A colleague of mine at the office relayed to me a conversation she had with major gift fundraiser. I’d like to highlight it here because if you’re a business leader who serves on a nonprofit board and you’re expecting that a significant gift ask by a CEO or fundraiser happen, you need to understand that it might not occur and it’s infinitely better to have board members and major gift peers involved.

In the story my colleague told me, she was talking to a professional fundraiser who had been in the business for many years. The professional fundraiser made an ask of $1 million of a billionaire she had known for many years. In fact, the fundraiser considered the billionaire, whom we’ll call Tom, to be a close friend and she even spends the holidays and weekends in the the home of the Tom and his wife in West Palm Beach, South Hampton, or Telluride.

As my team member conveyed the story, this is how it went.

“To help expand the programs of the soup kitchen in the community, I’d like to ask you to consider a gift of $1 million.”

Tom replied, “No, I don’t think we can do that. Although I know the organization does good work in the community, it’s a religious group. Our children have gotten more involved in our charitable giving, and they don’t want to support anything affiliated with the Church.”

So that was the end of that, right?

Well, not really.

Two days later, it turns out that the Tom was asked by another billionaire, Steve, for $2 million for a cause that is related to a religious organization.

Want to guess what happened?

If you guessed that Tom, who was asked for the $2 million (double the amount the professional fundraiser asked him and still for a religious group) by his friend donated it, you’d be correct.

My question to you is, why?

What made Tom decline to give it to the professional fundraiser but give twice the amount to his billionaire friend, Steve?

As the professional fundraiser said to my colleague, “Money plays with money.” The reason the Steve secured a gift of $2 million was that he had given at least that amount to Tom’s charity. So, by giving $2 million to Steve, it was a bit of a quid pro quo.

Money plays with money. If you think that’s not true, you’re incorrect. But I guess that if you’re a capitalist and business owner, you should be keenly aware that money likes to be with other cash.

So, if you serve as a board member in the philanthropic sector, I wonder why so many boards rely solely on the executive director and professional fundraisers to raise money? If the story I relayed to you doesn’t vividly tell you the dynamics at play, especially in major gift fundraising, I don’t know what does.

Money plays with money.

It didn’t matter that the professional fundraiser had been friends with Tom and his wife for decades and they even invited her to their homes, vacations and holidays. The reality is that the professional fundraiser did not have much more than her friendship to leverage, even for a great cause. And candidly, it wasn’t enough.

However, Steve (who by the way, is not particularly close to the first billionaire) did have leverage. The most prominent advantage was the fact that Steve had given $2 million given to Tom’s pet charity.

If you hold a leadership position with a nonprofit or charitable board, it’s essential that you realize that as a board member, it’s incumbent on you and your peers to make the ask. CEOs and fundraisers can provide support, but money plays with money. Major donors would much prefer to be asked by their peers for a gift of $5,000, $25,000 or more.

Think about it.

When you’re in yet another board training meeting, and the team or the governance consultant is saying that there needs to be more support for fundraising by members of the board, the story I explained in this article should be one you remember.

Board members and donors have a little extra leverage because they voluntarily give their time and money to causes, including to those of their friends. That alone is a significant reason for stepping up your game in helping your organization raise money.


Author of “Not Your Father’s Charity: Grip & Rip Leadership for Social Impact” (Free Digital Download)

© 2017 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.