Major Gifts: The Zen of Raising Money from Individual Donors

Can you tell if this person is wealthy?

Can you tell if this person is wealthy?

Here’s a brilliant guest post from my NYC buddy Andrea Kihlstedt. I think you will like it!

When your folks say, “We don’t know anyone with money,” here’s some inspiration for them – and for you:


I’ve been volunteering for a small arts organization here in New York City teaching them how to raise money.

The two people who founded the Center, I’ll call them John and Jesse, have created a remarkable program based on their passion for photo journalism.

They’ve spent a huge amount of time and energy raising money through foundation proposals and some small government funds.

Mind you, they’ve been quite successful.

When I started talking to them about the power of developing relationships with individuals, they were skeptical.

Two common misperceptions made them wonder if they should turn their limited time and energy to raising money from individuals.

2 Common Preconceptions about Raising Money from Individuals

1. No one we know has money.

Jesse and John were convinced that they didn’t know anyone who could give more than $100 or perhaps $250 tops.

Truth is, they were thinking out of their own pocketbooks.

2. We’re not sure people who have money would fit with the culture of our organization.

Even more off-putting for Jesse and John, they were convinced that any individual who could give a large gift would be somehow different — stuck-up or having airs of self importance, or somehow not fit their scrappy photojournalist culture.

Are your folks saying "no one we know has money!??"

Are your folks saying “no one we know has money!??”

So they weren’t at all convinced that they even wanted to find people who could give larger gifts.

A Heartwarming Story About Raising Money from People

Recently, one donor showed Jesse and John the power and potential of individual giving.

Here’s what happened…

Someone John knew stopped by the Center with a friend of his — two ordinary middle-aged guys, dressed in jeans with scruffy hair, talking photojournalism and sharing their stories and ideas.

It being lunch time, John and Jesse invited them to have lunch at the neighborhood Mexican restaurant right up the block.

After lunch, as they all walked back to the Center, the new acquaintance said to John,

“What a great project you have. I’d like to help you. Let me know what I can do. I’ll be traveling for the next few weeks, but why don’t you send me some ideas.”

John thanked him and said they’d get back to him soon.

Within the hour, they called me to find out what to do next:

  • How much should they ask for?
  • What should they ask for?
  • And how should they ask?

3 Simple Steps to Asking a Person for Money

Here’s what we did:

A little computer research revealed this donor's past gifts to similar arts organizations.

A little online research revealed this donor’s past gifts to similar arts organizations.

1. We did a bit of research to find out how much to ask for.

They did some simple internet homework to learn more about this down-to-earth looking guy.

A Google search turned up that he had a family foundation. And GuideStar showed that he had a history of supporting arts organizations.

He had given some gifts as high as $500,000 but had also given several gifts of smaller amounts. Many of his gifts had funded exhibits or other specific, tangible projects.

2. We figured out what to ask for.

Jessie, John and I met to consider the possibilities of what to ask for.

We came up with three options.

  1. For $5,000, he could buy them a new security system for their entry gate. Practical and tangible, but not very exciting.
  1. For $20,000, he might sponsor an exhibition. This was in keeping with other gifts the donor had made and would provide welcome relief for their operating budget.
  1. But with a gift of $150,000, they could afford to take over the second floor of their building for offices, a library and a room for visiting artists. And that project would take their operation to a whole new level.

    We offered our donor 3 choices: $10K, $25K and $300k - and we got the $300k!!!

    We offered our donor 3 choices: $5K, $20K and $150k – and we got the $150k!!!

3. We wrote a simple email to start the conversation about the right gift.

Jesse and John were a bit askance when I suggested they simply email their donor rather than sending a formal proposal, but that’s what they did.

They sent an immediate email thanking him for visiting and saying they’d get back to him soon.

And then a couple of days later, they sent him another email simply outlining the three options, including the price tag for each.

They started with the biggest and said that if that wasn’t an appropriate request, he might consider the other possibilities.

The tone of the email was friendly and informal just like the visit had been.

And at the end of it, they said that once they knew what he wanted to do, they’d be happy to give him more information.

What happened next?  $75k in the MAIL!

Two weeks later, a check arrived for $75,000 from the donor with a brief message saying that it was the first of two installments to be used for the second floor. (!!)

That’s it. No muss, no fuss.

Just a guy they met who shared their passion and happened to have money.

While donors like this don’t come around every day, opportunities to ask people for gifts they would enjoy giving occur more often than you might imagine.

And if you’re not open to them, you’ll miss the cues.