Fundraising Myth #4: Aim high

One of my main calls to action when I was leading Harvard Business School’s Capital Campaign was: “Aim high.”  Early research had shown that HBS alumni’s capacity for giving – relative to their financial means, and their giving to other nonprofit organizations – was vastly untapped. But – and here’s the important caveat – we knew that we had to be realistic. HBS alumni, with the encouragement of the School, were very active in the philanthropic community. Being their top priority was highly unlikely; getting to number 3 or 4 on their giving list would be the strategy. By the end of the campaign, targets for significant gifts, alumni participation, and the overall campaign goal had been met and exceeded.

I developed what I call the priority giving strategy after a capital campaign experience with the late Frank Batten, an HBS Class of 1952 alum and media pioneer. As the publisher of a newspaper in Virginia in the 1950s, he had championed desegregation; the paper earned a Pulitzer Prize for that work.  He also was a noted philanthropist, making large gifts to his undergraduate alma mater and many other institutions and causes.

As I waited outside his office, I considered what to say to Frank. If I went about the conversation the normal way, explaining how important HBS and the campaign were, I suspected we’d just get into an argument. (Frank wasn’t one for tooting one’s own horn, so I figured I shouldn’t toot HBS’s horn.) I decided to try a different tack, and begin by telling Frank how proud the School was of his success, and philanthropic generosity. This was easy, because it was true. I closed by saying that I hoped HBS could be number four or five on his list of giving priorities. 

Not long afterward, HBS received a $32 million donation from Frank to support the renovation of the School’s residential campus. Actually, that put HBS fifth on Frank’s list—but that turned out to be a very good place to be!

The experience of Groton, an independent boarding school in Massachusetts, provides another example. During Groton’s capital campaign, which was approximately one-tenth the size of HBS’s, the headmaster of that school enjoyed great success by asking people to make Groton the number-four priority on their giving lists (except for the board chair!).  Conversely, I recently attended a meeting of a group to which I was a reasonably generous donor—in fact, one of their biggest—and was offended to hear a staff member proclaim that this organization had to be the number-one priority of everyone at the table!  Why? And who was he to make that decision for me?!

Would it be wonderful, even magical, to become a prospect’s number-one priority? Absolutely! Would it be wonderful, even magical, if that prospect’s engagement with your organization grew and grew, and your work emerged as his or her core issue? Yes—all the better!

Fundraising Myth 4 - Aim High

Meanwhile, don’t count on wonders and magic.  Be bold, ambitious, and realistic.  Earn the bird in your hand, and keep an eye on the two birds in the bush.

Are you undershooting your potential? Do you need to aim higher? Or do you have the opposite problem: unrealistic expectations?

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