“Major gift fundraising can be the unicorn for some organizations. Constantly chasing, kind of seen off in the distance, and always wondered like why can’t we have a major gifts program?”
This is part two of an interview with John Urschel, educator at Bay Path University. We’re going to switch gears a little bit to the Next Level Fundraising Conference April 4th-5th, 2016, right before the Fundraising Career Conference April 6th-8th, 2016, and you’re going to be teaching a session there on how to do major gifts fundraising. I’m going to skip this first question that I had for you. I was going to ask you what’s the most effective way to fundraise. If you don’t already know it yet, people, major gifts. So according to Kim Klein, there’s about a 50% chance of success face-to-face fundraising, and John, would you like to say anything more about that?
JU: Well, you know, what I tell major gifts officers that I train is the first thing that you need to do is learn how to be a forthright diplomat. You need to be able to be radically honest, wear your heart on your sleeve. Be professional, but be yourself and be honest. I think some people come into major gifts fundraising and they think, oh, it’s my job. I’m the salesperson now. That’s not what we’re doing. So understanding how to be a forthright diplomat and understanding the difference between sales and fundraising is really critical. Once we have that sort of philosophical understanding of the differences between fundraising and sales, we can then really move forward and be effective. So that’s sort of like 101 for me. We’ll talk about that in the session at the Next Level Fundraising Conference.
MT: So when you’re starting a major gifts program, what are some key tools for your toolbox and what are people going to learn in the session?
JU: Well, the big one is – for this part, for this conversation, I’m thinking from the macro level. So we’re going to talk sort of big picture. The big one in your tool box is why does the organization I work for exist? So we’re going to talk a little bit about how to break down the why, and get deep into that question about not only the organization but then the fundraising office, or where those particular offices within the organization that are really key to your success. Because if we can’t answer the why, then we can’t really effectively present what we’re doing. Then we’re just focusing on the how’s and the what’s, which really is not that exciting. The why is really the most important piece.
MT: So the why is the key one?
JU: Yeah, and I have some specific exercises to go through about how to get into and really do a deep dive into the why.
MT: So you’ll talk a bit about getting there. We’re already going to have a session on hiring right for your fundraising roles with Linda Lysakowski. So aside from hiring, any other tools in the toolbox that you’ll be talking about aside from the why?
JU: Yeah, so we’ll talk a little bit about what kinds of questions to ask about your fundraising operation as it currently exists, and sort of break that down a bit. So some people might call that an assessment or an audit. It’s really we’re going to just talk a little bit more broadly about it, to give people some skills and some tools that they can use very practically to say all right, what are really the questions I need to be asking about my operation? Where are the weaknesses? Where do I need to shore up? What do we need to buttress to get set up for a major gifts program? Because literally in any organization, no matter how young or old they are, can have a very successful major gifts program. It’s just you need to first meet your organization where it exists, where it is. Not hope about where you want it to be, but really how to take an honest and hard look at the organization itself and say, okay, well, here are constraints. Here we are now. What can I do within this space to kick start a major gifts program? Or I have a major gifts program that’s just sort of started, and it’s just kind of like limping along. How do I strengthen it? How do I transform it? So we’ll talk about the kinds of questions, how to assess, how to develop a program, and actual real specific tools and opportunities for you to within a very short period of time, like six to eight months, build something substantial.
MT: I love that. So that’s beautiful. I think people are really going to enjoy this session. I think they’re going to learn a lot. For people who already have a major gifts program, what’s one thing you’re going to teach about how to make it more effective or grow it? One thing, just one thing, right?
JU: Just one thing. Just one thing. Well, I guess there are no real tricks in fundraising, right? But I guess the things I like to talk about is hope is not a strategy. So we’re going to talk a little bit about how to not rely on hope in a major gift program. Oh, if we just keep talking to people, eventually somebody will give us $100,000 or $10 million or $10,000, whatever our major gifts threshold might be for a particular organization. So we’re going to talk a little about getting beyond the hope is a strategy piece into really sort of how do you develop a strategy that is manageable, and more importantly, measurable. Where you can hold yourself accountable and you can hold your team members accountable and your volunteers accountable. You can measure your activity and at the end of the day demonstrate your value.
MT: I love that. So some of the people that will be coming to this session are CEOs, executive directors and other senior leadership at nonprofits. So for those people, what will they learn if they come to your session aside from starting with the why, aside from hope is not a strategy? Are they going to get specific action steps they’re going to take?
JU: Well, the first thing they’ll do is have a better understanding of what it takes to have a successful fundraising program and how to appreciate what they have. Then once they get something better, really appreciate that. A fundraising program can only be as successful as the leadership within the organization. So ultimately the success or failure of a major gifts program is going to really lay at the feet of the CEOs and the executive directors. So by creating a program that’s measureable and where people can be held accountable, I think the CEOs and the EDs will walk away feeling like, okay, not only do I have a better understanding of what a major gifts program could be for our organization, but I also have a way to measure the incremental changes that we’re going to make over the next eight to 12 months and then beyond.
MT: Right. I love that. That sounds like a really good takeaway from this. So is there anything else you’d like to add?
JU: No, except that I’m really happy to talk about this. I think major gift fundraising can be the unicorn for some organizations. Constantly chasing, kind of seen off in the distance, and always wondered like why can’t we have a major gifts program? I guess the optimist in me is you have to be an optimist to be a major gift fundraiser. I’m really excited about helping organizations get beyond that piece. There are no unicorns. This is actually a real thing, and you can get it. There’s some easy steps to make it happen.
MT: I love that. So everybody, please sign up for John’s session. It’s going to be so good. It’s going to be so exciting and I can’t wait to learn from his as well. This is stuff that I really have been puzzling over in my life as well. So John, how can we get in touch with you if people have more questions or they want to have your services?
JU: Oh, sure, no problem. So best way is either through LinkedIn, John Urschel, and then also my email which is just firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always happy to touch base with people and talk more about what they’re doing. A rising tide lifts all boats is an expression that I really like to use a lot. The more we can do to improve the sector, the better off we’ll all be.
MT: I love that. Thank you so much.
JU: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me and I look forward to it.
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