Playing the Long Game in Major Gifts – The Challenges & Opportunities Ahead
28th May by Sarah Jane O’Neill
Sarah Jane O'Neill is an Associate Consultant at AAW and is currently working with The Scouts as their Philanthropy Director. With a long and impressive track record in Philanthropy and High Value Partnerships, she has held leadership roles at Stonewall, Imperial War Museum and Justice. Sarah Jane has also worked on some of the UK’s most high-profile campaigns including Oxford Thinking and Heads Together. She has led multi-million campaigns, personally securing and managing teams that have successfully stewarded six and seven figure gifts.
We can think of no better person to reflect on the implications that the Covid-19 crisis has had on the area of major gifts.
Historically, it has been major global events that have made society re-evaluate the relationship between philanthropy and the state. Where does the onus of responsibility for caring for the vulnerable sit? After the Second World War, that re-evaluation was so radical it resulted in the creation of the Welfare State, wrapping its arms around a shattered nation and ushering in the most prolific period of social mobility the UK has ever seen. You’d have to be quite a Pollyanna to believe we will be that lucky this time.
We can only speculate on the future, but as major donor fundraisers we are already attuned to nuance and changing fortunes. We know what it’s like to live on the precarious edge of human whim, with its sudden inexplicable silences, unexpected reappearances and crazy curve balls that get thrown in meetings we’ve waited nearly a year to pin down. We understand that this is a long game that has to be played and that above all else, it’s emotional. It is in this that lies our advantage.
Let’s talk about empathy
I was once asked by a CEO to find something that would melt the heart of a certain retail magnate with a penchant for super yachts and I suggested a blow torch. Fortunately, he had a sense of humour. We know that donors give for varied and often deeply personal reasons and yes, there are some occasions when it can feel like getting through tundra with a spoon.
It’s important to say that empathy isn’t just about what the donor feels for your cause, but what you feel for them. For all of us, our wings have been clipped and in that respect HNWs are no different. They are largely confined to home, probably feeling unstimulated and unaccustomedly not in control. They may be worried about how they will be perceived in a post COVID world which could be fractured with levels of inequality we’ve not seen since the 1930s. Many wealthy people have used the furlough scheme to save their businesses. What will be the repercussions of this in the eyes of wider society? Will there be a reputational balance to repay? Perhaps they are looking at events unfurling and wondering how they or anyone else will ever be able to fill this chasm? As major donor fundraisers, we don’t have to sympathise, but we do have to understand and find affinity.
The pandemic has brought us closer to our mortality and made us question what we see is of value. Everyone’s skins are thinner now and until we all reach a place of safety it is likely we will remain in that space. This is very good news for fundraising. Without feeling, there is no action and there is certainly no giving, so tune your antennae to the current mood of your donor before you make any move towards them.
We’ve never been more connected (there’s no escape!)
With international travel plans now in disarray for the foreseeable future, no-one can tell you they can’t meet you anymore because they’re in New York / Singapore / Geneva. They are only at the end of an internet connection and you don’t have to be breathing the same air to build rapport. You just need to be able to see and hear them.
We’ve all felt fatigued from excessive screen time in recent weeks, but it’s the intensity of its focus that makes it such a powerful tool for one to one conversations. When someone’s face is up close it is far easier to answer the two key questions so fundamental to the reconnaissance we are on as major donor fundraisers – are they engaging and what is triggering their interest? Make the most of this ability to land your message and observe their response without too many distracting surroundings and interruptions. It’s possible too that entourages like personal assistants and other gatekeepers may also be diminished right now, so if you already have a relationship, this is your ideal moment to cut through the layers that often surround a major donor.
If you’re feeling stymied as a fundraiser, the answer is always to go outwards. I’ve found in recent weeks, people are far more amenable to connect virtually to give advice or offer introductions. Everything is moving faster and you never know what conversation is going to bring you closer to someone or unlock your most creative idea. It doesn’t have to be about money.
Will UHNWs step up?
When there is a big problem to solve it’s tempting to think that one big, splashy gift is the only solution. But is this a good idea? To date the response of UHNWs has been a mixed bag, with some notable exceptions who deserve to be celebrated far more than they have.
Up until mid-February The Sunday Times Rich List was predicting a bumper year for UHNWs, with the number of billionaires in the UK rising from 151 to 160. After COVID-19 hit, this number fell to 147, with half of these seeing a fall in income. The largest loss for a single individual was an eye watering £6 billion.
If the comfort zone for giving is about the level of outgoings and the responsibility to family and dependents, these losses are far from helpful for major donor fundraising. However, right across the board and even prior to the pandemic, we hadn’t exactly seen an embarrassment of riches. Last year the Beacon Collaborative found that of the 18,000 people in the UK who have a net worth of at least £10 million, the median donation was £240 annually.
It’s worth noting that donor behaviour is changing through this crisis. CAF, which partners the Sunday Times for the Giving List, reported that in March their HNW clients increased donations by 235% on the same time last year, with many stepping forward and asking how they could help, rather than seeking to select individual charities.
I predict this global crisis will see a major and audible shift in public attitude about the accumulation of wealth and its need to come with social obligations, but it will also need an organised and collective response from the sector and far better PR for philanthropy. As an individual fundraiser you can’t fight this battle alone, but the catalyst for potential change has arrived, albeit in a form for which none of us would ever have wished.
Don’t underestimate the amount of liquidity that’s available
In every downturn – even one as all-encompassing as this one – someone is making money. For HNWs who have maintained the same level of income, they have also seen a dramatic drop in their expenditure. Limited or no foreign travel, no extra-curricular school activities to pay for and far fewer opportunities for socialising, all add up to more liquidity in the bank and a significant amount of disposable income, potentially for the next 12 months. Not everyone will be feeling insecure in their sector or will be negatively exposed to the stock market (on the contrary, some may have made some shrewd moves earlier in the year) so whilst you will need to do your homework first and use common sense when considering approaches, it’s important to focus on the abundance and not the scarcity.
But we can’t do events anymore!
Many donors may be heaving a sigh of relief at this pleasing development (as well as a number of exhausted major gift officers!). I’m not disputing the convening power of a well-executed event, but sometimes the need to put them on gets in the way of the conversation and connection you wish to create. Major donor fundraising isn’t events and it often surprises me how many charities think it is.
One organisation I worked for once staged a virtual gala, where donors gladly paid a ticket price not to have to go. With few of the overheads and, in particular the cost of staff time rarely factored into these epic undertakings, they ended up making their biggest net profit ever. There may be something in this idea for our current times.
Major donors as role models
When I ran the Ambassadors programme at Stonewall, the most rewarding part of my job was providing a platform for major donors to be role models, either in schools or in the business community. Many of them had amazing stories to tell about resilience, overcoming adversity and ultimately finding acceptance and love. In the telling they not only inspired and sometimes shifted the mind set of their audiences, but gained huge personal enrichment.
Until normal service is resumed, we don’t have to do this in person. I Skyped recently with a HNW alumni at Scouts who gave me an hour of his time and offered to tell his inspiring backstory on film for us. This was the first connection I’d had with him.
Depending on the nature of your cause, it’s worth thinking about opportunities for masterclasses or ‘top ten tips’ if you have donors or prospects who present well and have something really valuable to say. You might consider doing a Facebook Live with them or using their stories as part of a campaign drum beat. I guarantee there is no better way to bring them closer to your work.
It’s all about timing
For many charities there is now an urgency that may not have been there before and with so many clamouring voices, you may be worried about how yours is going to cut through. Whatever your urgency is, there is an opportunity to make the donor the hero when the right moment arrives. In difficult times the urge to reach out and grasp at what looks shiny is often at its strongest, but this kind of ‘magpie fundraising’ can ultimately backfire and damage relationships.
At Scouts they have chosen to shine the light outwards, galvanising their membership to fundraise for emergency causes and raising nearly £700K through their Hike to the Moon challenge for BBC’s Children in Need. However, with the aftermath of the pandemic set to disproportionately damage the lives of disadvantaged young people, they could soon become part of that front line response.
As ever with major donor fundraising (and life), it is all about timing.
And of course, patience.
© Sarah Jane O’Neill 2020