Fearless fundraising: The Amazing Adventures of Anne

This article is reprinted from the Vol. 23, No. 1 edition of Contributions Magazine Online. Free subscriptions are available to nonprofit staff and volunteers. Visit www.contributionsmagazine.com.

Fearless Fundraising: The Amazing Adventures of Anne
Chutzpah! – a good word to describe the qualities of some great fundraisers.

by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

A child is brought up on charges for murdering his parents. He begs the judge for leniency because he is now an orphan.

Now that’s chutzpah!

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word you’ve no doubt heard. In its Hebrew origin, it describes a shameless audacity, even insolence.

But as chutzpah has filtered into mainstream use, it’s often used in a positive way to describe a bold fearlessness. This sanitized definition of chutzpah is about as good a word as you might find to describe the qualities of some great fundraisers.

Whenever I consider admirable boldness in fundraisers, I can’t help picturing my colleague and fundraiser extraordinaire, Anne Garnett. A former development and executive director, now a consultant, Anne suggests that she developed her fearlessness studying sharks (the ones in the ocean) and serving as a shipboard cook.

I caught up with Anne in D.C. where she’s doing some consulting work and enjoying the Inaugural festivities. She was delighted to share a few personal stories with me.

Anne’s mantra is pretty much “just go for it.” She believes that if you don’t ask, you’ll never get anything. Besides, if you really believe that your mission is important, then you’ve got no other choice.

Anne knows that when you’re trying to raise money, you’ve got to talk to the decision-maker. So “start at the top” she advises, “It’s a lot faster than trying to work your way up from the bottom.”

Here’s an example. Anne was hired as the development director for a zoo. But the major initiative she was expected to devote herself to was delayed for reasons beyond her control. Because “a good fundraiser abhors a vacuum,” Anne needed to do something. So she asked the zoo director if there was anything he needed right now while she was waiting for other matters to be resolved.

Learning that the zoo was desperate for trucks, Anne got on the case. She remembered seeing an advertisement from a local Toyota dealer that featured a truck with a fox (the dealer’s mascot) on the back of it. Animals in the back of a truck … it had to be a good omen.

Anne put in a cold call and got the owner of the dealership on the phone. She explained how the zoo desperately needed trucks and asked him to donate a fleet. Of course she explained all the ways the trucks would be put to use. She also told the owner that the zoo really should have Toyota trucks because … and then she named the features she’d read in a Toyota ad that morning. She let him know that she could offer lots of publicity in exchange as the zoo had hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Let me just repeat the ask again … not one, but a fleet of trucks. I asked Anne how she could even consider asking for a fleet of trucks on a cold call. “Well,” she explained, “the zoo really needed them.”  She also knew she had a nice carrot to dangle in the exposure she could offer. And, if she failed, she could try Honda or Ford.

The owner explained that his small dealership couldn’t donate a whole fleet of trucks. But could he take the idea to the Southern New England Toyota Dealers Group? After a few more conversations and a visit to the zoo, the dealers group donated three trucks worth over $80,000.

Of course, not every call gets you through to the top dog. For those instances, Anne’s developed a gatekeeper strategy she calls “secretary diplomacy.” Here’s an example:

Years ago, as the major gifts director for a state environmental advocacy group, Anne was planning a gala fundraising event in Newport. She wanted a big name to create excitement and draw a huge crowd (and lots of money), so she set her sights on veteran newsman Walter Cronkite.

The organization had been angling to get Cronkite to an event for years – but countless letters proved fruitless. As a sailor and environmentalist who cares about oceans, Cronkite was a perfect fit. And, he also summered on nearby Martha’s Vineyard.

So Anne looked up the number for CBS News and called him up. In her most confident and authoritative voice, she told the receptionist that she had a “very important call” and needed to speak directly to Cronkite (“Well, the call was very important to ME”).

She was put through to his secretary and they had a lovely chat. Luckily, Cronkite had only one secretary as he was semi-retired at the time or Anne believes it would have been much harder to get through. It turned out that Cronkite’s secretary loved Newport where her aunt lived, and, as luck would have it, Anne found the aunt’s name on the organization’s membership list.

Eventually, Anne got to make her pitch directly to Walter Cronkite. She thanked him for his support of oceans. She reminded him how much he loved sailing to Newport and staying at the New York Yacht Club (NYYC). She couldn’t pay an honorarium, but she would cover his travel and lodging, which she’d be happy to get at the NYYC. Oh, by the way, there would be lots of NYYC members at the event.

A few months later, the gala with Cronkite drew close to a thousand people. And his secretary? Of course she got a complementary ticket too. Soon thereafter, she helped Anne once again by assisting in recruiting Mike Wallace for a future appearance.

Anne laments the move by many fundraisers to email – she prefers the good old-fashioned telephone. “At some point you’ve got to call.”  Even when your call doesn’t result in a gift, you often come away with other valuable information you just don’t get with email … like who knows whom or another lead. Nine out of 10 times if you ask the referrer “Can I use your name?” the person will say yes, and sometimes they’ll even make the call themselves.

I asked for one more celebrity story.

Recently, Anne’s been working with a national land conservation group to secure permanent passage of the Federal Conservation Easement Tax Incentive. In September 2007, her gig was to convince 20 swing members of Congress to support this bill.

Boldness requires careful sleuthing to bring success. So Anne began with research, starting by reviewing conservation easements in Georgia’s 8th Congressional District, one of the targeted areas. She uncovered Charlane Plantation and its owners Rose Lane and Chuck Leavell.

It turns out that this tree farmer who was committed to conservation and sustainable forestry also happened to be one of the foremost keyboardists in the world. He’s played with rockers Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers Band and, for over 25 years, The Rolling Stones.

So Anne called Chuck Leavell to ask him to help out. (“Well, Charlane Plantation’s phone number was on the web site.”) After leaving a compelling message on the answering machine on Thursday, by Monday night Chuck Leavell was calling from the airport during some down time.

He agreed, and Anne made it really easy for him, to send a letter urging support for the legislation to his Congressman. He added an attention-getting opening paragraph to the draft letter Anne sent him (“I’ve just returned from the Rolling Stones World Tour and it’s great to be back on Georgia’s red clay). After a few follow ups that ended in a phone call from Chuck to the congressional office, Anne reports that the Congressman is “now on board.”

Not exactly chutzpah, but sprinkle enough bold fearlessness with respect and true curiosity and magic can happen. While Anne’s the first to admit that she’s had a lot of luck, studies tell us that luck typically comes to people who keep their eyes open.

Gayle Gifford is the author of How Are We Doing? A 1-Hour Guide to Evaluating Your Performance as a Nonprofit Board, published by Emerson & Church. For more information about Gayle, visit her website at www.ceffect.com.