Starting a relationship with a major philanthropist can be intimidating. But one small piece of advice can make the difference: Ask questions.

A couple of weeks ago, a campaign ended. 

The director of development went through his list of new donors and spotted a name he recognized. A major philanthropist in the community made a $250 donation to the campaign. It was his first gift to the organization.

In a recent strategy session, the director of development asked me what his next move should be. This philanthropist has so much capacity to give, and he’s known as a generous individual who gives to worthy causes. Moreover, the organization is planning a capital campaign next year, fertile ground for a significant fundraising ask. 

“What steps can I take now to get him to donate a major gift to our capital campaign?”

The question made me think of a conversation I had with my son earlier that day. 

On the walk to school that morning, my nine-year-old told me a two-sentence story. “The teacher moved our seats and I’m not sitting next to Gabriel anymore,” he said. “I’m sitting next to David now, but it’s ok because I like David.”

This story – not the stuff blockbuster movies are made of, I know – made me incredibly sad. It made me sad because I had no idea that my son’s class had assigned seats. It made me sad because he had spent more than half of his school year sitting 24 inches away from Gabriel, and it never once crossed my mind. It made me sad because it forced the realization that, close as we may be, there is just so much that I don’t know about his day.

How did I not know anything about his desk-mate? 

While that question may seem rhetorical at first, there is a very important answer. I didn’t know about my son’s desk set up in his classroom because I never asked about it. When I don’t ask my son questions about himself, I don’t learn about him or what makes him tick.

And that leads us back to our director of development. My advice to him was to start building a relationship with the philanthropist by asking questions about his passions and interests.

  • What drives his decisions to give to specific organizations?
  • Why are certain charities more important than others to him?
  • At what point in his life did his personal philanthropy become important to him?

If the director of development is able to stop and listen, and I mean really listen, to the answers, he will find a way to connect his capital campaign to the donor’s passions.

But it starts with building a relationship and utilizing passions and interests as a diving force within fundraising. It starts by asking questions. It starts by making sure you catch the seemingly small details that make up the essence of the people with whom we’re trying to connect. 

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