NONPROFIT BRANDING: Her Name Was Mary (A Major Gift Anecdote)

This is how a Major Gift Un-Solicitation Produced $250,000!

The recent post about major gift programs (It’s Time to Pick High-Hanging Fruit!) confessed my own period of professional fear and self-deception. Fortunately, I got over myself.  Major Giving became the most enjoyable and the most productive aspect of my professional responsibility. That post offered two anecdotes to illustrate lessons I learned.

Today’s post is another anecdote. Another lesson. And a bigger irony. It tells how $250,000 came from not soliciting. And from refusing to accept a gift!

Her name was Mary. She demonstrates another key truth about major gift prospects.

Mary was a regular $2,000 end-of-the year contributor to the annual fund. $2,000 was a big gift back then. But when I joined the staff I found her file was empty – except for her donor gift card. From the card I learned she had graduated 40 or 50 years earlier and her only subsequent contacts had been $2,000, given annually for nearly two decades. Her donations were restricted to support a scholarship in her family’s name. That was all the available information. No one at the college knew anything about her. NADA!

Who was this donor? How much interest did she have? What was her capacity? Would she like to increase her support?

I asked some alums from her class about Mary. Picked up a bit of information. They helped me track her through first and second marriages.  Bingo! I discovered her first husband and learned that, upon his death, Mary inherited controlling interest in a family empire which was managed by her eldest son. Mary had gone to college on a scholarship. She had developed deep commitments to several cultural and social endeavors. (This was pre-internet. Prospect research is much easier and faster now.)

That information was enough to work with.

I wrote and asked to visit. Weeks later we sat down on her veranda on an island off the New England Coast. She turned out to be a patrician New England woman, very welcoming – but firm and direct.

Within minutes she said, “OK, young man, make your pitch.”

PITCH? I explained that I had no “pitch” to make. Instead of a solicitation, I was visiting to personally report on our stewardship of the money she had been investing in our scholarship program.

Continuing to refer to her support as “investment,” I gave Mary about a dozen professional and biographical summaries of former students who had been awarded Mary’s scholarship. Fortunately, they were great kids who had been able to remain in school because of her generosity. All had come from lower-income families. All had flourished after graduation.

Mary was thrilled. Decades of generosity took on a personal dimension. Now Mary knew firsthand about the consequences of her gifts. She, the woman who had made it happen, kept thanking me. ME? So grateful for the information, she was reacting as though the success enjoyed by these young women reflected my actions instead of hers.

At the end of my summaries Mary put a check for $5,000 on the table. In anticipation of our conversation, she had made it out in that morning. Reminding her I was there to report – not to solicit, I told her the check was not necessary. She had already made that year’s scholarship donation.

BUT, now that I had learned about her values and interests, I told her I would go back to the office and research ways the college could collaborate with her on more impactful and exciting activities. She said she would consider any proposal, but could not promise anything.

In the ensuing months we developed a great personal relationship. (That often happens in major gift work.) Naturally, our professional relationship also prospered. Within a few months after that first visit, Mary made a gift of $75,000. By the end of the year she had contributed another $175,000. These gifts supported two programs that we devised to meet her interests – now that we knew about them – as well as the needs of our students and community.

Remember: this all started with an un-solicitation. And with good conversation about our common interest. I was not selling. I was sharing! Like most major donors, it turned out that Mary was delighted with the opportunity to put her money where her heart was. And thrilled to be kept informed of the results produced by her generosity.

Here is the way to interpret this anecdote and apply its lesson to your own work: Young women of limited means had graduated from a first-class private college. Their success in life was partially predicated on that college experience. In short, their stories were results of collaboration between the college and Mary. The college’s job was to educate them. Mary’s job was to donate funds to partially underwrite tuition. My job was to take Mary behind the scenes and show her what she and the college had achieved.

No matter what nonprofit you represent, its mission is important to certain people. Meet them. Make your work become real for them. Give them the opportunity to learn and ask and suggest and be part of your mission. This can be a wonderful experience – for you and for them.

Want two other anecdotes that show how most major gift prospects think?  Plus six key lessons I learned from my own experience? They were posted in It’s Time To Pick The High-Hanging Fruit!

Coming Up: the United Way that lost its way….how a self-inflicted branding crisis taught us all a lesson. PLUS – introducing the top 10 new imprinted branding products for 2012. (We just returned from a trade show where we examined thousands of items from hundreds of factories. We’re bringing samples, now so we can get staff advice.)


One thought on “NONPROFIT BRANDING: Her Name Was Mary (A Major Gift Anecdote)

  1. Thank you to both of you, John and Janice. You helped me get started in public radio fundraising when I didn’t know where else to turn, and now you continue to inspire me.

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