Four Questions Fundraisers Must be Prepared to Answer

 
 
Howard H. Stevenson, a Harvard Business School expert on entrepreneurialism and himself a philanthropist, explains why people give and how fundraisers can reach them.
 
 
by Julia Hanna

The gold-lettered Donor Wall of Fame is a cornerstone of philanthropy. To entice donations, fundraisers will also deploy competitions, hierarchies of giving, and naming rights to new buildings and even to entire schools.

But after years of fundraising—and being asked for money himself—Howard H. Stevenson has concluded that public recognition is not the major reason why people make significant gifts. Instead, they want to make a positive impact on the world, says Stevenson, Harvard Business School’s Sarofim-Rock Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus.

“I am not the first to observe that it’s easier for most people to make money than it is to give it away,” Stevenson recently told an audience at a Books@Baker event sponsored by Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. Many people don’t like to ask other people for money, he added, but “I often say that fundraising is the best job I ever had, allowing you to partner with like-minded people and get measurable results.”

“I am not the first to observe that it’s easier for most people to make money than it is to give it away”

Stevenson has served as a director and trustee of a wide range of organizations, including the Boston Ballet, Mount Auburn Hospital, National Public Radio, and The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, and is a stalwart supporter of his alma maters (Stanford and Harvard). Over the years, working in conjunction with colleagues, Stevenson’s efforts have resulted in gifts amounting to more than $1 billion.

In his book Getting to Giving: Fundraising the Entrepreneurial Way, published in 2011, Stevenson, with Shirley Spence, details an approach to fundraising that is almost Zen-like in its philosophy, even as it offers plenty of concrete, detailed advice on what it takes to be a successful fundraiser. (The book is also a valuable read for donors hoping to refine their giving strategy, and board members of nonprofit organizations.)

Stevenson, known as the godfather of entrepreneurship at HBS, is well known for his definition of the term as “the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources currently controlled.” He noted that nonprofit (or “tax-exempt,” as he prefers) organizations operate under the same restraints as startups. Given that reality, nonprofit leaders and fundraisers need to have a nimble, entrepreneurial mindset.

The art and science of fundraising is “very personal,” Stevenson remarked. It’s important to know the causes an individual already gives to, and ask why they give as a way to understand their basic motivations. “Find out what it is that rings their bell,” he said. Maybe there won’t be a match, but sometimes that can work out pretty well, too.

In one case, Stevenson referred a donor to another organization that more closely fit with the individual’s philanthropic goals. That suggestion earned a $1 million “tip” a few months later, simply because the donor was so pleased to learn about an organization that was meaningful to his giving objectives, and appreciated the referral.

WHAT MAKES THEM TICK?

Before they make a significant donation, donors do a lot of legwork, Stevenson observed. (“Significant,” by the way, is not measured in zeros but in terms of how important it is to the donor.) Fundraisers should expect to have to address four key questions when making their pitch for why their organization is uniquely positioned to tackle something that the donor cares about:

  1. Does the organization do important work? Answering that question ties directly to how well its mission is articulated, and how important it is to the donor. Be bold and realistic in establishing a mission—and then make sure it’s communicated in a way that is memorable, differentiable, credible, inspirational, aspirational, and simple.
  2. Is the organization well managed? “People who give significant gifts dive into that question pretty fiercely,” said Stevenson. Is the economic model sustainable? Is there effective governance? Is the organization’s staff passionate and collaborative in carrying out a mutually understood service model?
  3. Will my gift make a difference? You must appeal to the head and the heart on this score. Show why the money you’re asking for is essential to accomplishing the organization’s core mission, and develop a means of showing a gift’s impact. Also, understand that some people may want to get personally involved in your organization as a way of answering this question on their own terms.
  4. Will the experience be satisfying to me? “I don’t think of raising money as helping my institution,” said Stevenson. “I think of raising money as helping donors fulfill their philanthropic objectives. That’s very different from saying, ‘Won’t you help us accomplish our purpose?’” Saying thank you is important and involves “figuring out what the right stewardship is that isn’t generic and makes a donor very proud.” Finally, a relationship with a donor should be just as satisfying for the fundraiser and the institution. Gifts can be the beginning of an ongoing partnership.

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, it will be difficult for a donor to say no and turn down the opportunity to make a gift, said Stevenson, who also highlighted the rewards of philanthropy—namely, the satisfaction of “partnering with others to accomplish things that have a positive impact on the world around you now and in the future.”

He was taught to give back to the community from an early age, he said. “It isn’t something you do only when you’re rich; you can do it from the start. Philanthropy is about contributing your time and talent—by serving as a board member or doing service work or fundraising, for example—as much as giving money. There are many ways to make a difference.”

Related Website

Getting to Giving

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

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