Browse Articles

Big Rock Fundraising

January 2005
By: Ron Haas
In his book, First Things First, Steven Covey shares a story about a seminar instructor who used some simple props (an empty jar and a few rocks) to illustrate his point about setting priorities. "How many rocks do you think will fit into this jar?" the instructor asked. After a few guesses from the audience, he began to carefully place one by one as many rocks as he could into the jar. When he got to the top, he asked, "Is the jar full?"

"Yes!" someone in the audience responded.

The instructor then brought out a bucket of gravel and began to pour it into the jar, stopping occasionally to shake the gravel into every available space between the bigger rocks. "Is the jar full?"

Now the audience was catching on and someone replied, "Probably not."

"Good," he responded as he reached for a bucket of sand and began to dump it into the jar shifting it back and forth until every crevice was filled. "Is the jar full now?"

"No," the crowd yelled.

"Good," he replied as he grabbed a pitcher of water and poured it into the jar of rocks, gravel, and sand. Then the instructor asked, "What's the point?"

Somebody replied, "There are gaps in my time, and if you work really hard you can always fit something more into your life!"

"Wrong answer. The lesson is: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never fit them in."

As a center director you have lots of big rocks in your life: recruiting volunteers, training, hiring staff, counseling, and board meetings. Add to that all the gravel, sand, and water issues: budgeting, marketing, organizing, planning, scheduling, mailing, writing, reporting, encouraging ... and then there's the computer. I'm convinced. You are an incredibly busy person with no room for another big rock in your life—especially the big rock called "fundraising."

"Big Rock" Fundraising involves two key principles: identifying major donors and investing your time with them. Yes, you need donors who can partner with you at all levels. Yes, your center is grateful for every donor no matter what size of gift. But to reach your gift income potential you need to cultivate personal relationships with major donors. Remember the 80/20 rule: 80% of the resources will come from 20% of your donor base.

Who are your "big rocks?" Do you know their names? Do you know what motivated them to give? Have you personally thanked them for helping you? The most important fundraising strategy you could implement is to list your top twenty-five donors and begin making personal visits. Connect a name with a face. Get to know them and listen to their giving priorities. Share stories of women whose lives you've touched. Tell them what their gift could accomplish.

If you're serious about finding resources to reach abortion-minded and abortion-vulnerable women, the fundraising rock has to be the biggest rock in your jar. Now before you pick up a rock and throw it at me, consider this. What nonprofit organization in your city has the most fundraising success? If you were to ask them why they are successful at fundraising, you would discover that their CEO devotes at least 60% of his or her time cultivating relationships with major donors. Those who invest even more time achieve extraordinary results. Those who spend less time are struggling to survive.

Major donors
want to know
what you want
from them. You
must ask.

"But I didn't get into this ministry to spend all my time raising money." I understand. But think of this, there are certain things that only the executive director can do and cultivating relationships with major donors is at the top of the list. Major donors want to talk with the boss. They want to hear your passion and vision for the future. They want to make a difference with their gift, so they want to know if you will follow through with what you say you will do. They want to give to people they can trust, and you can build that trust by meeting with them face to face. If you can succeed with your big rock relationships, you'll be able to expand your personnel, programs, and even your property.

I challenge you to commit even 20 percent of your time cultivating big rock donors. Let someone else handle the walk, golf outing, fundraising banquet, direct mail appeals, and foundation requests. Focus your time on big rocks. "OK, where do I start?" The first problem you will face is that the urgent often crowds out the important. Take control of your calendar and clear one day a week from all the gravel, sand, and water that gets in your way. Spend that entire day working on identifying, cultivating, and soliciting major donors.

Some CEOs try to ease into this time management shift, but it is best to go "cold turkey." Make a big rock decision and block out one day a week to nurture key donor relationships and let the organization work around your schedule. Don't worry — meetings that require your presence will fill into the cracks somewhere.

So what should you do on "Big Rock Day?" Divide it equally five ways:

1. Researching. Excavate the big rocks you know—current donors, past donors, lapsed donors, friends of board members, friends of donors, volunteers, stewards in your community that have the same values.

2. Romancing. Cultivate relationships with these donors. Send them handwritten notes, visit them in their homes or offices, take them out to breakfast or lunch, and give them a tour of your center.

3. Requesting. Approach your donors with your needs. Major donors want to know what you want from them. You must ask.

4. Recognizing. Genuinely say, "Thank you." It is time well invested.

5. Recruiting. Find new donors. Major donors know other major donors. Ask those who have given to introduce you to others who may be interested.

You have an important decision to make. You can spend your time shifting gravel, sand, and water, trying to make enough room for big rocks, or you can dump the jar and start over. Remember, if you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never fit them in.

Ron Haas is a consultant with the Timothy Group and has served as a pastor, a vice president for institutional advancement, and a grant-making professional for a Christian foundation. He can be reached at 616-224-4060 or at

All text and images in this web site Copyright © 2000-2020 by Life Matters Worldwide.
Your comments on this publication are always welcome and can help us make future issues even better.
PO Box 3158, Grand Rapids, MI 49501
Contact Us
Phone: 1-800-968-6086