The Cafe

In a country far away, old friends sit around a table in a café drinking tea as they do every evening.

“Can you believe what happened in Texas?” asked one.

“The shooting?  Unbelievable.  Those poor children.  Their families.  I can’t imagine the pain. When will it stop?”

They all were waiting for the elder of the group to speak.

“It is amazing to me how America ignores the obvious,” he said.

“What do you mean?” they asked.

“It astounds me that the strongest country in the world, the most generous country in the world finds itself impotent to stop their own children from being butchered.  They will mourn the murder of these innocent babies. They will say what they believe are all the right things but are actually platitudes.

And then they will move on.  Move on? What amazes me about America is that in the face of their children being slaughtered, there is no resolve.

“The shooter?  If there had been no guns available to him, if those who govern America had any modicum of courage, those children and their teacher would be alive today.  There have been 15 mass shootings in America in the last 10 days. 27 school shootings this school year and 198 mass shootings in the last 19 weeks.

In Chicago, children are murdered walking to school.  Children are murdered in their homes, with bullets coming through the windows.  These killings are tolerated.  No other civilized country does.  And yet America accepts this.”

To the elder’s right, a friend said, “Their argument is that guns don’t kill people, people do.”

“That is stupidity,” the elder said.  “There will always be crazy people in the world.  In our country and virtually every other country of the world, we make it very difficult, nigh impossible for crazy people to get their hands on guns.  For anyone to have a gun.  If there had been no guns available to the shooter, those precious children would be alive today. 

“It is as simple as that.”

From another friend, “But what about their Constitution?  It tells Americans they have the right to bear arms.”

The elder smiled ruefully. “Americans, for reasons I cannot fathom, insist on maintaining an archaic and literal interpretation of their founding Constitution, 241 years after it was written.  Do they still believe that God created the world in seven days?  No. Do they maintain the same interpretation of scientific principals they had 200 years ago?  When that amendment to their Constitution was written, Americans did have reason to fear invasion of their homes by foreign countries.  They are no longer under attack. 

“Except by themselves. 

“I think of the children’s tale of ‘The Emperor Who Had No Clothes.’ He was so consumed by himself that he was unable to see how truly pathetic he looked.

“Americans wail about the deranged among them who commit these atrocities, as if the deranged are the evil. They are not.  The evil among them are the guns. And those who allow guns to be as plentiful as loaves of bread.

“What they don’t realize is that the rest of the world is collectively shaking its head at America.  The greatest country in the world? When their absence of will, their absence of laws or enforcement of laws allow innocent children to be slaughtered?

“Don’t make me laugh.”

The Big 7

One of my all-time favorite country songs is by Reba McEntire, “(The World Ain’t Gonna Stop for) My Broken Heart.” It’s had five million views on YouTube, by the way.

Our economy and our world are in a bit of tizzy at the moment. But as Reba suggests, life goes on. Fundraising does too.

At a time when you might be tempted to give up or, at least, to take an early summer vacation, here are the seven things I believe will keep you on the right path.

One. Don’t assume. “Don’t assume what?” you may ask. Don’t assume your donors do not want to give. History proves philanthropy is strongest in tough times. Don’t assume your donors do not have the means to give. Wealthy people spend a fraction of their income on necessities and none of their assets. Don’t assume your donors remember they can give to you via stock, or a Qualified Charitable Distribution from their IRA, or from their Donor-Advised Fund. Don’t assume your donors recall any of the good things your organization is up to these days.

Please. Don’t assume any of that.

Two. Do not wait until after Labor Day to begin a conversation with your donors about their year-end or their major gift. Because if you wait that long, the ship has likely sailed. Most donors make their giving decisions way, way earlier in the year than you can imagine. Many of those decisions will be made with their adult children, when the family is together this summer.

Three. Be a friend. To your donors, and to your colleagues as well. Kindness goes a long way these days.

Four. Have something to peddle. O heavens, I know you never ask a donor for money, you ask her or him or they to help your organization make something happen that is emotionally compelling to them. Do you have enough of those “arrows in your quiver” for the asks you’ll be making?

Five. Be of good cheer. And good news. In these times of distressing news all around, be one of the few people who always wears a smile and always has some good news, something uplifting, to share with your donors.

Six. Of course you do this all the time, but redouble your efforts to make your donors feel sincerely appreciated for their gift. “Mary and George, we’re coming to the end of our fiscal year and I just wanted to write (a handwritten note, that is) to say thank you. I don’t know where we’d be without you.”

And seven, if you need to do this, and many will, make certain you know who your Top 40 are. The Top 40 donors for your organization, or the Top 40 donors you are responsible for. We can’t build relationships if we don’t know who we should be building relationships with! The Top 40 is the intersection of those who have been most generous to you but also, blended with some potential donors of greatest capacity. “Who has the capacity, and who either has or could reasonably be expected to develop the interest to make a gift of consequence to us?” That is your Top 40.

Sadly, Reba’s song does not have a happy ending. Yours can.

Feeling Alone

“I would never admit this to anyone at the office, but it has been a long time since I felt excited about my job.  Most days, it’s an effort to just do the work.”

Is that you? 

There’s nothing wrong with you.  You’re not a bad person or a bad employee.  Everyone has “down days.”

But if it’s been a while since you felt happy about your job, you owe it to yourself to take a look. 

Because you owe it to yourself to be happy. And we are responsible for our own happiness.

There are five reasons we stay motivated in our work.

One, we take a minute every now and then to remind ourselves, “I am grateful I have a job.  A reason to get up in the morning and go somewhere I am wanted.  And I am glad I have a regular paycheck.”

Sometimes we forget the obvious.

The reason I think most advancement professionals lose motivation is we get caught up in the weeds and forget to stay connected with, and committed to, what our organization does.  Another obvious thing.  But it takes effort to remember.

Get up.  Go find that thing your organization does that makes you proud.  You don’t need to make a big deal about it.  Just go. Trust me, it is the most important think you will do that day.

But what if you don’t care what your organization does?  What if you only want to close gifts and it doesn’t matter to you what the gift is for?

You’re in the wrong business.  Get out.

Three, we stay motivated because we have clear and achievable goals we want to reach.  Do you believe in what your organization does and do you want to close gifts to help make that happen?  Now you’re talking!

We stay motivated because we know we’re on the same page as our boss.  Our boss supports us, and helps remove the roadblocks that keep us from doing what we’re there to do.  Believing in your boss and wanting to do a good job for him or her is a fundamental element of staying motivated.

And last, we stay motivated because we feel a part of a team.  Whether it’s a development team or the organization staff as a whole, there is an underlying desire to do well, to “bring it every day” not just for oneself but for others.

When we don’t feel that way, when we don’t feel part of a team, we begin to feel alone.  Isolated.  That’s a bad thing.  No one wants to be alone, whether you are a one-person shop or a member of a big team. 

There are proactive things we can do to combat that feeling of isolation.  Let’s start with the idea that you are a one-person shop, or part of a very small shop.

Most folks outside of development aren’t always sure what we do.  But they’re sure of one thing – they don’t want our job!  Our work is focused on the “outside” while most everyone else is focused on the “inside.”  Put those together and we sometimes feel we’re working alone.

There are simple ways to fix that. Seek out colleagues on the “program side.” Have lunch with them. Ask their advice about something. Best of all, if they have a big something and need an extra hand, pitch in!

The one professional development expenditure that brings the greatest return on investment is a subscription to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  They do an impressive job of making you aware of “the advancement world around you.”  When you subscribe, be sure to also subscribe to their “Philanthropy Today” daily email.

Visit your donors.  Doesn’t matter if you are a gift officer or the person inputting the gifts.  Say thank you, deliver muffins on their birthday, bring chicken soup if they’re sick.  Stay connected at times when you don’t want to ask for a gift.

Your local AFP Chapter will often have free networking events in addition to the many member benefits they offer.  And there are often other groups of development professionals in your area.  The meetings are not expensive, a solid investment of your time, and a great way to make a new friend.

No matter where you are, at a shop large or small, to me the best way to combat isolation is to work at being a friend.  Always remember, we have to “work at keeping our friends.”  Most development professionals are as eager to make a friend as you are.

Set a goal of one networking coffee every month.  To save time, piggyback a coffee with another appointment out of the office.

Volunteer at another nonprofit.  Do you know someone at another shop who’s having a big event?  Offer to volunteer at the event!

Buy yourself an inexpensive “birthday book.”  What’s that?  A very small pocket calendar.  When you learn a friend’s birthday, or anniversary, or any date important to them, write it in your little book.  The day of the week doesn’t matter, the date does.  When you send a friend an email or a note wishing them a Happy Birthday, they won’t believe you remembered. 

When you get a call or an email from another development professional who’s either recruiting for an open position, or in a search themselves, take three minutes out of your day to really think about how you can be helpful.  That kindness will come back to you many times over.

The point is, to not feel alone, get out there.  Be a friend.  It’s that simple.

Finding a Great Major Gifts Officer

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of nurturing the growth of advancement professionals at early stages of their careers.  To watch many of them develop into major gift rock stars has been deeply meaningful to me. 

I’m often asked, especially these days, “What exactly makes a great major gifts fundraiser?”  I’ve seen it happen, first-hand, many times over the last 45 years.  It is not luck.  It’s specific path.

Let’s begin with a story.

I was the chief advancement officer for our organization.  The president and the Board expressed to me their expectation that, two years hence, we would commence a Capital Campaign for $20 million.

It was my job to build the program and build the team to make that happen.

There was one little problem.  Aside from myself, and an uber-talented associate director, we had no major gifts officers. 


I picked up the phone and called a friend of mine who was the Senior Vice President for Development at a major university.  After we chatted for a minute I got to the point.

“Can you give me the name of someone I can recruit to do major gifts?”  I was expecting, literally, that he would go to his rolodex and pluck out the card of an All-Star and hand that name to me over the phone.  All would be well and my problem would be solved.

He shocked me.

“Rob, I can’t do that.  You need to grow your own.”

Honestly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  “Are you sure?  You don’t have anyone to recommend?”

My friend told me again, “That’s not what will help you the most.  You really need to grow your own.”

If you want to know the truth, I was a little pissed.  My friend was no help at all.

How wrong I was.  His answer shaped my view about the development of major gift officers to this day. 

He was right.  I needed to “grow my own.”

So I did.

We hired three people, actually.  Three people who, between them, had ZERO major gifts experience.

By the end of the Campaign each person had, on their own, closed a $50,000 gift.  Today, each of these three women is a chief development officer.

What did I learn? Major gifts experience doesn’t matter. 

Does that shock you?  Do you think I’ve lost it? 

It’s true.  Experience is not the sole, or even the lead, determining factor for major gifts success. 

Don’t believe me?  I can think of an American university that has completed multiple billion dollar campaigns.  Neither the current chief advancement officer, nor this person’s predecessor had any formal fundraising training to speak of.

Listen.  If you have a major gifts officer on your team with solid experience who makes an important contribution to your team, count your lucky stars.  If you are that person, I tip my cap to you.

But over four decades I’ve seen nonprofits look only for someone with experience on their resume. They bring that person on board, count on them to produce and too often find that experience and performance was misrepresented or exaggerated.

If you ask me, the surest path to developing major gift talent is to grow your own.

What does that mean?  What did my three “success-stories” have in common?  First, we looked for the TRANSFERABLE SKILLS a major gifts officer needs to have.

He or she needs to be organized, personable, have good manners, and be sharp.  Do you know what it means to look for someone who is sharp?  Yes, you do.

“Okay,” you say, “that’s fine.  We’ll look for people who are organized, personable, with good manners and who are sharp.  What else?”

I have seen there are four critical elements to finding and nurturing a major gifts success story.  If you are looking for that person who can grow into a major gifts star, it is up to you to find these four skill sets.

One, the person has to understand, and embrace, what their job is.  That means they want to be out making visits, they aren’t afraid to ask and honestly, they want to win.  That person needs to have a little competitive, feisty streak in them.

The three people who contributed so much to the success of our Campaign?  Who each closed a gift of $50,000 on their own?

One of them closed that gift on her last day.  She left her good-bye party to close that gift.

Do you think she was going to leave without getting that gift?  No way.

To me, that says it all.

Okay, what else?  The nascent major gift officer needs to be able to form and grow relationships.  How to listen.  How to stay in touch with the donor.  How to express a genuine thank you.  To understand it’s about the donor, not them.  It is your job to know, quickly, whether the person has those skills.

Does the person wear their pride and enthusiasm for the organization on their sleeve?  I don’t care how you ask for the gift.  You know that.  I think it is more important to be great at saying thank you than it is to be great at asking for the gift.  Anyone can ask.  A precious few understand how to say thank you.

If the fundraiser truly cares about what they represent (and trust me, the donor can tell), that’s all that matters.  Get the words out.  Invite the investment.  Don’t ask for money, invite the donor to make something great happen.  Be proud to make that ask.  That’s what works.

But there’s one more thing.  And I believe it’s the most important element of all.

Quiet confidence.

If you aspire to be a great major gifts fundraiser, you have to believe in yourself.  Believe that you can do this.  Banish the mean voices.  Have a humble belief in the importance of your message, to your organization and to the donor.  Go in with a smile and with your head held high. 

And if you’re lucky, have someone who believes in you. Like me.

Diversity in our profession begins with the earnest search for people of color to join us. But diversity should also embrace a respect of different approaches to our work, that people of all ages and experiences, with appropriate skills can enrich our organizations and our profession.


Last time we talked about the greatest sin a fundraiser can commit: making a donor feel small. This is what happens.

I was having coffee with a friend of mine. She’s the director of development for a wonderful nonprofit. Among other things we were talking about our year-end totals and all the thank-you letters those gifts precipitate.

My friend had a sad look on her face. I asked if anything was the matter.

“No, sorry. We had a really great year end. Very fortunate. A lot of hard work by our team. I just had a personal experience with a thank you that wasn’t so great.”

I asked, if it wasn’t prying, would she tell me?

“Sure. Actually, I’ve been wishing I could share it with someone, but my family and personal friends wouldn’t understand.

“You know where I went to college, right? It was a wonderful time of my life. When I started in development, I had grandiose ideas of being a big donor to my alma mater. I owe them a lot.

“But life got in the way.” She smiled. “Now I sound like one of my own donors!”

“My husband and I put our kids through private school, and you know where they went to college. It was really

hard for us to make that work but we did. In the meantime, my giving to my own college was nowhere near where I wanted it to be. It was sporadic and not up to my intentions. I was embarrassed about it, but we had responsibilities.

“Anyway, last December I told my husband I wanted to get serious about giving to them on a regular basis. We talked about starting at a modest level and increasing our gift every year, then including my college in our estate plan later on. We talked about them a lot, and a couple other causes we wanted to ramp up our giving to.

“So I sent my school $250. I know it’s not a world-beater, but to be honest, I was really excited to write that check. I even called someone in their development office to watch out for my gift because I didn’t have an envelope from them. I guess I was reliving what I had always wanted my giving to my college to be and now I was going to make it happen.

“It made me happy.”

I took a sip of coffee and told my friend, “Well, so far so good!”

“You’re right. Now, don’t laugh. I started watching the mail for my thank-you letter. I was like a little kid. It finally came one day.”

“By the look on your face, it wasn’t what you hoped for.”

“Oh, the letter was fine, I guess. It said all the correct things. But it was a form letter. The signer was the vice president. His signature was imprinted at the bottom.

“It was a lousy imprint.

“There’s no way that VP ever got within 25 feet of that letter, or my gift. It was so obvious it was prepared by someone in their development operations office.

“You know what? I really wish that person had signed my letter instead.”

I told my friend I felt badly for her experience. Was this going to affect her future giving to her college?

“To be honest, I don’t know. I’m still sorting out how I feel. It was probably my own fault for getting my hopes up. I don’t know what I expected.

“It was only $250.

“Deep down, I don’t feel I was thanked for my gift.

“I feel like I was processed.”

(Excerpted from “Winning: The Five Truths of Fundraising”)