3 Ways to Not Leave Money on the Table

I’ll never forget. It was Christmas at my first Director of Development job. It was actually the second nonprofit I had worked for, but the first one I had ever served as the director of the fundraising program. I was also the first full-time director of development in the organization’s history. The organization, a children’s shelter, received a large portion of its donations for the year from its end of year campaign. I felt a lot of pressure that first holiday season to succeed.

In response to an appeal letter I had mailed, one donor called and asked to come visit. Of course, I readily agreed. We sat in the living room of one of our buildings talking and then, he asked me (!) how much he could give. He got out his checkbook and waited for me to give him a number. This, of course, is a fundraiser’s dream.

The problem was, I was such a novice at that time that I sat there pretty much frozen and didn’t know what to say!  I didn’t know how much to ask for. Eventually, he gave up waiting on me, wrote a check for $1,000. I thanked him profusely and he left.  I knew instantly that he had wanted to give more, that he would have gladly written a larger check if I had said the right thing, but that I had not know what that was. I felt he was disappointed. I could tell he sincerely cared about the children we served. Even though I got the gift. It was an epic fail. I left money on the table that day.

So what went wrong that first Christmas so many years ago? And how can you be prepared so that when you have an opportunity, you don’t leave money on the table with your major donors?  

(1)    A Clearly Defined Goal & Budget:  First, the organization I was working for at the time didn’t have a clearly defined need with a specific price tag attached.  We were asking for Christmas gifts for the teenagers in our independent living program. The donor I was working with was raising a sincere question when he asked “How much do you need?”  He really wanted guidance from me on the cost of the needs I had described in the appeal letter. How much did I want from him? He was disappointed when I couldn’t tell him.

We all know this happens in fundraising all too often. We as fundraisers are told to just “go get” as much as we can.  When we try to pin our EDs or our boards down, sometimes they won’t give us the specifics we [and the donors] need. We’re stuck wildly aiming, trying to find a target, and not finding one.  This isn’t helpful. 

If your ED and/or board won’t set a goal, one thing you can try is approaching your ED with a goal you have set. Ask if it’s okay if you use that goal. If not, ask if there is some number that will cover the need or if there is some number that will cover the budgeted amount just so you have a first target. (I suspect in that first job, there wasn’t a “budgeted amount.”) Promise you’ll work to over-shoot the target, you just need a starting point for an initial goal. If that fails, forget about a target and move onto the second strategy.

(2)    Learning more about the organization’s donors. When the donor called to visit, I had never before met him. Again, being new to the job and the organization, I had not yet met him, but I should have. He had a significant history with the organization. He was a large donor. He had capacity to give (although I didn’t know a lot about how much). Today, I would know that because he was a major donor for this organization, if I were to go to work for this organization, in my first 90 days, I would want to pick up the phone and call him to introduce myself, to say hello and learn more about him. If possible, I would try to set up an appointment to go see him and have a cup of coffee with him. But as a novice, back then, I was way too busy working on things like the organization’s newsletter and community presentations (which are still great things to do, but not to the exclusion of making time to visit your donors!). Get out of the office. Go visit your donors. Pick up the phone. Talk to them. Get to know your donors! When they’re ready to give, you’ll know both their capacity and their interests. You’ll know what to say when they ask you how much to give.

(3)    Joy of Giving: With me, back then, among other things, I had this “Be Very Nice and Polite” soundtrack that I had been raised on, playing loudly inside my head.  The song it was running at that moment suggested that talking about the specifics of an individual’s money really wasn’t very polite and maybe fundraising wasn’t actually the career for me after all. Since then, of course, I’ve learned that it isn’t nice at all to deny someone the opportunity to have the great feeling that comes from making a powerful difference in someone else’s life which is what I really did that day when I allowed that donor to leave after giving what for him was only a modest amount. 

Help yourself, your organization, and most of all your donor and don’t leave money on the table. Be prepared when your donor asks you how much should they give.  If you do a good job, of writing compelling stories and producing impactful content, you will have donors asking you how much they should give (this has happened to me more times than I can count on two hands!). Be prepared. Know your project, your budget, your donor, and the joy of giving so that you’re ready to ask even if the moment to ask comes before you expected it.


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