Major Gift Fundraising: Think Within the Box

David Phillips
August 2019
hands opening box with the title of article on lid

Most of the time we encourage one another to think outside the box. In the case of major donor relationships in the camp environment, I encourage you to think squarely within it! The box is the period between the beginning of camp and the day your campers leave. It is when the eight months of precamp effort is palpable and alive, and activities best narrate program impact. Seeing, smelling, tasting, and observing campers and staff in action is more powerful than any video or choreographed home/office visit.

With that in mind, how many of your major donors, those whose gifts could “move the needle,” visited this summer and were exposed to the impact for themselves? If you can count them on one hand, take a deep breath as I share what you might already suspect — that is simply not good enough in today’s competitive philanthropic landscape.

Major gift fundraising is a complex scientific game and an artistic series of exchanges. It can take time from your regular duties, time that is already stretched during the busiest time of year. Perhaps it is not what you signed up for with your job. These and myriad other factors help explain why many camp professionals put off fundraising through camp visits or ignore the process until absolutely necessary. The truth is, many of you possess most of the critical fundraising skills — charisma, intellect, work ethic, storytelling, problem-solving, and the ability to envision and build meaningful relationships. You should recognize, celebrate, and leverage them in the fundraising arena. And by the way, if you think developing and coaching counselors is rewarding, wait until you build a relationship with a donor so pure that they commit their charitable dollars to your camp and change it forever.

The nature of the process makes it challenging and outrageously exciting all at the same time. While some struggle with the task and find it unseemly, others revel in it and reap rich rewards. So where are you on the continuum of major donor engagement? Let’s explore how to get hooked on and even excited at the prospect.

Why Bring Donors to Camp?

If you love cherry blossoms, visit Washington, DC, during the Cherry Blossom Festival and see them for yourself. The vista of those gorgeous trees and the colors will ignite your emotions, as will the smell in the air and the sight of others enjoying the experience. So, it follows that if you want to improve relationships with key donors and raise money, show them camp at its most glorious and impactful — summertime! They will be blown away seeing the good, bad, and ugly in Technicolor. In fact, some degree of chaos is good. An over-capacity dining hall or inadequate art program space helps sell the story. Exposing your camp’s harsh realities is a way of respecting the donor, especially if you tell them that is what you are doing.

The push for camp visitations is one of the larger cogs in the wheel of donor development to consider. It is important to grasp how dramatically philanthropy has changed over the past 20 years. For example, technology makes accessing research easier. The BS factor has been virtually eliminated as fact-checking and data collection is fast becoming instant, resulting in shifts of donor behavior. In addition, much like society is trending toward the purchase of experiences versus things, donors want to see, touch, and feel the investment themselves. They no longer need or desire broker organizations to tend a relationship that they can approach directly. Moreover, they want to determine the value proposition hands-on, down and dirty.

In general terms, they want to:

  1. Invest in the areas that matter to them and that have measurable impact.
  2. Gauge how well the recipients (you) will value their investment and use it wisely.
  3. Ensure your organization is capable of delivering on the promises you make and that you will do it honestly and transparently.

More than ever before, donors want a relationship with you directly, and there is no better way to build the relationship than concentrated time together. A robust, truthful experience will stick in their minds long after they have gone home. A camp visit is central to this process, but it is not necessarily the first step. There is both art and science to establishing and nurturing the relationship to the point of visitation. It starts well before the summer; in fact, September is a great time to begin the planning!

Developing a Cohesive Major Donors Plan for Summer 2020

Yes, I know that developing a cohesive major donors plan for summer 2020 is not necessarily high on your list. Staff is likely focused on camper and staff recruitment that will begin again in the blink of an eye. Surely it can wait until the New Year, February, or March? It could, but in the same way that a wall with an undercoat of paint looks better and lasts longer, the work necessary to prime and engage major donors for the following season takes advance preparation.

There are several tactics one can deploy, but none more important than understanding the lifecycle of the major gift itself. Figure 1 outlines critical stages and points out exactly where visitation fits into the plan.


 

Understanding the Critical Stages of Fundraising

Each stage can be broken down as follows.

Step 1: Donor ID

Put together a list of ten to 20 individuals who qualify as major donor prospects. They can be new to you, parents of campers, community leaders, etc. Rank them using the following scale:

The numbers/letters assigned are indicators that provide more context. Once prospects are ranked and rated (include your lay leaders in the process and be diplomatic as they are hopefully peers with many on your list) you now have a grid that to an extent helps identify an appropriate strategy. For example, an A1 should be high on your list for next summer but a C1 may be a donor tagged for a visit the year after next, as you must first build a relationship. Of course, there is also the possibility that you take the order out of sequence slightly and use the trip to camp to help build the initial relationship. Be flexible, gauge the person, and let the process work for you.

Step 2: Donor Plan

Moves management is a fundraising strategy that depends on longer-term planning and is a great way to imagine the fundraising process. It pushes you to create a concrete donor recruiting strategy with specific steps (actions) rather than taking a fluid “let’s hope this happens” approach. The more tactical this is, the more likely you and your team are to engage and reach finite goals. Critical is that the plan is discussed and debated among your team to outline the best possible steps, revisited often, and that each action has associated deadlines. For example, after identifying a potential donor and making initial contact, a third step might be to have your Board Chair take prospect Bob Smith out for lunch in February and personally invite him to join her at camp during the coming summer.

Moves Management Resources

For more information on implementing moves management in your fundraising efforts, check out the following resources:

Step 3: Hot Buttons — Areas of Interest

The likelihood is that the first donors on your list are known entities, so you may have an idea of where their interests lie. Even if you do, don’t assume it is accurate until you test it yourself. I have had success, once I know the person and have built the relationship, in asking, “So, Bill, what rocks your world philanthropically — where are your interests?” It is amazing how often donors smile and tell me exactly what will work for them. The truth is that most major donors are familiar with the “philanthropic dance” and welcome the honest, transparent approach.

Once you understand your prospect’s interests, you should be able to identify appealing investment options related to your camp.

Step 4: Exposure (Camp Visit)

So now we are back to the where we began this discussion and the critical role exposure to camp can play in donor activation. Individuals of significance may plan their calendars six or more months ahead. What better way to loop them in and tie them down than to put your key donors on notice that you want them to visit. Don’t invite them via email or make a call, go and see them. Every interaction boosts the relationship, and personally inviting your potential donor to join you should resonate with them. Even better, have one of your volunteers (who knows the donor) accompany you and help make the invitation.

Most importantly, you now have months to take stock of a potential donor and work toward a tactical visit that showcases camp needs that fit their philanthropic priorities. Give them a great trip to camp. Avoid it being too long. Ensure the trip is choreographed carefully and staff are instructed of their roles. Let the donor interact openly with staff and campers. Perhaps have lunch with a cabin group. Choreographed does not mean tricked or set up to only see one side of the story. Smart donors will see through such ploys and be frustrated at the sanitized version.

Step 5: Request/Ask

Sometimes the ask can take place at camp. I have always preferred to follow up and make the ask in an environment comfortable to the donor (and their partners). I typically request to go see the person following camp while their visit and their experience is fresh in their minds — it is a great way to cap off a successful visit.

Building up to a request can be stressful, however, and an experienced donor understands the roadmap. Most will be helpful in navigating a process comfortable to them. Listen carefully to their intent, timing, and guidance. Early on they might say, “All you want is my money,” to which I respond “We do want your money, but that is not all we want and not until you are ready.” Honest, open, and authentic is truly the competitive camp professional’s advantage and what differentiates us from other fundraisers. Major donor solicitation is all about process, transparency, impact, and follow-up.

This process outline is designed to make you comfortable with the lifecycle of a major gift. It has unlimited permutations and exceptions, and flexibility is essential. Everyone’s risk/reward ratio is not the same, nor is their comfort level. What is true in all cases is that preparation, planning, and taking a leap of faith is the only way to move forward. The worst thing that can happen is you don’t get the gift. In some instances, that initial declined request gives you more opportunities to go back. The fundraising setting is one where a no does not necessarily mean you disengage; to me, that has always indicated the fun is just beginning!

Golden Rules to Consider

With all this said, there are a few caveats and golden rules to consider as you think about your journey:

  • Every piece of this tactical approach is open to interpretation, the bizarre, and the unexpected. It might just be that a slim prospect you ranked a D4 hits the jackpot or has access to a friendly billionaire. Nothing should be taken too literally, and it’s always best to monitor and revisit strategy as you go.
  • Avoid asking important donors for little things — it may result in a “go away” gift. You can insult a major donor by asking for too little (in which case, you did not do your homework). However, it is difficult to insult a philanthropist by asking for too much. Two Bentleys in the driveway and homes on three continents should not equal a modest request of $5,000. Look, listen, research, and learn as much as you can every time you meet. Write down all the clues and use science to inform art and vice versa.
  • Convincing someone who says “camp is not and will never be an area of investment for me” to change their mind is virtually impossible. Move on to more fertile ground using moves management to help chart the course.

Change a Donor’s Life

Finally, I encourage you to view the major donor process as a rewarding community service where everyone wins — meaning, frame the act as helping a philanthropist change the lives of others and at the same time enriching their own. This multidimensional act is the most powerful reason to engage, and it fits perfectly into camp culture. It is caring, thoughtful, and enriching for the heart, soul, and body, which are at the very essence of these immersive experiences. Start thinking now what your move management strategy should be and how it will culminate in a trip that will change a donor’s life, and ultimately the lives of your campers, during summer 2020.

A Successful Camp Visit

Following many interactions and home visits, we invited a major donor to attend a camp event to be followed by dinner in a woefully inadequate dining hall with a leaking roof. Out of respect (and some degree of shame), staff wanted to seat the family away from the leak that often drips on the staff table. However, we agreed it would not be authentic or transparent to hide the problems we could do little to solve. The heavens opened, and the donor got wet and offered to help fix the dining hall issues. The visit was a huge success because we were honest and transparent in demonstrated need. Of course, the singing and dancing that took place in the run-down building brought the group to tears, which didn’t hurt! Camp came alive; the impact was undeniable and the relationship deepened.

David Phillips is principal of Immersive1st (immersive1st.com), a firm specializing in fundraising, planning, and visioning; governance; acute organizational analysis and program creation; and implementation and evaluation. A lifelong communal professional, his passion is doing important things with good people that make a difference (and having fun while doing it). He holds an MSW in Social Work with a focus on community organizing and development from the University of Pittsburgh. David can be reached at david@immersive1st.com.