SHARING THEIR DREAM — Listening, A Tool For Acquiring Major Gifts

July 2, 2002 by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

Baseball legend Yogi Berra once said “You can observe a lot by watching.”

Well, as a fundraiser, I paraphrase Yogi, and suggest that “you can hear a lot by listening.” One of the most delightful benefits of being a fundraiser is the chance to learn about people. As a girl from a working class background, I’ve had glimpses into places and lives that, as a kid, I never knew existed. As a fundraiser, I’ve walked factory floors, sipped tea at spectacular seaside homes, chauffeured Walter Cronkite (in our minivan), shared the pride of rebuilt urban neighborhoods, and sloshed through recovering marshes. All in all, I’ve had the privilege of sharing other people’s lives and life’s work.

As fundraisers, we help our organizations, and our donors, to realize their dreams. To do that, we’ve got to learn what people care about, their passions.

Sometimes we get so focused on making our case, we forget to listen to what people are telling us.

Back in 1995, I was hired as the Development Director for a community service program for young adults. My task was to dramatically increase private giving for this nonprofit’s first satellite site.

Now, this nonprofit had a pretty fabulous promotional program. If they could get prospects to experience their work, there was a high probability that they would be “hooked.” When they couldn’t get prospects to visit their sites, they “brought” their program to their prospects. After witnessing a youth-led presentation that included music, skits, and some incredibly moving life stories, only the hard of heart refused to get involved.

But the desire to help didn’t automatically mean a financial donation.

Why? Because as exciting as these presentations were — they’d been known to make grown CEOs cry, they were missing one of the most important elements leading to a major gift — matching their needs with the donor’s dreams.

And that’s where listening makes the difference.

For three years, this nonprofit had been cultivating a local media company for a major gift — a team sponsorship of $30,000 a year. To date, however, they’d had no success.

Now, when asked, the business would say that they loved my organization and were a great supporter. Indeed, their staff volunteered in the annual service event and they printed some materials for free. Yet, only once in the prior three years had they made a cash gift, a one-time donation of $5,000.

The Executive Director and I arranged to visit the general manager of the company to thank him for their past support and, once again, to address the idea of a team sponsorship.

After initial pleasantries, my nervous Executive Director (despite our advance preparation) immediately reverted to this organization’s usual fundraising approach — and launched into the standard presentation about the agency and its importance to the community and its young people.

But this general manager didn’t need to hear all of that again. He already knew a lot about us. What he didn’t know, and neither did we, was how we could fulfill each other’s dreams.

So when my Executive Director stopped for a breath, I refocused the discussion.

“So tell me Peter,” I said to the general manager (whom I knew from a previous life), “what’s [your company ] interested in these days?”

Suddenly, Peter got excited. He told us about the struggles they were having in their new diversity initiative (something our group specialized in) and how they were working to reach new constituencies. As he continued talking, he mentioned that they were floating an idea to help build playgrounds in some of the inner city neighborhoods in town.

Well, not only did my eyes light up, but the Executive Director practically jumped out of his chair. I felt like Groucho Marx hearing the secret word. “Play grounds! Why we specialize in playgrounds!”

To make a long story shorter, this conversation was the start of a truly beautiful friendship. The company went on to become a $30,000 team sponsor, their charitable giving manager joined our local Advisory Board, and this company has continued to be one of that non-profit’s most generous supporters.

The moral of our story, of course, is: Take the time to listen to your donors. When they share their dreams, beautiful things can happen.

This article first appeared in Major Gifts Review at

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.