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Jerold Panas

Perspectives on Philanthropy
from Jerold Panas



Books by Jerold Panas

Click on the book cover for more information



120 Days


Fundraising Habits


Making the Case


Mega Gifts



Exploding the Myths
Good riddance (once and for all) to fundraising's fairy tales

I’ve spent a lifetime testing and challenging “the rules.” And breaking them!

I’ve followed Tom Peters’ admonishment: “If it isn’t broken ... break it.” 

I believe firmly that those who are most effective, the stand-outs in our field, stretch the boundaries, shatter the parameters, and seek new thresholds. They don’t try to break out of the box. They create new boxes.

As I confront and probe some of the hoary rules of our business, the grammar of our field, I see that there are some myths -- call them fundraising nursery rhymes if you like -- that persist. I want to address those I consider to be unfounded and most fallacious.

Institute for Charitable Giving

Accept my word for now. As George Bernard Shaw said in a letter to a young poet: “Do not look for final answers now. They cannot be given to you because you have not yet lived them. It is a question of experiencing everything. For now, you must first live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without ever noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answers, some distant day.”

Myth 1: People give to meet the needs of an institution.

Wrong! Your organization doesn't have needs.

Please follow my directions. Type out on a sheet of paper: Our institution does not have needs. People have needs. Cut it out and tape it on your computer so that you see it every day.

It’s vitally important to keep in mind that your organization doesn’t have needs -- people do.  People have problems, they have concerns, and some live in agony. Your organization has the answer. You have the response. You have the solution to their needs.

For so long, I was doing it entirely long. I was selling what I considered to be “the need” of the organization. When I shifted from that to the need of those who were served, everything seemed to fall into place. I had been guilty of what George Elliott said of a professor in Middlemarch: I was filled with the perfect liberty of misjudgment. And now I know better. I talk only about the needs of those who are served.

Myth 2:  Staff is less effective in asking for gifts than volunteers.

I just read in a recent publication in our field that: “Successful fund raising officers do not ask for money. They get others to ask for it ... the request to give should come from within the prospect’s peer group.” 

That’s simply not true, about as fail-proof as having your home guarded by a cat. If you follow that dictum, there will be a number of gifts you will miss.

All of the experience I have, and the research I’ve done, indicates clearly that donors give the most where they have high regard and a glowing esteem for a member of the staff, usually the CEO. The peer volunteer is often indispensable in opening the door and making the appointment. But often, no matter how effectively coached, they are not the best at asking for the gift.

I call it The Magic Partnership. For those major gifts that will help determine the success of a campaign or a program, I like sending the peer and the senior officer of the institution.
Use your volunteers to the utmost at opening the door and getting the appointment. But do feel completely comfortable and confident as a staff person to make the call and the ask.

Myth 3:  Professional fund raising consultants should never solicit gifts.

The rationale is pretty much the same as the last myth. Send the best person. I’ve done plenty of soliciting. And I love it. But I would never make a call where I felt I was not the most effective person and the most appropriate.

I called on Samuel the other day in Naples, Florida. There were a lot of good reasons why we felt I was the person to make the contact. I could be direct with him in a way no one else could -- and at the same time help him capture for himself the vision of the institution. I turned a $25,000 gift into $1 million. Oh certainly, someone else could likely have done it. The problem was, we couldn’t think of anyone who could. I made the appointment myself and got the gift.

Myth 4: Never take more than two people with you to make a call.

That simply isn’t true. Take the marching band if that will help get the gift!

Personally, I prefer making a call by myself. It’s my own hang-up but I feel that puts me in a bit more control. And I like that.

But best of all is The Magic Partnership I mentioned above -- the chief executive officer and a volunteer peer. That’s an irresistible combination.

The truth is, the more people you add, the more awkward it is. It isn’t intimidating, it’s just plain clumsy. You end up having one or two who say nothing or very little at all. The prospect ends up saying: Who were those people and why did they come? But if there’s an understood and rehearsed role for each person, bring as many as you need.

Myth 5:  Women are different from men in their giving.

That’s what I thought until I found out differently.

Three or four years ago, there was a great deal of material and a number of articles about how different women are from men in their giving. We were bombarded with information. There was study after study. We were drowning in data.

I kept thinking: this is really hard to believe, but these folks must be onto something. So I came up with the idea for a new book. My publisher was excited about the prospects. I had visions of royalties dancing in my head. I even had a working title: Women Who Give.

I conducted a great deal of market research. In addition, I interviewed 16 women, each of whom had made at least one gift of $1 million, and most made a number of gifts of that size.
I stopped the research and the interviewing. I called off the book.

What I found is that there are no factors you can categorize as being women-driven or male-oriented. I had no book.

It was a wonderful lesson and reminder to me. Every one of your donors is a glorious human being, a person of great hopes and dreams. And disappointments and problems. High aspirations and expectations. And periods of deep valleys and doldrums.

Once you understand that, you’ll be able to relate to these wonderful people  on an individual basis, man or woman.

Myth 6: Tax is a prime motivator in getting the gift.

Certainly, everyone takes into account any tax advantage there might be. They would be silly not to. And, sure, in some situations it does help determine the timing. All of that is true.

But my careful examination and probing of 40 men and women who committed to $1 million and over gifts told me that tax is one of the lowest on the scale of motivating factors. That was consistent throughout the analysis.

George Gallup found the same thing when he did his study, a cross-section of the nation.
People give to change lives and save lives. Don't sell the tax, Instead be passionate about the vision and mission of your institution.

Myth 7: You don't need a powerful board to have a successful campaign.

That can happen, but the odds are strongly against it. All of the evidence clearly demonstrates that the board leads the way.

They should give sacrificially. They should work faithfully and unsparingly in any way that furthers the cause. They should be solicitors and fill key campaign leadership roles. In sum, they should be zealots, roaring advocates for the campaign. If the board doesn't care, why should anyone else?

Do I expect too much? Not at all. If your board brings less to the campaign, either you have the wrong directors or a troubled campaign on your hands.

Myth 8: Prospects need a great deal of cultivation before making a large gift.

I know I'm going to be called a traitor on this one. For years I've been singing the hymn of nurturing fundraising. Moreover, I'm an apostle of Si Seymour, who said you don't make a pickle out of a cucumber by squirting a little vinegar over it. You've got to immerse the thing.

But I urge you to consider two factors. The first is that a number of your donors are ready -- ready right now -- to make a major gift. There's no consequential value to making a dozen more contacts.

The second factor is that a request for a gift is actually a positive step in the cultivation process. Every major gift that's made is a launching pad for the next one. Only the next one will be larger.

Go for it. Begin practicing, at least on a limited basis, the concept of Ready, Fire, Aim. You know what. You'll be successful in more cases than not.

Myth 9:  You can't ask for too much.

That's ridiculous. Pure rubbish. That makes as much sense as George Bernard Shaw's comment that he thanks God he's an atheist. Of course you can ask for too much.

Let me tell you what happens. The prospect (sometimes known as a real man or woman) is asked for $100,000. He loves the organization, but he's thinking $10,000.

Further, his net worth, his annual giving, and his philanthropy to other organizations all indicate that $10,000 is about right, and that $100,000 would be completely out of the question.

But, say the theorists, the prospect 'will be complimented by your asking for the higher amount.' Wrong. The prospect will feel that not only have you been smoking the stuff, you've been inhaling.

What typically happens is that rather than be embarrassed with the $10,000 gift, it's easier for the prospect to give nothing.

I've seen it happen time and again where an evaluation committee rates their prospects far too high. "What have we got to lose," they say. "We'll ask for that and let him come down."

They'll come down all right … down to zero.

Myth 10: People give to people.

This is perhaps the oldest of our venerable fundraising verities … and probably the most misunderstood.

If 'people give to people,' it's most likely because of the high regard for one of the staff, usually the chief executive officer. But it could also be a physician who calls on a grateful patient. Or a faculty member beloved by one of his former students.

People give to great causes and to meet urgent and compelling needs. They give to institutions in whose vision and dreams they can identify. They give to programs that seize the soul and spirit. And often it is without regard to who makes the call.

For years I followed many of these 'old truths,' passed them on now for three generations. I kept wondering: why am I having problems, why am I missing opportunities, why aren't these hallowed truths working?

And, yes, I've learned from my mistakes. But old truths die hard, and I'm still learning.

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