John and Dave were sitting at the bar in my favorite watering hole in Portland, Maine. The Dry Dock has a great salad that just hits the spot and a Bloody Mary to die for—the kind that’s could be a meal in itself, with a huge stalk of celery and a nice, plump shrimp. But I digress . . .John, Dave and I struck up a conversation about life and its struggles. At one point John asked me what I do. It’s always a challenge for me to explain, since most people don’t know about the business of fundraising. They always think of a beggar approach. My decision to come clean about what I do is based on whether I want to take the time to educate the person asking.This time, I took the longer course of education and explained that we raised money for large campaigns for college, hospitals, the arts and others. John seemed to get it and asked some really good questions about how it works. He has a small business recalibrating measuring devices and graduated from a good school in Vermont. In fact, he had just finished a job for them in their labs.As we were talking, John recalled being asked to lunch by a representative of the college several months ago. He had gone to an alumni reception and thought they probably believed he had some money because he works around science things. (My assessment is, he is doing just fine). Anyway, he went to lunch with Steve from the college. They had a good talk about old times and what was going on at the school. Time was going by and finally John said, “Well, how much do you want?”A surprised Steve responded, “We usually don’t talk about money until the third lunch.”John asked again, “How much do you want?”This time Steve said, “We were thinking of asking you for $200 a month for 5 years.”My math says that was nearly $10,000. That’s a nice gift for a first gift from John. John had brought along his check book and wrote out a check for $1,000. Steve hurriedly took the check and thanked John, explaining he was running late for another meeting at Dimillo’s, the local boat restaurant.John said he hasn’t heard from Steve again. He was wondering whether he was going to get the other two lunches he was promised.You know I’m working hard to add research to our work as fundraisers. Certainly, for the fundraiser to work out a strategy before meeting with John was a good idea. He obviously decided it was going to take three visits to get a five year, $10k gift from John.This may have been appropriate—I don’t know, but I think John thought it was silly.We need guidelines. Early in my career I heard a guideline that you should thank a donor seven times before asking for another gift. I never thought that was literal; rather, it was an affirmation that you need to express appreciation before barging in on another ask. However, I once had a young fundraiser who told me he had thought of six ways, but could I help him with a seventh? It was time to ask again, and he was keeping track.Along with strategies and guidelines, I guess what we need to teach is thinking. If we want to fundraising to be a profession, we need to learn how to think like a fundraiser. Lawyers don’t simply learn the law, they learn how to apply law and think. Doctors learn the science of the human body, certainly, but they also learn how to make judgments and decisions based on their understanding of medicine. They don’t just administer a pill or give a shot.Fundraisers have to make judgments, too.My company recently took over a client who had retained a wealth screening service for an analysis of their data base. When they got the reports back with a suggested gift size, they took the unusual step of handing out the reports to their donors and asking them to make those gifts. Yes, I said they took that report and laid it in front of the donor and asked them to make that gift. Stupid at best, incomprehensible at worst.I’m embarrassed when I hear yet another story about bumbling, inept fundraisers who lack judgment and sensitivity. I can’t defend them.Next time someone asks me what I do, I might tell them I’m a bartender at the Dry Dock. Now, that’s a profession to be proud of.
Will You Be There When John Shamberg Calls?
A big part of fundraising is showing up and being available. I learned this lesson on a very memorable New Year’s Eve, a very long time ago.
As an eager young fundraiser working for Washburn University, I didn’t know that it was unusual still to be at work in the evening of December 31st. But, there I was.
Earlier that year, a graduate of Washburn University School of Law told me he was going to give a gift of land to his synagogue, a private K-12 school and Washburn. John Shamberg, who has since passed away, made millions of dollars for institutions all over the world, and he wanted to give a significant gift to organizations he valued. His 40 acres of land on the outskirts of Kansas City were valued at $450,000, and his intention was to give $150,000 each to three organizations.
He’d left the task to the last day of the year, but now he was ready to make it happen.
He called the synagogue. No answer.
He called the K-12 school. No answer.
Then, he called Washburn and got me.
“Bob,” he said, “you just won the jackpot!”
Go here to read the full article