measuringstick
An excerpt from The Fundraiser's Measuring Stick, by Jerold Panas. To order this book, click here.

I’ve never really kept track.

In my years of consulting, I suppose I’ve worked with thirty thousand fundraisers, both volunteer and professional. Perhaps as many as fifty thousand. They come in all sizes and shapes and ethnic backgrounds. Tall, short. Heavy, thin. I’ve seen it all.

What I’ve discovered is that highly effective fundraisers share many similarities. In my new book, The Fundraiser’s Measuring Stick: Sizing Up the Attributes Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Cultivate to Secure Major Gifts, I examine these unique traits and show how you can adopt these ways of thinking for yourself.

Before I describe two characteristics in particular, let me briefly tell you about a pair of fundraisers I’ve worked with who are utterly different in style and approach and yet each was powerfully effective.

When Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel, she sent a young fundraiser to the United States to raise money for Israel and Jewish causes. His name was Aryeh Nesher. For two decades, Nesher raised funds and trained hundreds of leaders of Jewish Federations in the art of raising money. His art, his method. In Jewish circles, the name Aryeh Nesher is legendary.

Nesher’s type of fundraising was rough and tumble, in your face, laced with unforgiving guilt. When someone said, “I’ll need time to think it over,” his response would strip bark from a tree. I was once with a wealthy Jewish leader who said, “Nesher was the only guy I ever threw out of my office. But first, he got the gift.”

Now let me describe a total opposite.

Dr. Vartan Gregorian is now president of the Carnegie Corporation. When I first met him, he was president of the New York Public Library. When Vartan assumed the helm of the library, it was moribund. To save money, the storied institution was closed two days a week and in the evenings.

“What Vart did,” the chairman of the library board told me, “was comparable to turning the Queen Mary around in a bathtub.”

One day I’m sitting with Vartan in his office. We’re talking about the extraordinary success he’s had in securing funds. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars in a very short time. I tell him he saved the library and that everyone talks about his amazing prowess in raising money. “The truth is,” Vartan says, “I never ask for money. I can’t remember that I’ve ever asked for a gift.”

I’m incredulous.

“I simply talk with people,” he continues. “I tell them what we have is an extraordinary cathedral of scholarship and culture. It’s unequaled anywhere in the world. Filled with treasures and one-of-a-kinds.

“I create the dream and the inspiration. When I finish, I never have to ask. They offer me money.”

Here’s proof that Vartan isn’t kidding. We go from his office to lunch at his favorite Armenian restaurant. We’re sitting by a window looking out on Third Avenue. A woman walking down the street peers in and spots him.  She comes rushing inside. 

“Dr. Gregorian, I haven’t seen you for ages,” she says, excusing herself for interrupting. “Please come see me. I want to give you some money.” They hug. She leaves. “See what I mean?” he says to me. Indeed I did.

Let’s turn now to just two (of twenty-nine) attributes that enable the great fundraisers, volunteer or staff, to stand head and shoulders over all the others.

  • The Itch for Action

I’m sometimes asked to enumerate the skills of a successful fundraiser. Always on my list is patience. But funny enough I also list impatience. That’s because fundraising is more art than science and each situation is obviously different.

Some instances call for prolonged cultivation, taking time to build the relationship. But in some cases there simply isn’t time. The call has to be made. It can’t wait. That’s why I hedge.

Bill Wilson is one of the great fundraisers and leaders in Nashville. He comes by it honestly. His father, Pat, led almost every major campaign in the city and for years was chair of Vanderbilt University.

Of the many campaigns Bill spearheaded, the one for the YMCA was perhaps his greatest achievement. The Y at the time enjoyed visibility, but it was second on just about everyone’s list.

“The clock was ticking,” Bill tells me. “There wasn’t time for cultivation. It’s not the best way to do it, I know. But construction was starting on two projects. We had to sell our vision and dreams on the first visit.”

Bill and his committee made a list of the top one hundred leaders in Nashville. The emphasis was clearly on those who could make a substantial gift. “We took them on a bus tour of our centers, gave them lunch, and asked for the gift. That’s how quick and simple it was.”

Of course Bill doesn’t recommend this process for every situation, but it worked in his case.

“What was interesting, by moving as fast as we did, we created a sense of urgency,” he says. “Everyone worked faster and harder.” The campaign went well over goal.

I concede to no one my strong belief in effective cultivation. But there are instances where the need is urgent. If your house is on fire, you call on your neighbors for a hose. One such fire was at The King’s College, New York City. There were overdue invoices, a bank loan outstanding, and a payroll—all due in two weeks.

It was providential. God sent Allie (Alice) Hanley. Allie is a fervent member of the college’s board. She is passionate, head-over-heels devoted, a whirling dervish. A whole campaign organization wrapped in one person. In two weeks, Allie called on twenty-two men and women—none had heard from the college in years.

“What could I do?” Allie tells me. “I know I should have made a contact, maybe two or three, before asking for a gift. And it’s likely I’d have gotten a larger gift with even a little cultivation. But there simply wasn’t time. We were desperate.”

Allie raised the necessary funds. The loan was repaid, invoices taken care of, and payroll was met.

Being impatient isn’t necessarily a flaw in character. Rather, it can be nothing less than the soul and spirit reaching toward infinity.

  • A Passion for Preparation

“God is in the details,” said Mies Van der Rohe, the award-winning architect. Sometimes if you don’t prepare, you miss a big thing. I know this from experience, I’m embarrassed to say.

Martha Ingram is on the Forbes list of billionaires in the country. She’s one of Nashville’s most generous citizens. If it’s for the good of Nashville and the area, you’ll find Martha in the thick of things. She’s a faithful worker. A dogged and determined volunteer. And a fearless asker.

And she insists on being prepared. For Martha, nothing is left to chance.

She and I called on an elderly gentleman for the Nashville Ballet, an organization dear to Martha. The gentleman is regarded as one of the wealthiest in the state.

I thought I had prepared Martha properly. The man’s net worth, giving to other organizations, his alma mater, where his kids went to school. But it shames me to tell you I didn’t examine perhaps the most important factor—his interest in the ballet. This wasn’t my proudest moment.

We’re sitting in this man’s office chatting away. Finally, Martha says, “We’re here today to talk to you about the Nashville Ballet, a great community asset and one of the most important companies in the country.”

You would have had to be there to believe what comes next.

“Oh yes,” the man says. “Mary and me went to the bal-let (his pronunciation) once. Martha, honey, one thing I didn’t understand. They kept those poor girls on tiptoes the whole evening. If they wanted taller girls, why didn’t they hire them?”

We didn’t get a gift. And I received a proper scolding from Martha.

This article is adapted from Jerold Panas’s new book, The Fundraiser’s Measuring Stick: Sizing Up the Attributes Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Cultivate to Secure Major Gifts. Panas is also author of Asking, The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards, Making a Case Your Donors Will Love, and Mega Gifts, all published by Emerson & Church.