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I Like Your Boldness

July 2009
By: Ron Haas
Should you ask a major donor for a specific gift amount? John D. Rockefeller once instructed some fundraising volunteers on the finer points of asking for a gift, "I do not like to have anyone tell me what it is my duty to give. But I do like a person to say to me, 'We are trying to raise $4,000,000, and are hoping you may be desirous of giving _____ dollars.'"

Rockefeller didn't want people to presumptuously tell him what he should do, but he did want people to be clear about what they hoped he might do. Major donors want to know what you want. Are you asking them to sponsor a fundraising event for $100? Do you want them to underwrite a table at your banquet for $1,000? Were you hoping that they would support your annual operating fund with a $10,000 gift? Or are you asking them to make a $100,000 lead gift to your capital campaign?

So how do you determine the right number? A donor's gift is based on several factors. What relationship does the donor have with your organization? Is it superficial, or has your ministry personally impacted the donor? Do they volunteer their time? Do they attend events on a regular basis? What is the donor's giving record? Have they given consistently over a period of years, or are they new? What amounts has the donor given? What are the donor's interests? Do they give to programs, or do bricks and mortar motivate them? How well does the solicitor know the donor? The gift potential is less if you've just met, and stronger if you have been lifelong friends.

Recently, I made four major donor calls with a ministry leader for a capital campaign. Donor A had given $5,000 for the annual operating fund. We decided to ask him for a 3-year capital campaign gift of $50,000. Even though the timing wasn't right for him to commit to that amount, he was open to making that size of gift. We rated him correctly, and have confidence that over the next three years he will give $50,000 or more.

Donor B had a long and intimate family heritage with the organization. We asked him for $25,000, and he gave it. As we were walking out the door, the donor mentioned two other campaigns he was supporting. He had played a key role in raising money for the neighborhood swimming pool, and he was planning to make a "significant" gift to the hospital. I realized that we had rated him too low. Based on our new perspective of his capacity, we plan to approach him later in the campaign for an additional gift.

I have known Donor C for years, but totally misread his giving capacity. We asked for $75,000. After we picked him up off the floor, he told us that while he would love to give that amount, our request was more than he was able to contribute right then in light of his other giving obligations. As a way of keeping him engaged, I asked if he could identify and introduce us to other potential donors who could help us with a lead gift. He was more than happy to help.

Donor D is a young entrepreneur with big dreams. Last year he offered to give a matching gift of up to $15,000 to encourage others to support a project. His enthusiasm led us to believe that in a capital campaign he would have the interest and capacity to give $75,000. When we showed him the leadership proposal and asked for the gift he quickly responded, "!" The gift request was more than he was able to contribute given his other commitments, but he loved the vision and influence this ministry was making. The request made him stop and think about how important the ministry was to his family. He's still considering his pledge, and I expect it will be the biggest gift he has ever given to this organization.

I know you're thinking, "Wait a minute, you rated four donors and maybe got one right. One was too low, and two were too high. Is this really a good method for soliciting donors?" Absolutely! Rating donors is more of an art than a science. Sometimes donors give less. Sometimes they give more. Sometimes you're right on the money. The true benefit to rating a donor and asking for a specific amount is that it starts the conversation. If you ask, "Would you consider a gift of $75,000?" both you and the donor know exactly what you want. It's OK if the donor says, "That's more than I was thinking." The follow up question is, "Where do you see yourself fitting into our campaign?"

What do you do if the donor doesn't have a giving track record and you really don't know the right "ask" amount? Your solicitation materials should include a scale of proposed gifts that lists the types of gifts needed to achieve your goal. For instance, you might need one gift of $100,000, two gifts of $75,000, four gifts of $50,000, and so on. You can refer to these gift amounts and ask, "Would you consider one of these lead gifts?" Another phrase that might feel more comfortable is to ask for a gift range. "Would you consider a gift in the range of $20,000 to $25,000?" This gives the donor more room to negotiate, but still allows them know what you are thinking.

A good rule of thumb for capital campaigns is to ask a donor for a commitment 3 to 5 times greater than his or her annual giving amount. Some donors can be stretched to 10 times their largest gift. When rating a donor, it's better to ask too high than too low. A donor can always counter with a lower gift amount, but it's hard for them to exceed your ask. Major donors will rarely give more than 10 percent to 15 percent of your goal, unless they have a special relationship with your organization. These donors are willing to lead, but they don't want to play such a large role that your success rises and falls on their gift. As one foundation director said, "We don't want to be the fat boy in the canoe."

Rockefeller suggested a great closing line that doesn't lock you into your suggested gift amount; "You may have it in mind to give more; if so, we shall be glad. On the other hand, you may feel you cannot give as much, in view of other responsibilities. Whatever you give after thinking it over carefully in the light of the need, your other obligations, and your desire to do your full share as a citizen will be gratefully received and deeply appreciated." Here's how I interpret Rockefeller-speak into the everyday language of a Christian donor, "If you can do more, we'll put your gift to good use. If you can't give as much because of your other commitments, we understand and we will be grateful for whatever the Lord leads you to give."

Major donor gift solicitation is a conversation. It's sharing your passion with a friend and asking for their support. This is not a hard business negotiation where everyone walks away with an uneasy feeling. This is an invitation to make an investment in something eternal. As you approach your major donors—be gracious, but be bold!

Ron Haas is vice president of the Timothy Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He can be reached at

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