You've probably heard Gene Hackman pitch your local Lowe's Home Improvement center with his inviting phrase, "Let's Build Something Together." That's an encouraging thought for those do-it-yourselfers who might be a little uncertain about tackling a home improvement project by themselves. It's also a great approach to major donors.
Jerusalem was in ruins. Its walls had been destroyed making the Israelites vulnerable to their enemies. Enter Nehemiah (1:1-2:9). He wanted to make a difference, but he was 900 miles away and lacked resources. So he did the only thing he could—pray. His prayer wasn't a bland 'bless the missionaries.' He shed tears, fasted, and pleaded with God for four months. His answer came in the form of a major donor. Nehemiah's example teaches us seven important principles about major donor development.
1. Personal Relationship
Nehemiah and King Artaxerxes weren't equals, but they were friends. They were close enough that the king noticed that something was troubling Nehemiah. How well do you know your top 25 major donors? Have you spent enough time with them to move from a casual acquaintance to an intimate friend? Do you know their struggles with work, health, or children? Can they sense when you are carrying a heavy burden? The conventional wisdom when in the presence of kings and donors is, 'put on a happy face.' Yet, you should be close enough to some of your key donors that they can see your heart.
It wasn't enough that Nehemiah had spent four months fasting and praying about the troubles in Jerusalem. That moment when the king asked what was wrong, Nehemiah breathed a quick prayer. Some people approach donors as ATM machines—punch in the right code, take the money, and leave. But successful donor relationships start with the premise that God is the ultimate source of our wealth. By asking God to work in the situation, Nehemiah demonstrated that he relied more on God than on his own skills of persuasiveness. You might have a winning personality, a great brochure, and a fantastic DVD, but have you prayed?
Major donors are motivated by stories, and Nehemiah's was compelling. He didn't flood the king with a long, detailed case statement, but simply shared his concern for people.
Recently, I heard this question asked during a donor presentation, "What percent of our clients do you think are unchurched?" To my surprise, the answer was 10 percent, with 90 percent claiming a church connection. The development director used that statistic to build a case for the ministry and emphasize the failure of the church.
Statistics can be distracting. That particular statistic made me wonder if the organization was relying only on client referrals from churches instead of proactively marketing to the local college population. A donor might question your statistics, but they can't argue with life-changing testimonies.
Some key numbers are important. Major donors want to see a simplified version of your income, expenses, financial need, and a proposed scale of gifts. Know your numbers, but build your case with stories.
4. A Plan
King Artaxerxes responded to Nehemiah's story with, "What is it you want?" You had better be ready with an answer when a donor asks, "What do you want from me?" Nehemiah had spent four months not just praying, but also planning. He had a list of requests ready, including: time off, passports, a list of materials, and a security detail. When the king asked about a specific timeline, Nehemiah had a specific answer.
Many organizations have a fuzzy strategic plan. "We're just going to do more of the same things we already do." Major donors are looking for a solid business plan. They are major donors because they had a vision for accomplishing something and figured out the steps necessary to achieve their goals. They expect the same from you.
Do you know where you are going? How long it will take to get there? How much it will cost? How you will know when you've finally arrived? If you don't have a clear strategic plan, focus on that first before asking major donors to join you.
Nehemiah asked boldly, "If it pleases the king..." His approach reveals two important aspects of the 'ask.' First of all, be polite. Nehemiah didn't demand a gift, he asked. Sometimes ministry leaders can be abrupt with donors. Here's a phrase someone actually used, "Mr. Major Donor, God has blessed you with this nice house and lots of money, you ought to give to our cause." Needless to say, his request was unsuccessful. Ask for a gift in the way you would like to be asked.
The second lesson is to focus on the interests of the donor. What motivates them to give? How do they want to make an impact? After all, God has entrusted them with the responsibility to be stewards of their resources. The gift should 'please' them in the sense that it will accomplish something significant.
When you ask a donor for a gift, you are asking that person to become your partner. Both parties in this partnership are important. You provide the front line of ministry, and your donor provides the support that makes your ministry possible.
A donor wants to have confidence in your leadership—that you know what you are doing, that you will use the gift for the purposes that it was given, that you will follow through. When you see donors as partners, that fact raises your own stewardship of the gift. You're not just accountable to your board for the way in which you manage the gift; you are accountable to the donor.
Nehemiah's partner was the king, and that relationship gave Nehemiah confidence when he faced opposition. The confidence that your major donors place in you should encourage you in tough times.
Because Nehemiah was so close to the king, it's safe to assume that he thanked him for his generous gift. But Nehemiah realized the ultimate source of the gift, "The king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me" (Nehemiah 2:8).
Fundraising is not dependant upon the philanthropic spirit of donors. Ultimately, it is the blessing of God who chooses to work through individuals. Christian donors want to be thanked for their gift, but they want the praise directed to the Lord.
Do you feel like you're carrying the burden of your ministry all by yourself? Ask God to help you identify some major donors who you could invite to join your cause. You'll accomplish much more if you ask others to build something special together with you.
Ron Haas is Vice President of The Timothy Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.