Donors Are Not Sharks

As my wife and kids will attest, I have an obsession with the television show Shark Tank (catch it Friday nights on ABC or reruns on Tuesdays on CNBC).  For the uninitiated, it’s a show where five, super-rich business moguls sit and pass judgment on the business ideas of hopeful entrepreneurs.  The entrepreneurs make a short pitch to the “sharks.”  If one of them likes an idea, they offer to invest in the venture and help grow the business.  When they agree to a deal, there are hugs and handshakes as both investor and entrepreneur celebrate their new partnership.

On the other hand, if they don’t like the idea or don’t think it has the potential to succeed, they opt out, accompanied by the dramatic moment where the camera gets shoved in the face of the now deflated entrepreneur whose frustration, disappointment or disbelief is put out there for all the world to see.  

In a lot of ways, this made for television scenario is similar to the way many nonprofit volunteers and staff view “the ask” to a donor.  They know they must make their case to the potential donor; they know they are supposed to ask for a specific amount; they anticipate questions and attempt to have effective responses; and they know that there may likely be some negotiation between what they are asking for and what the donor is prepared to invest.  Finally, they know there is that awkward moment of silence before the donor/investor commits.  

So if a 10-minute sales pitch to an investor can bring five, six and even seven figure investments to lucky contestants on Shark Tank, why can't you convince that major philanthropist in your community to invest in your organization's mission?  Besides the obvious fact that this made for television experience isn’t typical in the world of business either, there is another big reason:

Chances are you or your organization lacks a relationship with your potential donor.  

In "The Tank," investors and entrepreneurs are meeting each other for the first time.  While this might work on the show, it is a really bad idea in the world of donor relations. If you are inviting a major donor to invest in your mission and vision for making the community a better place, the solicitation should never be the first meeting or the first conversation. We know from research and experience that donors who are interested in making major investments in nonprofits and their missions want to be appropriately engaged with the organization and its leaders.  They want to be well-informed, inspired, and offered evidence that the work you are doing is making a real difference.  They also appreciate opportunities to experience your mission first hand.  They like “kicking the tires” and getting answers to their questions - some of which may be uncomfortable.  They might have some constructive feedback or wisdom to share that, if given appropriate credibility, might strengthen your organization and your ability to fulfill the promises you are making as part of your case for support.

Donors want to be appreciated for more than just their money and the influence they have with others.  They want their opinions to be heard, their ideas to be considered, and their investments to be affirmed.  While making the ask is an inevitable part of the relationship, the donors who step up with meaningful investments will most often be those with whom you have taken the time to get to know, understand and appreciate.

Promise me that you will take time to get to know your donors and learn why they give.  Invite them to meet your leaders, learn about your services, and see your work firsthand  Finally, listen to their ideas, their questions and their concerns?  If you will do that, "we have a deal" and you are on your way to a more successful experience when asking these special people for their support.  If not, then in the words of Mr. Wonderful "you're dead to me and I'm out!"  (you really have to watch the show)

The Armstrong McGuire team would like to give a special shout out to our teammate Priscilla Bratcher on being re-certified by CFRE International.  This independent organization helps set standards in philanthropic practice. The Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) designations is endorsed and supported by the world's leading professional and philanthropic associations.  Congratulations Priscilla!

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