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The Parable of Two Fundraisers

July 2010
By: Ron Haas
"What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Matthew 21:28-31

The road to fundraising is paved with good intentions. Every development director starts the job with high hopes and visions of raising millions of dollars to support the ministry. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for some to get sidetracked with staff meetings, writing reports, creating marketing materials, serving on committees, planning events, and other low priority tasks. The most effective fundraising strategy is face-to-face personal solicitation, but very few development directors and very few executive directors actually get out of the office and make donor calls.

Passion above Programs

Consider these two examples. Bill (not his real name) loved fundraising. He had an impressive resumé of more than 20 years of professional development experience. You could count on him to attend every staff meeting. His direct mail reports were detailed and precise. He had a foundation proposal file full of application guidelines for prospective grants. He could organize any event. He even had a list of potential major donors. However, Bill had one major flaw — he never had time to visit donors. It was high on his to-do list, but he always had something more important that needed to be done first. Consequently, in his two years as development director, he never asked a major donor for a gift. Bill is now looking for a new job.

Mary, on the other hand, has no experience in fundraising — but she has passion for the ministry and a willingness to learn. I had the privilege of coaching her in her first four months, and she was amazing. In her first two days on the job, we made five donor calls and asked for gifts of $50,000; $15,000; $5,000; $1,000 and $500. In addition, one couple agreed to host a donor gathering in their home and invited a circle of friends to introduce to the ministry. Not a bad start for someone who didn't even have a business card.

People, Not Process

Why was Mary successful and Bill unsuccessful? Bill viewed fundraising as a process. Sort this donor list, mail this appeal letter, say this word, submit this grant proposal, produce this report, and checks magically appear. Mary realized that donors are people who give from the heart to people they trust. Personal relationships cannot be cultivated through websites, email, 4-color brochures, or even compelling DVDs. Relationships are built through one-on-one conversations as you listen to a donor's interests and share stories of how God is using your ministry to change lives.

People, Not Needs

Jim, an executive director, struggles with his role as his organization's chief fundraiser. It's hard to get him out of the office to meet donors. His passion is organizational improvement, and he spends his time tweaking job descriptions, moving boxes around on the organizational chart, designing reporting systems, and training staff to be more effective. While these may be important activities, they are tasks of a manager, not a leader. Jim would be a perfect chief operations officer; unfortunately for his organization, he is not wired to be the chief executive officer. He's a great airplane mechanic who makes sure the engine runs smoothly, but he's a lousy pilot.

Because Jim is process-driven, he approaches donor relationships in the same perfunctory way — tell them what you need and wait for the check. However, donors are not ATM machines that respond when you push the right buttons. Jim recently asked a donor for $1,000,000 for a capital campaign. He had a beautiful presentation book with pictures and floor plans for a wonderful facility, but he overlooked two key facts about this particular donor. First, up to that point their largest single gift to the organization was $300,000. While it's important to stretch a donor, Jim was a little overzealous to think that this donor would consider such a large percentage of the project. That's a minor mistake. Jim's real problem was that he didn't listen to the donor's heart. This family cares about reaching people for Christ and is not motivated by buildings. Jim focused on the project and forgot to share why the project mattered for eternity. Not surprisingly, the donor turned down his request.

Susan, Jim's development director, had a follow up visit with this major donor. She listened to the donor's heart for evangelism and shared some incredible stories of how the ministry's current program is sharing the Gospel every day and is reaping a tremendous harvest of souls. She also explained how this capital expansion would increase their capacity to share Christ with thousands of other needy people. The donor perked up and asked, "How can we help?" Susan suggested a $500,000 matching gift to help finish the campaign, and the donor agreed to the gift.

What was the difference between Jim and Susan's donor calls? Jim approached the donor for what the organization needed; Susan offered the donor an opportunity to fulfill his desire of spreading the Gospel. Jim spent his time telling; Susan spent her time listening. Jim heard "no"; Susan listened for a way to turn a "no" into a "yes." Jim made the donor call because it was on his to-do list; Susan followed up because it was her passion.

Skill and Will

Effective fundraisers share two common denominators: skill and will. Most can learn the skills of fundraising, but if an executive director or a development director doesn't have the desire to raise money, they probably won't. He or she might make an effort for a while, but most people ultimately drift back into their comfort zones and avoid uncomfortable tasks.

In Jesus' parable of the two sons, one son immediately agreed to his father's request, but never followed through. The other son initially refused to work in the vineyard, but later repented and got to work. World-renowned violinist and music educator Shinichi Suzuki once said, "There is no merit in just thinking about doing something. The result is exactly the same as not thinking about it." You might believe that making personal donor calls is the right fundraising strategy. You might even agree that it's an important part of your job description. Nevertheless, until you actually call a donor for an appointment, go visit them, and ask for a gift, your major donor strategy is simply a nice theory.

Successful fundraising requires actions, not words. Quit waiting for the ideal major donor call. Stop redesigning the perfect promotional brochure. Don't worry about exactly what you will say when you meet the donor. Put your fears and excuses behind you. Pick up the phone and make the call. Be the son that works in the vineyard.

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

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