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What you will learn: Gary Bernstein shares six key tips on how to secure the gift of nonprofit fundraising.

Most executive directors (EDs), especially new ones, lack the necessary nonprofit fundraising skills when they reach the top of the organizational chart. To most in this new position, asking potential donors for financial support seems foreign and quite scary. These leaders, as well as their staff, need to know their agency’s story and mission as it relates to the organization and community.

Embrace and understand the importance of major gift giving and assume a significant role, along with development staff, in nonprofit fundraising.

As outside resources are shrinking, especially in today’s competitive environment, JCCs, Ys and other nonprofits should be committed to philanthropy. The ED’s time is essential to identify and cultivate those potential donors who possess influence and affluence, while working alongside their development staff, in order to help shape a potential gift.

Today, an ED not having skills and experience in raising money would be unwise and unthinkable. Generating operating revenues from membership income and program fees is often not enough for financial sustainability.

There is an expectation that fundraising will remain a significant part of the ED’s job, therefore, during the search process that expectation is often well defined upfront.

Yet cultivating donors is not always natural for executives. Nonprofit leaders may have very different skill sets than the attributes that make development professionals successful. EDs are accustomed to supervising staff, developing and marketing their programs, imparting their knowledge and sharing their expertise. But successful fundraising depends on being a good listener and asking the right questions to understand donor motivations and passions.

The executive’s experience has probably not included fundraising fundamentals, such as identifying prospective donors, the process of soliciting gifts, or having an understanding of the most effective ways to reach and secure donors. For example, spending time making face-to-face visits to potential donors, versus having a special event and making small talk with a lot of people.

Despite the learning curve many executives may face, they can have a significant influence on the amount of individual giving an agency can acquire. Usually, they are the ones who can best articulate the mission and what a major gift could do to advance it. It’s the executive donors who want to meet with and discuss their passion for a specific need or program. “Kings relating to Kings.” Some, of course, turn out to be natural fundraisers.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to consult with the Bernikow Jewish Community Center in Staten Island, New York, which recently completed a major gift giving campaign. Former CEO, David Sorkin, was instrumental in raising the bulk of the dollars.

For those executives just getting started in nonprofit fundraising and for others who aspire to be EDs one day — here are key tips on how to secure the gift.

Communicate: When talking with potential donors, ask good questions and listen.

Talking with potential donors is not the time to show how much you know about a particular subject. Rather, it is a time to ask good questions that get to the heart of what motivates people to give. Most important, listen to their answers.

“I gained a better understanding of what the donors had in their hearts when they decided to give,” said Sorkin. “Get to know their interests. What kind of impact do they want to make?”

Sorkin said donors want to have a big impact and leave a legacy. Spending time listening to their desires and motivations goes a long way to connecting them to your agency. “We’re facilitators,” he said. “Our goal is to assist and understand what they’re wanting to accomplish, what kind of legacy they want to leave.”

Sorkin elaborated that selling is really listening. For executives with more traditional management or social work backgrounds, the shift from speaker to listener may not be so easy. Donors don’t want to be lectured at like a room full of students. Rather, they expect a give-and-take conversation where they do much of the talking.

Listening pays off, as does knowing when to speak up to share the vision of your agency. It’s a balance. Donors want to be heard, and they also want to get behind a clear vision.

Collaborate: Maximize time and effort in fundraising by working hand in hand with development staff.

Development staff can help develop strategies that maximize money raised and an executive’s efficiency in doing it. EDs who go it alone may find they are spending more time than they need to securing a gift or not raising as much money as they could.

When Sorkin embarked on a fundraising campaign three years ago, he described himself as a fundraising novice. While he understood that raising money was about building relationships, he wasn’t sure how to go from talking to potential donors to bringing in a gift.

Have Clear Goals: Fundraising is a strategy to achieve a set of objectives.

Eds need to have more than a good story to tell prospective donors. They need a story that fits into the agency’s vision and mission.

Sorkin started his fundraising work by first stepping back and figuring out what he wanted to say and needed to do to advance the JCC.

“Fundraising is, at the end, a strategy to achieve a set of objectives,” he said. “For the JCC, that meant looking for ways to recruit and retain the best staff and creating an outstanding and unique experience for our JCC and community members. The important thing is having a clear set of objectives and understanding what you need to achieve those objectives.”

Be Patient: Cultivating donors for nonprofit fundraising takes time.

For executives and nonprofit agencies, larger gifts often start as smaller ones. Stewarding those smaller gifts well, and showing how they are improving the community and strengthening lives, is key to obtaining larger, transformational gifts.

Start Small: One of the biggest challenges for executives is to find time to do fundraising.

While some executives at larger agencies with sophisticated development operations say they spend 50% to 60% of their time fundraising, a new executive can find that commitment overwhelming.

Any complaints from staff or lay leaders about the time an executive spends away from the agency subsides quickly when the gifts are secured.

Build Credibility: If you are going to be successful at nonprofit fundraising, you need to know what your agency is about and who your constituents are.

One important way to build trust is to have credibility. If you are nervous about fundraising, that is not unusual.

For Sorkin, that meant spending time getting to know people. “By knowing the agency, community, staff and knowing our members, I have credibility when I go out to fundraise,” he said. “I know what’s going on.”

Another way to add to your credibility is to donate yourself. “If you’re going to ask people for money, especially large amounts, and tell them you really believe in that particular cause, you ought to put a little money up yourself,” added Sorkin.

By donating himself, it showed donors he believed in the project. It also gave him insight into how donors feel. “I’m proud that we did it,” said Sorkin. “It gave me an opportunity to understand from the donor’s point of view, because I wanted to make a difference. My wife and I wanted to make a difference.”

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Gary Bernstein

Gary Bernstein currently serves as CEO of the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania and a new Advisory Board member of Community Rec Magazine. Gary Bernstein has proudly authored the textbook, "The Fundamentals of Sports Marketing" with Sagamore Publishing and "Nonprofit Sport and Recreation Programs: Principles and Practices of Leadership and Management" by Sentia Publishers. For more information, call 757.667.0293 or email gary.bernstein@nepajca.org.

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