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A Penny Earned: Fundraising is vital, hard work with intrinsic value

Dec 13, 2016 03:06PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Gary Jobson

Recently, my wife and I attended a black tie fundraising event for an important charity in Baltimore. When we arrived in the city, there seemed to be ragged looking people on every corner holding their hats upside down and displaying an assortment of placards asking for donations. On the one hand, the pesky panhandlers were annoying. But still, I had to smile because we were actually doing the same thing, just in a little nicer style. As I drove through the crowded streets, I recalled a lecture by my college economics professor who warned our class, “Be on guard, because everyone wants your money.” Whether you are making a contribution to a charity or asking for a donation, the process needs to be handled with great care.

The Gift

Every day I seem to receive solicitations in the mail, via phone calls, and from organizations that I am closely associated with, requesting donations. It can get mighty confusing. I have learned that randomly sending checks out can destroy your personal budget, and may not make the impact you envision. There are two sides to the equation: donating and asking. Both are complicated. Ted Turner, one of America’s most successful business leaders, and an inspirational philanthropist, once told me, “Sometimes I think it is harder to give money away, than it was making it in the first place.” I realized, at that moment, how difficult it must be for a very wealthy person to choose one charity over another. While I am not anywhere close to Ted’s capacity for giving, I do try to help a variety of worthy charities each year.

The first question to answer is, “How much can you comfortably afford to donate?” Making a plan early in the year helps balance the financial commitment. Many charities send out their ask at year end, anticipating that potential donors might be looking for tax deductions. While my larger gifts are planned out early, I do respond to the year-end letter by putting all these appeals into a file, and reviewing the whole lot at one time late in December. The first step is to figure out an appropriate amount of funds you are willing to donate. The next step is to put the appeals in three categories: charities that are central to a cause I believe in, then I make a list designating small donations, and third is to discard charities that I can’t afford. As part of my decision, I consider whether I have already made donations to a specific group over the years, or a charity does not seem particularly worthy at that moment. It is a harsh process, and I do it quietly by myself.

The next step is to spread my available funds around. One of my biggest considerations is whether to make a few larger gifts, or give many smaller donations. I vary this every few years. If I have made a pledge, I make sure that I fulfill this first. Charities rely heavily on pledges. Happily, the percentage of people keeping their commitments is high. A charity will gladly work with you if there is a need to spread payments over a longer time period. Some years I am able to be more generous than others. Charities are always grateful for modest contributions because they can add up to a substantial amount. Once I have all the checks written and in envelopes, I have this annual routine of walking over to the post office and mailing my year-end contributions at one time. It is a nice feeling to think about the reaction of the recipients when they receive the contribution. The spring in my step is always a little livelier on the way home.


The Ask

There are three phases of life: learning, earning, and returning. It is a nifty philosophy. (In fact, I found a website that explains the phrase). In truth, we are learning throughout life, hopefully we continue to earn whether we are young or getting older, and we should start making modest donations whether through volunteer work or monetary donations early in our careers. Getting involved in any charity naturally leads to some kind of fundraising. I have learned many helpful techniques by being involved with many charities over the years. It is easy to raise money for charities when they are central to people’s lives. Churches, schools, and hospitals lead the list of priority charities. When people get a direct benefit, they will likely make a contribution. The task gets tougher when the ask is to help others. When a tax deduction can be claimed, people are more willing to make a contribution. But, not every worthy cause is a tax exempt organization. For example, political candidates are constantly asking for donations, which are not tax deductible. Supporting political leaders is another civic duty.

There are many, well-refined techniques to asking for a donation. Mailings, auctions, galas, and incentives like trips, clothing, or artwork are helpful. The most effective fundraising tool is making a direct one-on-one personal request. These should be carefully thought out in advance. The person making the request should understand the capability of the potential donor, prepare by memorizing important points about the cause, and, most importantly, have the courage to make the ask. Part of the discussion should be about finding out the priority of the donor? This will help keep you from guessing. I find it hard work. I feel most comfortable when I speak directly to the donor. Be prepared to explain how the funds will be used. It helps if the person asking has already made a gift. It does not have to be large, but it builds credibility. The setting is important. I have had good success while sailing, walking, or sitting in a relaxed atmosphere. Meals are often too distracting. Avoid having a large group meet with a donor. It can be overwhelming to the donor when six people are sitting across the table. Patience is important. Many donors need time to process a request and then determine how a donation matches up with other commitments. One thing to avoid at all costs is using the telephone. This is a good way to make sure your calls are not taken in the future. There is nothing worse than getting annoying calls.

Direct mail is effective when there is an easy-to-understand, and well-presented narrative. Compile a group of mailings that you receive in the course of a year and compare the mailings to see which ones present the best pitch. The panhandlers we encountered in Baltimore had some clever slogans on their makeshift signs. An interesting one said, “If you give me enough, I will stop doing this.” You have to give him some credit for trying (I still refused). When I receive an invitation to an event or gala, I check to see if I know someone on the organizing committee. If I do, I feel more compelled to attend. Silent auctions and limited live auctions add to the gala’s revenue. Before making a commitment I research what is the net percentage of funds raised. The most efficient organizations net at least 80 percent of the gross revenue from the event for the cause.

Several donors I have worked with have offered to match other’s gifts up to a specified amount. This incentive becomes an effective sales tool. Endorsements by noted individuals and early donors are important.

The Thank You

Incentives can be helpful. I recently met with a wealthy donor about a project. He told me a story about how he led a capital campaign for his prep-school. Instead of naming several buildings after the largest donors, they named the buildings after long serving teachers, and the gymnasium after the janitor who had worked there for 40 years. It was an inspiring and enlightening story. It’s natural for a donor to feel appreciated. A thank you reception offering recognition, some kind of clothing, a book about the charity, or a tour of the facility are effective.

Once a donation has been made, the routine does not end there. The next step is to say, “Thank you” often, and in many ways. These might include: verbally by several people, in writing through the mail (email should be used sparingly), and by public appreciation in publications, the Annual Report, websites, and at events. Fulfillment commitments should always be honored in a timely fashion.

Our country depends heavily on public service and spirited giving. If we all try to help a little bit we will live in a better world.

Gary Jobson is a world-class sailor, television commentator, and author based in Annapolis. He is the pre-eminent ambassador for sailing in the U.S.