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Ten Tips for Soliciting Major Gifts for Your Congregation
By: Norman Olshansky

If your congregation needs significant financial support, beyond weekly offerings and operating revenues, for a capital campaign or other special project, it is time to develop and implement a major gifts campaign.

This article shares tips that can be utilized to train and support leadership, staff, and clergy to become better solicitors of major gifts.

1. Do Your Homework
Make sure you are familiar with the needs, programs, and importance of the project. Review your congregation's "Points of Pride" (major accomplishments), and, if possible, be prepared to share a personal experience that impressed you about the special ministry that your congregation provides.

Gather important information about your prospect. To the best of your ability, together with other leadership and staff, develop a profile of the prospect:

* What are her/his interests?
* What has been their history within the congregation?
* What have they contributed to previously?  
* What is the largest gift they have ever given?
* Do they give individually or through their company or family foundation?
* Do they have a donor advised fund with a local Community Foundation? If so, how large is their fund?
* Are they candidates for estate planning and/or deferred gift discussions?
* Who are their key financial advisors?
* Have they recently sold a business or inherited significant resources?
* How is their business doing?
* Do they have a loved one who may be appropriate for memorializing or honoring with a gift?
* Are there other people who can be supportive with the solicitation who have special relationships with the prospect?
* What are the likely concerns the prospects might raise in the solicitation?
* Determine in advance what would be the best setting to conduct the initial meeting.
* Would it be helpful to have clergy or others participate in the solicitation?
* What materials, handouts, or visuals would be helpful to have for the solicitation?
* Finally, establish a "rating" for the individual. How much should you ask them to consider as a gift?

2. Leaders Lead
As a leader of the campaign and congregation, it is important that you make your own gift prior to soliciting others. It will be easier to obtain a quality gift from your prospects if you are comfortable that your gift is also credible and a quality one, based on your own personal circumstances. The ability to share the fact that you made your gift, when you are soliciting, will give the prospect more confidence in your support and leadership.

Prospects will take into consideration what leadership has given in determining their own gifts. Initial gifts will be "yardsticks" for giving by those who follow. Remember that you are representing the congregation, and, therefore, you need to be a good role model in your relationships, communications, and giving.

3. Personalize the Solicitation
Major gift solicitations should not be conducted over the phone. Large gifts are often not closed with one visit. Family members, financial advisors, and/or business partners may need to be involved prior to a decision. Obviously, if you know who the key decision-makers are (if they are not your prospect), they should be included in the solicitation meeting.

A major part of the success of a solicitation is the chemistry of the relationship between the solicitor(s) and prospect, as well as how one is asked. If at all possible, at least two solicitors should participate in the solicitation. It demonstrates to the prospect the importance you have put on their gift, it shows that there are others equally committed to the success of the campaign, and it provides for different perspectives to be heard.

The old saying that two heads are better than one also applies to solicitations. While one person is answering questions or explaining the need, the other person can better observe responses, body language, etc. Evaluating the solicitation and together determining best approaches for follow-up are enhanced with multiple solicitors.

4. The Appointment
The most critical aspect of major gift solicitations is getting the appointment. Be enthusiastic and let the prospect know that you want to share with them some exciting information about the congregation. Note that the project is near and dear to you and that you would like to solicit their advice, involvement, and support. Make sure that you make the appointment at a time and place that is convenient for both the prospect and solicitors.

Also, try to schedule at least 30 to 45 minutes for the initial meeting. Try to avoid an environment where others may overhear conversation or where there will be distractions. If the prospect asks if you are looking for money from them, be candid and enthusiastic, such as, ''Absolutely. I would like to tell you about what's happening with the congregation and have you join me as a supporter this year. But, just as important, we would like to get your input on additional ways we can succeed in our efforts on behalf of our congregation, which is doing such amazing things.''

Make it clear that you will be asking for their support.

5. Engage the Prospect
Do not try to close the gift too quickly. Share the mission, services, potential outcomes, points of pride, and needs of the project and congregation. While informing the prospect of the needs, you are also demonstrating the commitment of leadership. Donors want to be confident that the congregation and the project are being led by knowledgeable and committed leadership. Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is negativity. It's your choice.

6. The Meeting
Take a few minutes to break the ice and to establish a comfortable environment. Introduce yourself and those with you, through your involvement and commitment to the congregation. In a concise manner, share with the prospect what the congregation has accomplished. Refer to the Points of Pride. Emphasize the opportunities for the future based on the new vision and strategic plan for expansion or further development of the congregation. Discuss the importance of their participation, in addition to their financial support. The congregation needs their advice, expertise, identification of new leadership, and introduction to other prospective donors. Once you have shared your enthusiasm about the project and demonstrated the need, it is time to request the gift.

7. The Ask
Using the number that was agreed upon during the rating session (see item #1), the request can be introduced as follows: "We would appreciate if you would consider a gift of $ ___________ to the congregation's campaign." (If there are significant projects/or programs that need to be funded at the level of the request, mention the one or two that you think would appeal to the prospective donor.)

Once you have asked for the gift, it is time to be silent and let the prospect respond with questions or other comments. There is no need ever to apologize for asking for a gift. The individuals you are approaching expect you to ask, have likely been asked before by many other charitable organizations, and have, at times, been solicitors themselves.

8. Questions, Objections, and Dialogue
Answer the questions as best you can, but do not get into a debate. If you are unsure as to how to properly answer a specific question, tell the prospect you will find out the answer and get back to them or have one of the other leaders or staff provide them with the details. (Make sure you or someone on staff follows up promptly.)

If the donor offers a gift significantly lower than what was requested, you can supportively ask if, by spreading the gift over time, could it be more significant, or if it is structured as a deferred gift, with certain tax benefits, would they consider a larger amount? Do not press if they indicate that what they had offered is the limit to what they want to do. Thank them as enthusiastically as possible and ask them to complete the pledge card you have developed for the campaign.

If they indicate that they want some time to think about it and discuss it with others, thank them for their consideration and request a specific time when you can get back to them for a response. Think of yourself as an enthusiastic and committed supporter; you are not "begging." Make sure that you are a good listener as well as a good presenter.

Let your prospect know how important their support is to the congregation and ask them if they can help you to engage others who may also be interested and have financial capacity.

Once the gift is closed, stress the importance of the congregation's need for cash by the end of the year. Thank them and have them complete the pledge card, which should also have information on how and when they will be able to make payments.

9. Follow Up
Make sure that appropriate staff and/or leadership are briefed on your solicitation, any new leads, and that there are follow-up communications thanking the prospect, even if a gift was not made. A handwritten thank-you note, from the individual who initially set up the appointment and/or was the solicitor, in addition to whatever is sent officially by the congregation, is always appreciated. Solicitations should be a positive experience for the prospect. A successful solicitation can set the stage for future involvement. An unsuccessful solicitation can turn off a donor to the campaign, as well as to future potential for support of the congregation.

10. Remember the Basics

There are several axioms that are basic to major gift fundraising:
* Connect to your congregants' hearts and minds before you connect to their wallets.
* You don't get if you don't ask.
* Fundraising is both an art and science. Success requires both.
* The quality of a gift is directly related to the quality of the relationship between the solicitor (the person who asks) and the prospect (potential donor).
* Avoid the ready, fire, aim temptation. Planning and patience is very important.
* You can never thank a donor, volunteer or staff member too often. They are your keys to success.
* Donors expect and deserve a good return on their gifts to the congregation. They want to know their gifts are spent wisely and effectively.
* 80-90% of your special campaign will likely come from major gifts (10-20% of the donors).
Keep in mind that people are more likely to contribute to make dreams happen than to solve problems. The more you can connect the donor to the congregation and project mission in their hearts and minds, the more you are likely to connect through their wallets.

Norman Olshansky is president of NFP Consulting Resources, Inc., a full service consulting firm serving the nonprofit sector, www.nfpconsulting.com.









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