Emotional intelligence and big gift fundraising

Matt Ferguson, Chief Development Officer at King’s College London shares the importance of building affinity with a prospect to achieving philanthropic outcomes.

At an alumni reception in a wood-panelled room lined with portraits of faculty members long since passed (their commemoration is still deemed important - for which reasons nobody can recall), drinking warm chardonnay, you have a conversation with a semi-retired alumnus who mentions that he used to sit as a non-executive director on the board of a company owned by a billionaire. You walk away brimming with excitement, as they’ve agreed to present a proposal on behalf of your institution to their billionaire contact at their lunch appointment next month.

How would your team respond? Would you prepare a pitch in time for the lunch? Or would you have a different response?

There can be little doubt that opportunistic introductions are an important aspect of the groundwork that is a sign of a good fundraiser. However, transforming straightforward opportunism into a strategic proposal is the difference between punting (which is perhaps best left to rivers) and earning the right to ask. Too often the good work a fundraiser undertakes does not lead to a gift because the difference between securing access and building affinity becomes confused.

Managers need to maintain high expectations of big gift fundraisers, and securing meetings with key prospects should be regarded as a minimum standard of performance for senior level development professionals. Too often, however, there is a risk that fundraisers spend much of their time trying to figure out how to gain access to a prospect, when their time might be better spent determining whether they can shape a prospect’s affinity towards their proposition.

Successful fundraising doesn’t begin with getting the first meeting — it starts with getting the second, and securing the basis for why a prospect wants to learn more about your proposition. It is only with the agreement of a second meeting that you may have reason to believe that you will eventually matriculate a prospect into a donor. Self-awareness about why someone might want to meet with you is a question to which good fundraisers must always be seeking an answer, and never being satisfied with their own response.

Building affinity

Building affinity is about creating a habitat that mirrors a donor’s expectations, learning how to create this is the ultimate result of the solicitation process. The physical manifestation of this is philanthropy, but the decision to make a gift is shaped by the arc of the cultivation process. This requires a fundamentally different approach to how many fundraisers ask for money. Reflecting upon how to build a meaningful relationship that is designed to cultivate a prospect’s affinity, rather than focussing on the means of gaining access, is more likely over time to result in a meaningful gift.

None of this is particularly revolutionary stuff, but for some reason, these realities can be overlooked by fundraisers who are perhaps distracted by the daily pressures of working in busy offices.

In the process of building a relationship, a good fundraiser will be collecting a significant amount of data, but above all the most helpful pieces of information are collected with emotional intelligence. Fundraisers who work on big gifts need to have a capacity to listen that enables them to hear what never gets spoken. Securing a big gift requires the capacity to listen with extreme effectiveness.

A compelling proposition

In designing a compelling proposition, a fundraiser is helping to create a platform of authority that justifies their request by virtue of the impact they propose to create with the right level of investment. With the right platform, enough advanced preparation, and careful listening, it should be possible for any fundraiser to get a meeting with anyone. Our mission is not just about pursuing small windows of opportunity: with so many compelling challenges in the world we could be doing more to persuade philanthropists to help solve them, which begins with building meaningful propositions. Unless it was the warm chardonnay, this is probably why we all became fundraisers in the first place!

Matt Ferguson, Chief Development Officer at King’s College London