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What Development Departments (and Boards) Can Learn from “How I Met Your Mother”

I was a late comer when it comes to “How I Met Your Mother”, but now I watch it in syndication.  If you don’t watch the show, it is about a group of five friends in New York City.  The protagonist, Ted Moseby, is telling his children about how he met their mother, but the story goes on and on, much to the children’s chagrin.

Early in the series, Ted’s roommates get engaged, and it brings out Ted’s feelings of wanting the same.  On a first date with another character, Robin, Ted proclaims feelings of love for her which, of course, is a huge mistake.  It sends her running away from him, and once again, he searches for the love of his life.  I have been guilty of similar sins in my youth, so I can relate to his character.

A few years ago, I participated in a major gifts webinar offered by Pursuant Group, a fundraising agency in Dallas, Texas.  The person leading the event was taking questions from the participants, and someone asked, what was the best way to ask a major donor for a large gift at the first meeting?  I shuddered and shook my head.  The leader answered exactly how I did to myself; you don’t. 

Major gifts and planned gifts are not something you ask for on the first meeting, just like you don’t ask someone to marry you on the first date.  They are something you build up to after you have created a meaningful relationship, and you need to take some time to get your donor relationship to that point.  You need to make sure that the donor, whether it is an individual, a business, or a foundation, supports your organization’s mission and programs.  You need to find out what motivates their support, and you need to find out about their abilities to support you in a major level.  Your best chance for obtaining major gifts is by approaching long time steady donors, not new contacts.  Asking for major financial support is not something you jump into blindly, because if you do, you will surely chase the donor away, and the door will be closed to you.

Some Boards expect Fundraising Professionals to get big contributions right away, and that is unrealistic.  Just because an individual or business has deep pockets, it doesn’t mean they are just going to write you a big check right off the bat.  Boards need to realize that relationships take time to develop.  If the fundraiser spends the time to strengthen the relationship with the new donor before making the ask, by inviting them for visits and events, the foundation for the relationship is established, and the likelihood of success is much greater.

The other day, Farra Trompetor, one of my nonprofit Twitter connections in New York, tweeted a quote by Rachel Hope Allison, another nonprofit professional in Brooklyn, and it really says it all.  “When communicating with supporters, don't show up in a wedding dress. You've got to date first.”  I couldn’t have said it better.