How to Avoid a $100,000 Mistake

By Brad Layland, CEO and Senior Consultant

 Several years ago, when I was a major gift officer, I made a huge mistake. A close friend of mine asked me if I knew of any good vacations to recommend. She was working as an administrative assistant for a high-powered Wall Street executive, and it was his turn to plan the family vacation. At my suggestion, my friend sent her boss and his family off to a particular camp that I was helping raise money for. It was a big success – he and his family had a life changing experience! And when he returned, the executive called his assistant to see if he could set up a time to meet with me – he wanted to make a gift. 

At the time, I was young and new to fundraising and super focused on the urgent tasks in front of me. The idea of flying to New York City to meet with a donor who would likely give a small gift seemed like a major distraction. Instead of meeting with him, I asked a program officer who worked for our organization to go in my place.

The program officer went to the meeting with the Wall Street guy, who spent the meeting talking about the impact that the camp had on his family. He was eager to make a gift toward the work of our organization.

The program officer did a great job of responding to the executive, saying back to him, “So you want to make a gift to our organization?” (Active listening is always a great way to follow up when someone says they want to make a gift.) The Wall Street executive then said, “Yes, I would like to give you $100,000 to use for your work.”

Even though this took place about 20 years ago, when I probably still had an AOL email address, I’m sure a quick internet search would have revealed that this person had made very generous gifts to multiple organizations. I should have taken the time to realize that this donor had the capacity to give a huge gift, but instead I was at home doing the fundraising ‘busy work’ that felt so urgent. Even if I didn’t do the online research, I could have just asked my friend if she thought it would be a significant gift.

One of the fundraising principles we discuss in Taking Donors Seriously is that proper planning maximizes results and minimizes costs. Basic research should have informed my decision about whether to go to the meeting. I could have done a much better job of stewarding this donor and the opportunity to meet with him!

After that meeting, the program officer and I continued to meet with this donor, and over the last 20 years, that donor has literally given millions of dollars to that organization! It’s been amazing to see.

This story actually turned out pretty great – so I guess it wasn’t too terrible of a mistake! In my experience, though, donors don’t give that large of a gift that easily. The first gift is typically much smaller. Here’s the moral of the story: the next time you’re faced with the opportunity to meet a new donor, take a minute and ask some basic questions about who they are, how they’re connected, and what they have been able to give to others. In other words, do a little research!

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