Jerold PanasA Fundraiser Shares his Secrets
During his long career, Jerold Panas has helped a diverse range of organizations raise an estimated $11 billion. He recently spoke with his publisher Emerson & Church about the state of fundraising today and the lessons he has learned throughout his career. That conversation is repeated here. The resource GuideStar has also published excerpts from Mr. Panas’s books (some links below), and we hope his practical approach helps in your own quest.

If you had to cite the single most important reason donors give, other than the fact that they’re being asked to, what would it be?

I’ve done studies on what motivates people to give—it’s a subject dear to my heart. The reason donors cite most often is that they believe in the mission of the organization and the way it touches lives. This far outweighs any other factor. Two other reasons closely follow. One, they feel their funds will be used wisely, and two, they have regard and respect for the staff, often the CEO.

Are there some words or phrases that should never be used in fundraising?

The one phrase that should be banished forever is “We have you down for …” I also tell clients they shouldn’t talk about the needs of the organization. People have needs; your organization has the response, the solution. The best way to make sure you don’t use a “no-no” phrase is to listen instead of talk. You’ve heard of fundraisers who talk too much. You’ve never heard of one who listens too much. Funny enough, that makes you a brilliant conversationalist.

Your book, Asking, is considered a classic. Here’s your challenge: I’m about to knock on the door of a would-be donor; tell me in 30 seconds what I need to know to be successful.

That’s an easy one, and it’ll take less than 30 seconds. Don’t think you need to be eloquent or say just the right words. The art of asking, as I just said, lies in listening.

Cite a few common mistakes made during a solicitation.

The ones that come to mind quickly are these: the solicitor didn’t go in with a strategy; he or she talked too much; didn’t probe and ask enough questions; asked before selling the project; and focused too much on the features of the project rather than its benefits. Donors want to know about results, what will happen after they make a gift. And consider this an inviolate rule: never have a volunteer go with you or by himself before making his own gift.

I understand that when working with organizations you often get personally involved in asking for gifts. What’s the largest amount you’ve ever asked for, and how did the prospective donor respond?

Well … it’s quite true, I often do get involved. Those of us in a consultancy aren’t supposed to do that—though there’s no ethical prohibition. I can’t help myself, I simply love asking.

There are two major solicitations that come to mind. One was for $100 million, the other for $50 million. I secured the former, but not the latter.

In either case, it wasn’t about selling the prospective donor. They were both passionate about the organization. It was the amount of the gift.

In the case of the $100 million gift, it actually could have been for more. With the $50 million gift, it was too much of a stretch.

There’s a good lesson here. I hadn’t done enough homework in either case, and I should have done more probing when I made the call.

It seems that today’s donors are more concerned about the use of their gifts than in the past. Why is that?

I’ve never seen a time when those who give are more concerned about how their dollars are used. In fact, more and more we’re finding that they’re not calling them gifts. They’re calling them “investments.” And I’m finding that I’m calling those who give “investors”—not donors.

When you make an investment, what’s the thing you’re most concerned about? You guessed it. The return. The dividends. Is the organization using the money wisely and are they serving more people more effectively?

Why is this attitude so prevalent now? Some of it, I would think, has to do with the occasional scandal making the news. It could also be that today’s donors are more values-driven than in the past.

Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, missed out on signing Elvis Presley. Presley’s manager wanted $45,000 for the contract; Ertegun stood firm with an offer of $25,000. Ertegun claimed it was his biggest professional mistake. Tell us something similar in terms of your career.

I don’t have anything to top that, but along the lines of what I said earlier, for years I thought being a brilliant presenter was the secret to success. I was mistaken. Lofty rhetoric can actually be a turnoff for some donors.

Also, in my early days I found it easier to offer a range when I asked for a gift—”We would like you to consider a gift of $25,000 to $50,000 to our program.” Now I know that’s not effective. You have to ask for a specific amount, or you’ll receive the lower amount, if you receive a gift at all.

Something else: I used to think when I was turned down, it meant no. But it usually means maybe. It could be the donor is saying not now, not for the amount you asked for, not at this time, not for this particular project. If you accept no as the answer, you’re on the losing side. You need to probe to determine what it actually means.

One last thing: in the past when I was turned down I took it personally. I felt I hadn’t done an effective job. But, really, when you’re turned down it has little to do with you. It’s simply that your prospect doesn’t feel keenly about your group’s mission.

The artist Lucian Freud, when asked what he hoped to achieve through his work, said this: “To astonish, disturb, seduce and convince.” Isn’t that a pretty good description of fundraising?

Freud’s description is brilliant. I plan on using it and making it my own!

We know the questions donors ask when called upon for a gift: Why should I give to this organization? Why this project? Why now? Why me? My colleague Harvey McKinnon explored these in his great book, The 11 Questions All Donors Ask.

We also know donors give when the project is relevant, makes a difference, has dramatic and emotional appeal, and most of all, is urgent.

Wrap all of that up in Freud’s description and you have a winning combination.

Say I’m a development officer, maybe new on the job. Give me one good piece of advice that will serve me well.

Pay close attention to donor attrition. If it’s anywhere above 45 percent, you need to be concerned.

We did a study recently of a hospital that was hemorrhaging donors. Among those who didn’t renew, we found that 24 percent didn’t remember giving, 19 percent didn’t feel their gift was important to the organization, and 14 percent didn’t feel that the funds were used wisely.

Shame on that staff! I scolded them. Every single one of those donors could have been saved. It simply would have taken good stewardship.

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