By Rebecca Gardyn
Mary Kate O'Leary has a master's degree in counseling psychology, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and extensive experience as a program director for nonprofit children's-services organizations.
But what she didn't have four years ago, when she became the head of Girls and Boys Town of Central Florida, a charity in Oviedo that serves abused and abandoned children, was fund-raising experience.
She quickly learned that her new leadership role brought the added responsibility of forming and maintaining relationships with big donors.
"I realized that my organization was the best-kept secret in town, and from a fund-raising perspective, that's not good," she says. "But I had no experience in development or public relations, so I wasn't quite sure where to start." She admits that her shyness didn't help matters. "In the beginning," she says, "it was quite nerve-racking."
While many leaders of charitable organizations bring extensive fund-raising experience to their roles, others are novices like Ms. O'Leary. They may harbor insecurities about building ties with wealthy people and asking them for big sums. For nonprofit leaders who do not have the resources to hire a development director for added support, the lack of confidence can be especially stressful.
Indeed, it is a fundamental issue for many charity leaders, says Dave Jones, a fund-raising consultant in Salt Lake City. "Many of the people I work with are very passionate about their cause and are extremely good managers," he says. "But, for whatever reason, they just never got around to polishing their donor-cultivating skills."
Out and About
To start wooing donors, one of the first and most important steps to take is out the front door.
"If executive directors are spending more than 50 percent of their time in the office, it's too much," says Robert Ashcraft, director of the Center for Nonprofit Leadership and Management at Arizona State University, in Tempe. "You've got to be out there. You have to get yourself to receptions, dinners, and other events, because the best executive directors are those who are known in sectors far beyond the nonprofit world. They know what's going on in other industries, and they put themselves into positions to meet people and tell their stories."
But for some, that is much easier said than done. Not all charity leaders are good "schmoozers," says Alan Weiss, a management consultant in East Greenwich, R.I., who has counseled nonprofit leaders on their social uneasiness. One strategy he suggests for the shy: Rather than feeling compelled to shake hands with everyone at a reception, decide ahead of time on just three people to contact. Prepare some open-ended questions to help learn more about each individual's interests -- and remove the pressure of having to do all of the talking.
"If the prospects are already familiar with your organization, a question like, 'What types of issues would you like to see our charity address?' can help indirectly gauge whether they have any interest in supporting your work," says Mr. Weiss.
Another tactic for overcoming anxiety about socializing is to simply dive into that arena. Ms. O'Leary realized early on that she wasn't going to meet potential donors hiding behind her desk, so she joined a local business development group through the Chamber of Commerce, attended local Kiwanis and Rotary club meetings, introduced herself to police officers and city council members, and forced herself to give presentations to various associations. Say Ms. O'Leary, "I found that the more I got out there and talked about my cause with people, the more comfortable I felt, and the better I got at it."
But nonprofit leaders should be careful to not overextend themselves, says David Shapiro, chief executive officer of Mass Mentoring Partnership, a Boston charity that supports programs in Massachusetts that link youngsters with adult advisers.
When Mr. Shapiro became head of his organization less than a year ago, he had little experience with courting donors and so started saying "yes" to every invitation that came across his desk.
"We are a small charity without much brand recognition, so I felt pressured to attend everything and meet everyone I could," he says. But he quickly found himself so burned out on social engagements that he had little energy left for anything else.
Now, he says, he has learned to be much more selective. For instance, he no longer attends daylong conferences because they are so crowded that it is difficult to secure any meaningful interaction with any of the speakers. He will, however, attend any event to which he is personally invited because not only does he find it more comfortable to have someone introduce him around, but he also finds that people are more open to talking with "a friend of a friend" than with a stranger.
Indeed, says Mr. Jones, any personal connections to a potential donor prospect should be pursued. He suggests regularly gathering board members, staff members, and volunteers for brainstorming sessions, in which everyone lists names of people whom they think may have interest in supporting the cause. "Then play a game of 'six degrees of separation,'" he says. "Figure out who knows who, and identify how you can get an 'in' with them."
Executives who are new to a geographic area should scout for potential donors by keeping a constant eye on local news-media reports, says Mr. Ashcraft. For instance, he mentions that he recently spotted an article about a local real-estate developer who planned to give proceeds of a large sale to his own foundation.
"If I was a nonprofit executive in the area of the foundation's interest," Mr. Ashcraft says, "I would've circled that and found every way possible to get in the company of this foundation's executives, or even with the principal himself."
Another way to find potential donors is to obtain and study the annual reports of other charities in same field, he adds. "If you are in the food-bank world, you should know which philanthropists are giving to other food banks, and this information is listed in the annual reports of your competitors," he says. "It may not be easy to get access with them, but at least it will point you in the right direction."
Ties That Bind
But cultivating a relationship with a donor to the point where they are willing to contribute a large sum requires a great deal of patience, says Ben Case, a consultant in Durham, N.C., who teaches a fund-raising course at Duke University. He believes that charity leaders need to approach the process much like they would the development of a good friendship.
"Relationships in our personal lives require constant communication, mutual respect, and trust -- all of which take some time to develop," he says. "Relationships with donors are no different."
Bill Shore, executive director of Share Our Strength, in Washington, a charity that organizes anti-hunger projects, says that most of the relationships he has built with his organization's biggest donors have developed naturally, after years of serving with them on other nonprofit boards and interacting with them in other professional capacities.
He says he builds relationships by thinking about donors as partners, and referring to them that way: "I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can contribute to the partnership, just as I would for any type of relationship, personal or professional."
He sends potential contributors books or newspaper articles he thinks they might find interesting, and frequently sends them e-mail messages about the successes of his charity's programs. Sometimes he even introduces a potential donor to the leader of another charity.
"I believe it's important to think about our partners' overall interests and goals, not just what he or she can do for our particular organization," he says. "They appreciate the fact that we are willing to help them accomplish what they want to accomplish philanthropically by putting them in touch with other charities that are also doing extraordinary work."
Fearing 'the Ask'
No strict rules govern when it is appropriate to ask a donor for a contribution, but one thing is for certain: It's unavoidable, says Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, a charity in Lansing, Mich. "Don't expect people to read your mind," she says. "You can't just hint and hope that someone is going to pull out their checkbook out of the generosity of their heart. It almost never happens. You really do have to ask."
But what sounds so simple can be very uncomfortable for some people.
"At first, asking for money felt very car salesmanlike to me," says Mr. Shapiro. But he says that what helped him get over his initial apprehension was constantly reminding himself that he did it not for himself, but for a cause he cared deeply about.
"I eventually realized that I would be doing a disservice to my clients if I didn't ask," he says. "The people I serve don't have the opportunity to speak directly to the people who can support them. But I do, so it is my responsibility to speak for them."
Mr. Jones suggests focusing less on how to ask and more on why. "What is it about your cause that touches you so emotionally that makes you even think about putting yourself in such an uncomfortable position?" he asks.
He suggests coming up with a story that illustrates the personal motivation. He describes one of his clients, a board chairman for a historic-preservation group who had trouble asking donors for money. Mr. Jones asked him why he had gotten involved with the organization to begin with, and, after some prodding, the man recalled an old mansion in his childhood neighborhood that had become an unofficial local landmark. One day, a wrecking crew demolished the house without warning.
"He didn't even realize until he told that story that this memory had such a deep connection to his current work," says Mr. Jones. "But as he told the story, I could see his passion growing. I encouraged him to use this passion to help explain to others why this cause is so important. This freed him to engage with donors in a much more comfortable way."
Ms. Pollack suggests that people who are reluctant to ask for money should also spend some time thinking about their attitudes toward money, and the possible reasons behind their fears.
For example, she says, she has never felt uncomfortable with her current fund-raising role and she believes it is because of the values her parents instilled in her as a child.
"When I was about 6 years old, I remember my parents talking about charity and saying something like, 'Isn't it terrible that some people don't give?'" she recalls. "I learned early on that giving is a good thing, and that asking for money for a cause you believe in is just as important. But if you are afraid or uncomfortable with it, figuring out why you feel that way and where it stems from may help you move past it."
What Goes Around
Once a donor has contributed a generous gift to an organization, the best thing a charity executive can do to be sure that the relationship continues to flourish is to give thanks in as personal a way as possible, says Ms. Pollack. For instance, she says, even though all her donors get end-of-the-year letters thanking them for their contributions, she spent her last working day of 2004 making follow-up phone calls to her biggest contributors.
Diane Blum, executive director of CancerCare, a charity in New York that helps people with cancer, often thanks donors by inviting them to events as guests of the organization. "Some of my peers tell me I'm crazy for giving out complimentary invitations when I could be making money on them," she says, "but in our experience, it really pays off."
For example, she says, she once invited a foundation officer to a dinner that the charity threw to acknowledge its corporate sponsors. Apparently the dinner left a good impression, because a few months later, when the attorney general's office asked the foundation officer to recommend a deserving charity to receive a $300,000 grant from a corporation that had been ordered to pay its penalty in charitable contributions, he didn't hesitate to name CancerCare.
During her tenure, Ms. O'Leary has also learned the power of schmoozing. During one of her first Christmas seasons with Girls and Boys Town, she met a city councilman who agreed to play Santa Claus for her charity's tree-lighting ceremony. She invited him beforehand to a thank-you dinner and tour of the facilities. The man was very impressed with the group's work and, as it turned out, had a day job working for Walt Disney World. He gave Ms. O'Leary the contact information for one of the company's senior executives, thinking that perhaps he could help provide some grant money.
"I had to drum up all of my courage to call," says Ms. O'Leary. "I thought to myself: 'I can't call this guy, he's a senior vice president of a huge corporation.'" But she did, and a partnership was formed. Last month, with the help of a $400,000 gift from the corporation, the charity opened a new 7,000-square-foot emergency shelter for girls.
"These days, anytime I speak with anyone I think of it as an opportunity to get the word out about the work we're doing," she says. "You just never know how what you say might inspire the person you're talking with to help, or who they may be able to introduce you to. You just never know where the next big donor will come from."
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