Blunt or presumptuous?

When elevating sights among donors, finesse is important but relationship trumps all

Recently I was at a committee table of staff and volunteers planning a capital campaign. It’s always energizing when we start to put in place the team that will change a campaign from a possibility to a reality.

We were talking about the need to “elevate sights” among donors and volunteers alike – to help people set aside their semi-automatic response when deciding what to give, and to consider the need for project, the financial requirement (goal of the campaign), and their true capacity.

One of the staff told an anecdote of a recent call he had made on a major donor. The donor heard him out and said “I’ll write you a cheque right now for $5,000.”

The staff member said “No. I think it needs to be $20,000.” The donor paused, and thought and then agreed to $10,000 right then, and another $10,000 later. 

I could see that some of the volunteers were startled. Lacking preamble and context, the conversation sounded shockingly blunt. But the donor was not offended and he did consider the much larger amount and ultimately agree. The exercise in elevating sights worked.

Thinking about it, I recalled a pre-campaign study we did for another client. As usual we conducted a few dozen confidential interviews with donors and donor prospects. One was with a senior executive with a company and his responsibilities included corporate philanthropy: he told us what not to do.

He had very recently been solicited by a major donor officer for a university conducting a campaign. The two had never met. At some point in the meeting, the executive said the company would consider a proposal for a $100,000 gift. The university staff member said “That’s not acceptable: we have you down for at least $500,000.”

He was shown the door. The university received no gift. The president of the university, however, received a phone call complaining about the major donor officer. I assume that there were negative consequences for that staffer. 

This was an equally blunt exchange. But worse than failing, it actually set back the cause.

What makes the difference?

The quick answer is that the major donor officer in the second incident fumbled badly. His vocabulary dripped presumption. “Not acceptable” and “we have you down for . . .” makes it clear that the donor was secondary to the university, which now seems impossibly arrogant.

In fairness, I’m going to assume that the caller was young and inexperienced and had not received proper training. An eager manager trying to pump up the troops may have told him that that lesser amounts “are not acceptable.” And the solicitor didn’t have the innate sense to know that the campaign office vernacular of “putting you down for $ 500,000” is not appropriate with a donor.

That’s all speculation though: I don’t know more about that situation. Certainly, a solicitor with greater finesse could have had a much more productive conversation: the result might have been a larger gift, and at the very minimum, a donor was thanked and affirmed for whatever gift they could make.

So why did the first solicitor succeed?

I do know this situation. I believe he succeeded because he knew a lot about the donor and the donor’s capacity and commitment to the cause.

Although he can be very direct, he also knows how to frame the conversation as a collaboration for the greater good: it becomes about mission and vision, rather than dictating acceptable terms. When both parties are looking squarely at the case, the tone is right, and the relationship is sound, then the suggestion of a larger gift comes as a challenge and not a critique.

Finally, although it was a first face-to-face meeting, it was not a first contact: they had spoken a few times and laid the basis for a longer professional relationship.

Which explains why our table had more volunteers than staff or consultants: they have the relationships.

Campaigns today tend to be more dominated by staff than in the past, with staff doing most major solicitations. But in many campaigns, volunteers continue to play a role that frequently is make-or-break – gaining access to their peers, looking them in the eye, and elevating sights while asking for the gift.

For when peer meets peer, the relationship trumps finesses and technique – and bluntness can be an asset.

- Larry Matthews