MARCH 2014
Does this sound familiar?


The November Development Committee meeting was fully attended.  Tracking sheets listing assignments from the September meeting were distributed.  When the chair called for reports on solicitation progress, members anxiously buried their gazes in their agendas.  When asked specifically, one after another announced "no progress."  The best anyone could offer was:  "I called twice and sent an email, but got no answer."


It's meetings like this that cause Development Directors to question the time spent engaging volunteers in major gifts solicitations.  In universities, where alumni are geographically dispersed and current relationships are cultivated with the School's president and other senior leaders, volunteer solicitors are less central to the major gifts process.  In independent schools, however, parents form the core of an intensely involved and coherent school community; they know each other well (certainly among age cohorts), they influence each other strongly, and their opinions matter.  Peer solicitations of parents are, I believe, a key factor in creating a strong major gift program in an independent school.  They engage your most generous donors and use the force of peer pressure to leverage gifts far higher than might be achieved by staff acting alone.


So, how can we make volunteer solicitations productive, effective and fun for our peer solicitors?


First, we need to redefine solicitations to be a process rather than a one-time event.  The process involves multiple steps, beginning with the simple acceptance of the assignment to approving the ask and strategy, obtaining a date for a visit, meeting face-to-face and, ultimately, getting an answer.  Once the process is clearly understood, it is much easier to take the first few steps.


Second, volunteer solicitors need to know that they are not alone!  It takes a team to undertake a solicitation:  typically, two peer solicitors and a staff support person who, occasionally, may also take a role as a solicitor.  By frequently checking in, the team keeps the solicitation process on track.  Use of teams as solicitors also requires that the team script the solicitation, at least by assigning major elements (introduction, case, ask, etc.) in advance, thereby thinking through, if not actually rehearsing, the solicitation in advance.


Third, volunteers need to be trained.  This not only provides needed education, but also offers comfort to the volunteers about the process of asking others for gifts.  It also helps them to refine their style by developing their own solicitation words.  While there are no rigid rules about solicitations, there are some general principles that can contribute to your solicitors' success.


1.       Make Your Own Pledge First

The volunteer's own gift best expresses his confidence in the validity and necessity of the Campaign and will be a major factor in persuading others to make a significant gift.

2.       Meet Face-to-Face

Major gifts require personal contact.  Volunteers should use the telephone or email only to set up the visit.  Consider whether the person you are seeing should be visited at his or her office or at home.  Most people will want to discuss a major gift with their spouse, and many prefer that both partners be present for formal discussions.  This is imperative when the relationship between the School and the prospective donor involves both partners.  Make sure all parties to the meeting know the purpose of the meeting.

3.       Use a Team Approach

Two solicitors-especially when their presentation is well-rehearsed and coordinated-work better than one.  This approach allows greater opportunity to respond effectively to questions, and two solicitors are more effective at listening and studying the nuances of the responses given by the prospective donors.

4.       Make the Case

Volunteers should be familiar with the School's case statement and review it before calling on potential donors.  However, it is most important to talk about the reasons the volunteers are involved with the School and why the institution is worth your time and money.  Allow for discussion to encourage talk about the potential donors' interests and inclinations.  If a volunteer doesn't know the answer to a question, they should feel comfortable referring it to staff to get back to the prospective donor.

5.       Give Personal Testimony

Volunteers are encouraged to talk about their own gift and the process that led them to their decision.  Sometimes this can lead to discussions about the role of leadership, the length of the pledge period or the attraction of giving stock or other gifts-in-kind.  Referring to one's own gift, at least by level, also allows the volunteer to ask the prospect to "consider" a gift of a certain sum, rather than just asking for the sum.  Invariably, it is easiest for the volunteer to ask a donor to "consider joining" him by making a gift at a specified level.

6.       Ask for a Specific Gift

Many big gifts-even in major university campaigns-are never received because they are never asked for.  The "ask" amount will always be decided in advance, and usually will be reiterated in a proposal provided by the staff.   Referring to the Table of Needed Gifts is often an easy way to begin the ask.

7.        Listen

A little silence gives the prospective donor time to consider a thoughtful response.  The goal of the solicitation process is to inspire donors to make the largest "stretch" gifts that they can, so don't be discouraged by initial negative responses.

8.       Leave a Written Proposal

Leaving behind a formal written proposal that reiterates the specific gift request is not only a means of ensuring that the volunteer makes the ask, but it is also a helpful reminder to the prospective donor that a concrete ask has been made and a response is now needed.

9.       Close with Next Steps

Volunteers should review the materials left behind and be very specific in gaining agreement about the next steps; specify to whom the pledge form should be delivered and ask by what date the prospective donor believes that he/she can make a decision. 

10.   Follow Up

Volunteers should write a follow-up letter promptly and report to the assigned staff about next steps.  Do not let more than two weeks go by without another personal contact.


Don't let your volunteers become discouraged!  They need to believe that the process itself is a positive one for the institution.  Anytime two or more members of the community are thoughtfully and constructively engaged in a conversation about the institution's mission and future, the benefits over the long-term will be positive!



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