the work of finding, cultivating, and soliciting potential supporters. Nobody gets evaluated on how many asks are outstanding at the close of the fiscal year; the metric that makes the difference is gift commitments. Here are some ideas I shared that you may find helpful when working to move your outstanding solicitations from “pending” to “closed.”
Make sure it is a proper solicitation
There are many ways to ask for a gift but unless your solicitation is “proper” it will be much harder to get the pledge or a gift. A proper solicitation requests a commitment that’s a bit of a financial stretch for your prospective donor and hopefully involves a project that connects with them emotionally and intellectually. The strongest solicitations are delivered face-to-face and accompanied by a written request for the gift. Proper solicitations include a gift proposal that addresses the question why the donor should make this commitment at this time. Last but not least, unless you get an immediate response, don’t leave the discussion without establishing when the follow-up conversation will take place. Proper solicitations establish a time frame for the decision!
Understand the norms
Even if all the elements were in place and a proper solicitation was made, the follow-up doesn’t always unfold exactly as envisioned. Sometimes it can be difficult to know just how hard to push for an answer. Keeping some simple statistics can be a big help. If you can answer the question “how long, on average, does it take for a decision to be made about a gift of this size?” you’ll be better able to calibrate your efforts. You may also wish to calculate the norms when asking for annual leadership gifts, capital gifts, and endowment gifts, or by the age or gender of the person making the decision. Every potential donor is an individual but it’s great to know how other donors have behaved when asked for a similar gift to your organization.
Work to increase urgency
Once you’ve decided follow-up communication is necessary to get your potential donor to make a decision, you have to start thinking about the message. Here are three tried and true themes, each an attempt to inject some urgency into the decision-making process. We need a decision:
- in order to move the project ahead (e.g. “we would like to break ground this spring but we need commitments in hand in order to get started.”)
- because we want to include you in an upcoming major event/publication (e.g. “the annual honor roll of donors, which is distributed throughout the community, goes to press a week from Friday and we’d so much like you to be included on our list of patrons.”)
- in order to maximize the stewardship you will receive as the donor (e.g. “we’d like to introduce you to your first scholarship recipient this fall but need your decision by Friday to do so.”)
Be an influence peddler
When you have involved the organization’s President or a leadership volunteer as the solicitor, be certain that person understands in advance that they will have to make the first efforts to close the gift. If the President asked for the gift, she or he needs to ask for the decision as well. After several attempts, if the solicitor has been unable to reconnect with the prospective donor, they can make it clear that the follow-up has now been delegated (e.g. “I’ve asked my colleague to follow-up.”)
If you were on your own when making the request, think about who is best positioned to influence your potential donor and encourage them to say “yes.” Perhaps that’s someone who can speak from the perspective of having made a commitment of a similar size, or perhaps it’s someone with a long-standing relationship with the potential donor (a fellow volunteer, former faculty member, classmate, or coach.) Find the person who can speak directly, tug on the heartstrings, and who can let your prospective donor know just how important their support is to the effort.
Show them the love
No matter how hard you try, sometimes the process takes time. Use that time to demonstrate that your interest in your potential donor’s connection to your organization goes beyond the gift decision they have yet to make. Continue cultivating, and if you’re organizing an event for or distributing materials produced to donors at the hoped-for gift level, consider including your prospective donor even though they’re still considering the commitment.
What can you do to make it easy for your donor to say “yes?” It’s probably not by providing a tote bag or mug, but consider suggesting a quarterly or semi-annual payment plan to make it easier to manage the requested commitment. Maybe a little longer pledge period would do the trick (e.g. “Would this gift be possible over six-years?”) Whatever it takes to let your prospective donor envision how she or he can make the commitment possible.
Sometimes getting to “no” is as important as getting to “yes” because you can’t move forward without a decision, one way or the other. You may need to take the lead by articulating what your prospective donor can’t quite express – that this is not the time for them to make the commitment that was requested. Make it a learning moment by asking what would need to change in order to get a different decision, and ask why your request wasn’t of interest to your prospective donor. If you can have a good, honest conversation you will have great insight into how to cultivate your prospective donor and how to make the next solicitation a success.
Keep it simple
It can be tempting to build systems or develop a process to close gifts but the capacity to make it complicated doesn’t mean you should. Focus on what gets the result you want in the least time, with the fewest people involved.
There’s always something new to learn about closing gifts, about the prospective donor and about the process of reaching a decision. What strategies and techniques have you found that are effective? Use the comments box below so we can all keep learning together.