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Acres of Diamonds

October 2012
By: Ron Haas
In 1870, Russell H. Conwell hired an Arab guide to sail him down the Tigris River to Bagdad, Nineveh, and Babylon. His guide was a non-stop storyteller that drove Conwell crazy, so he just tuned him out. But then, one particular tale captured Conwell's attention... and changed his life.

An ancient Persian named Ali Hafed owned a very large farm with orchards, fields, and gardens. He was a wealthy, contented man. One day a Buddhist priest visited him and shared the story of how diamonds were made. With just one diamond the size of his thumb, Ali Hafed could purchase a whole country. With a diamond mine, he could shower his children with great influence and wealth. Ali Hafed became discontent. Craving more, he asked, "Where can I find diamonds?" The priest told him to search for a river that runs over white sand between high mountains. In those sands are diamonds. All you have to do is just go find them.

Ali Hafed sold his farm and left his family to search for diamonds. He wandered through the desert, Palestine, and into Europe. He spent his fortune chasing a dream and ended his journey far from home and completely destitute. He never found his treasure and in despair took his life.


Thousands of miles away, the man who purchased Ali Hafed's farm led his camel out into the garden to drink one morning. As his camel drank from the clear water, the man noticed a flash of light and pulled out a black stone. Thinking nothing of it, he took it home and placed it on his mantel.

A few days later the old priest who had told Ali Hafed about diamonds came to visit his successor. He saw the rock on the mantel and shouted, "Here is a diamond — here is a diamond! Has Ali Hafed returned?"

"No, he has not returned, and that is not a diamond; that is nothing but a stone. We found it right out here in our garden."

But the priest said, "I know a diamond when I see it. I know positively that is a diamond." They rushed to the brook, sifted through the white sands, and found additional diamonds more valuable than the first.

Ali Hafed's farm became the diamond mines of Golconda, the most magnificent diamond mines in history that produced the great Kohinoor diamond in England's crown jewels and the largest crown diamond on earth in Russia's crown jewels. Had Ali Hafed remained at home and dug in his own garden, he would have discovered "."

Russell Conwell took this story back to America and it became the foundation for his famous speech, "," that he delivered more than 6,000 times around the world. The core idea of Conwell's speech is that one need not look elsewhere for opportunity or resources; instead, you should "dig in your own backyard!"

Chasing Mega Donors

What does this tale have to do with fundraising? Some organizations look far and wide for mega donors who can solve all of their financial problems. They dream about the Christian businessman in another town, another state, or even on the other side of the country and think, "If we could only get to that donor, he or she could give our lead gift." Occasionally, a well-meaning person will give a sage piece of fundraising advice and say something like, "I think you ought to go after Christian athletes, they have lots of money." But when you dig deeper and ask, "Do you know anyone personally, or know someone who does?" the response is usually, "No, but there are ways to find out that stuff." These folks, though well-intentioned, are chasing dream donors. That type of donor research is more detrimental than helpful because it focuses on a nebulous, unknown donor that you might never uncover.

Instead of chasing dream donors, you should "dig in your own backyard." Donors give to people and organizations that have touched their life in some way. The principle of Matthew 6:21 applies to fundraising, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." When you capture a donor's heart, his financial investment will follow. But if a donor's heart isn't aligned with your mission, their checkbook won't be either.

Digging into Your Donor File

Chances are that the largest donor your organization will ever have is already in your donor file or a close friend of someone in your donor file. Campaigns should have an emphasis on finding brand new donors, but the first strategy should be to identify and engage those people who already know and love you. So take a closer look at your donors. Rank your donors' lifetime giving from top to bottom. Who has been giving consistently for years? Note any unusual gifts that stand out. Look beyond dollars and take note of people who always volunteer and attend events. What special relationship does that donor have with your board members, other key donors, and staff?

Add some external data to your internal knowledge about donors. Services like WealthEnginetm, WealthPointtm, and Blackbaud's Target Analyticstm provide wealth screening that overlays your donor list with public sources of information to find wealth indicators. These scans identify income-producing asset holders, professionals with Keogh retirement plans, luxury property owners, SEC inside traders, business executives, professionals, foundation trustees, philanthropists, political donors, and those listed in Who's Who. A wealth screening will typically match 10 percent of your donors to a database that indicates they have some capacity to make a significant gift to your ministry.

The hard data of a wealth screening tells only a partial story. Take advantage of the soft data that your human intel can provide. Friends, neighbors, church members, old classmates, and relatives can give you the inside scoop on a prospective donor. What are their giving interests? What other organizations and causes do they support? How is their business really doing? Is now a good time to approach them? What would be a reasonable ask? As you get closer to a major donor, they will surprise you with the personal information they might share about their giving.

A Diamond in the Rough


Jack was a long-time supporter of Grace Ministry. He had given systematically and occasionally stepped up for a $10,000 gift to help them end their fiscal year. Grace was ready to launch a capital campaign and conducted a Pre-Campaign Study to test their donors' buy-in. I met Jack in a coffee shop. We chatted about some obscure interests he had. When he went to the counter for some creamer, I looked out the window and muttered under my breath, "This guy's crazy." When he came back, we talked through my questionnaire and I popped the question, "If Grace launches this campaign, would you support it?"

"Yes, I think I will."

"That's wonderful. Thank you very much!"

"Could you estimate what your gift could be over 3 years?"

"I've been thinking about this and now that I see they are serious, I think I could give $1 million."

Are you still reading this article? Go dig for diamonds.

Ron Haas is vice president of The Timothy Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which advances Christian organizations by implementing fundraising and capacity building strategies through vision, experience, and leadership ( During his career, Haas has gained significant ministry fundraising experience, including serving as vice president for institutional advancement at Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankeny, Iowa. He can be reached at

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