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Caitlin Fillmore

Caitlin Fillmore

Editor Major Gifts Today

Candid Advice from Your Fundraising Friend: Four Foundational Tips for Major Gift Fundraising

Eric Heininger continues to learn through the real-life giving stories of his nonprofit clients at EDEN+ in Des Moines, Iowa. From navigating donations tied to hot-button issues to stewarding a high-profile gift, Heininger shares his top tips for major gifts fundraising in a clear, progressive style.

“We’re your fundraising friend,” said Heininger, Managing Director at EDEN+. “We can give you candid advice.”

Develop a Plan for Asking for Money

Heininger remembered helping to develop a major gift ask for a CEO of a major corporation in Iowa. He found success by developing a detailed plan based on information straight from the source.

“It’s very rare that someone making that kind of gift is just very haphazard,” Heininger said. “They have some plan and some intent that’s out there. You just need to ask them.”

This frank conversation generated a generous gift and a chance for the nonprofit to connect with this influential community figure as a donor, a person, and a grandfather. The experience also provided a rewarding and confidence-building fundraising moment for the volunteers involved.

“Fear of the unknown slows a lot of people down,” he said. “If you haven’t done your background work it’s easy to be afraid, hesitate, and under ask.”

Heininger suggests asking your donors questions like:

● Is this the kind of project they like?

● Is there something specific inside of this project they are excited about?

● Is recognition important to them?

“One of the best ways to get the information you need is to just ask,” Heininger said. “You can ask people these things without offending them.”

Pull the Trigger

Developing a detailed plan is important, but Heininger warns nonprofits not to get caught in perpetual planning mode. He reminds organizations that the “pass the hat method” worked for generations.

“I would say it is easy to get caught up in the small details of a gift request,” he said. “There is so much data and science and psychology in how to make a request the absolute best.

But in reality you have a donor on the other side of the table who wants to be helpful. It’s not magic.”

Heininger suggests balancing logistics and research with a human approach. Donors hold not just the financial capacity to give to your organization, but also an affinity with your mission.

Investing in both a donor’s capacity and their affinity leads to fundraising asks that are both more lucrative, long-lasting, and rewarding.

“If you are missing one or the other (capacity or affinity) it will make it a lot harder to do major gifts fundraising,” Heininger said. “The best fundraising comes with the fewest surprises.”

Know Your Mission

Recently a client of Heininger was faced with accepting or rejecting a large gift with tight restrictions. The donor required the school to guarantee they would not teach critical race theory to its students before accepting the money.

“The school didn’t know how to respond,” Heininger said. “This was a big gift and the school really did want the money. But they knew to be true to their mission they couldn’t compromise their mission values.”

This organization’s board held a long meeting, discussing both theoretical and academic topics about what it would mean to accept or reject the money, and the potential harm to students.

Heininger explained the school ultimately turned the money down, and the school was removed from the donor’s estate.

“It sounds like a loss but in reality the money was never there. In reality it would have been impossible for them to meet the donor inside of those requirements,” he said. “It was a lesson in knowing who you are as an organization. To be true to your mission sometimes you have to make some hard decisions.”

Focus on What Matters

One of the best ways to influence your long-term potential for major gifts is to deliver a solid product. Successful fundraising campaigns come from nonprofits who are dedicated to and deliver a compelling mission.

Heininger shared about a domestic violence shelter in Iowa which experienced unprecedented demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, the shelter which had never reached much past annual giving with its loyal donors, needed to conduct a capital campaign.

“They took 50 years of goodwill and said, ‘we’re ready and we need help,’” Heininger said. “The donors came through and have been making the biggest gifts they have ever made.”

Be a Continuous Learner

A common adage of philanthropy is before you ask for money, you should ask for advice. Heininger works with nonprofits of all sizes, in large cities and rural towns. He explains that advice can become as valuable a form of currency within philanthropy as donations themselves.

Consider asking donors for their perspective on your mission and what their ideas are for how to solve the issues of your community. Ask for advice from nonprofit colleagues about how to solve the big problems you all are facing.

“The real conversations happen in a small group where you are trying to get work done,” he said. “One of the things you get with advice is insight. You don’t have to make the mistake to learn from somebody else’s.”

By the Numbers

Consider the recruitment opportunities for your organization that these stats indicate:

  • About 63 million Americans (25% of the adult population) volunteer their time, talents, and energy to making a difference.
  • These people spend an average of 52 hours/year volunteering.
  • 72% of volunteers are involved with only one organization, while 18.3% are involved with two.

Random interesting stats presented monthly from various sources.