December 1st, 2021 by Barbara Barron
Barbara here. A smidge of context for this unconventional “interview style” article. Elizabeth Carter is a former colleague of mine from our time together at a school several years ago. She currently works as a major gift officer at a hospital in the Northeast. We’ve stayed in touch and she recently let me know that she had secured a $600,000 major gift. I asked if I could interview her so we might all learn tips for achieving such success for our own organizations. With a few small edits, here is the entirety of that interview. Enjoy!
Barbara: Congratulations,Elizabeth! I’m thrilled for you.
Elizabeth: Thanks! Yes, this is truly a dream donor. And it’s funny but he is actually the exception to the guiding rule that your biggest gifts always come from donors you know well. Not the case here.
Barbara: Yes, that adage is nearly always true in the independent school world we know. Why not here?
Elizabeth: He was considered a “never giver”. In fact, it was his deceased wife who had been a past supporter. So it was a pretty cold call situation.
Barbara: So how did you decide to even reach out to him? Tell me the story.
Elizabeth: Our team has taken a generalist approach to our major gifts work. It requires a ton of outreach and a whole lot of patience. We listen to donors about their experience, ask what they are interested in, and then do the research into how the hospital’s initiatives might intersect with the donor’s interest. In this case, after a few efforts to engage him, he finally shared two areas he was interested in and I got to work. It was four months in the making because the doctors to whom I go for information are understandably busy. It took time to get the details I needed to craft a good response.
Barbara: So, was your donor amenable right away?
Elizabeth: Not especially. In fact, he was initially disappointed that my response was “too generic”! So, I went back and created a 2 pager for each of two areas where his charitable support would have an impact. I decided to put a $100,000 gift amount next to each. But I did so with honestly no attachment. I was not presuming that was the right amount. I just knew I needed to substantiate the request. And he liked both projects. But he’s a lawyer and he had questions.
Barbara: (laughing) Oh boy. So, then what happened?
Elizabeth: I got him his answers. And then we had the first of a couple of phone calls. All of our communication was via phone or email. That was another myth busted: we never met in person. On the call, he revealed that he was thinking of doing two gifts: $150k and $250k. And he asked for a letter of intent, which I drafted.
Barbara: So at that point, you were thinking you had a new $400k supporter, right? Pretty great.
Elizabeth: Right. But then he returned the marked-up letter of intent and it listed the two gifts as $100k and $500k!
Barbara: How exciting!
Elizabeth: Absolutely. I was thrilled. And I couldn’t help but notice that we were just a couple of weeks away from the hospital’s fiscal year end. It would have been so tempting to push to close this gift so it could “count” in this year and towards my goal. But I knew that my timing was not what mattered to him. I had to remember that it was his convenience and timeframe that was more important.
Barbara: Of course, you’re right – but that can be hard. Most of us fundraisers have a bit of a competitive streak in us. Even if the competition is with ourselves. We tend to be pretty goal oriented. What did you tell yourself to keep that urge at bay?
Elizabeth: It is my professional goal to be a trusted advisor. Once I articulated that to myself, everything got clearer. In order to be that resource, I need to keep the donor at the center of everything I do.
Barbara: So wise. What else did you take away from this experience that we might all learn from?
Elizabeth: Hold no preconceived notions but set sights high. Stay in a learning mode and remember that we don’t always know everything. Working with this donor was so satisfying in part because he really made me bring my best work. And as a result of his generosity, some pretty transformational things are going to take place at my hospital that will help so many future patients. The stewardship opportunities with him are almost endless.
Barbara: That’s excellent, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. They are blessed to have you. Let’s chat again soon, ok?
Elizabeth: You bet. Take care.
Dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this short success story. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had a similar experience in the past days, weeks, months – or even years! Sharing “what works” can have a tremendous impact on how we structure our work and empower others.
Let me know if this was helpful to you.
My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.
I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful fundraising plans and programs for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal Springs, Presidio Knolls, Sage Ridge, and San Diego French American, and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)
Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.
Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.
Let’s do this, together.