old woman

Picture by Susan NYC from Flickr

We know that events are the slowest way to make money for a nonprofit. We know that if we care about the future of our nonprofit, we need to start cultivating major donor relationships, and start our major gift program. But where can you start? How can you start to develop these relationships?

The first thing you need to remember is that your major donors, that is, people who are going to give you lots of money, are probably much older than you are. They are probably in their 70s and 80s.

The next thing you need to know is that you currently do not have the tools to understand where they’re coming from. You may be in your 30s or 40s or 50s, but you’re still quite active in the “doing” phase of your life.

The third thing to remember is that adults continue to develop throughout their lifespan. We don’t stop developing when we reach adulthood. The adults you’ll be asking to be your major donors are thinking about their legacy. They want to review their lives, and think about what they made of their lives. If you get to know them well enough, they will tell you what they wish they could have done better, or what they wish they could change.

What does this look like, as a fundraising professional?

Mr. Smith is the head of a university foundation located on the West Coast. The university is near a large population of older adults who have come to the area for good weather and the low cost of living. Mr Smith soon discovered that the normal hour-length appointment for his older potential donors was inadequate. Instead of trying to compress his meetings so he could squeeze more into a day, he adjusted to the needs of these clients and allocated more time for each interview In fact, he blocked out two hours for each meeting and always arrived early, usually to find the elderly potential donor waiting for him.

Do not roll your eyes in exasperation-Two hours! Get real! – until you read below about Mr. Smith’s results.

Mr. Smith has become an acknowledged expert at communicating with older adults. His success on one level is profound and humbling. By letting the elder donor set the communication pace, he has enriched and been enriched by his relationships with members of this age group. Using the tools and communication strategies outlined in “How to Say It To Seniors”, he has provided innovative reinforcements for the elderly person’s battle for control. At the same time he has provided creative and effective facilitation in the area of legacy development. All well and good from a communication perspective, but what about his success as a fundraising professional? How is the university doing in terms of donations?

It turns out Mr. Smith has created an unanticipated problem-that of too much success. Undoubtedly this is the kind of problem every fundraising professional would like to have.

The donations have been exceptional. The problem is that many of the older adults want to give all of their wealth to the university, but Mr. Smith must decline these offers for fear of reprisal from the donors’ families.

Why does he continue to have such success? Because he has connected with these donors primary developmental needs. He has allocated the time, understood their developmental mandates, and fine-tuned his ability to focus and listen.

old man

Image courtesy BigGreyMare from Flickr

With their children far away, the indifferent medical care they sometimes receive, and the artificial environment of a senior community, they find in Mr. Smith a person who brings compassion and effectiveness to their lives. He also brings impeccable ethical standards. Although flattered by the desire to give everything to the university, Mr. Smith helps these older adults discover other avenues for their legacy. He embodies the spirit and implements the skills of a legacy coach.

The above is an excerpt from David Solie’s How to Say It To Seniors, pg 186-187.


What can you take from this anecdote?

Once your older donors get a sense from you that you’re not trying to rush them, that you’re listening, that you care and that you want to offer them choices that might help them create an even bigger legacy, they are going to want to help you. These donors will want to give you a gift, just as you have given them a gift by taking the time to listen to them, to understand what they want their legacy to be.

Here are five questions you can start asking today to build relationships with older adults who can turn into major donors for your nonprofit.

1. Tell me about yourself.
2. What is the one thing I can do for you today that would be helpful?
3. What is the most important thing I need to know about you?
4. Who is the one person, besides yourself, who knows you best?
5. Do you need more time to think about it?

Have you ever read How to Say It to Seniors? If so, how did it change the way you have conversations with donors? If you haven’t read this book yet, I HIGHLY recommend it. It will help you understand what your older donors are thinking about. It might also help you communicate with your own family.

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