I remember my first big fundraising ask. I was an all-too-young Director of Development for a regional human services organization, Westcare. In just a few short months there, I had propelled their grant fundraising to new heights, allowing the organization to meet their goals for service that the leadership thought they would never reach.
As a reward, they made me the organization's first Director of Development, with the charge of adding individual giving to our funding streams.
I soon set a meeting with our first great prospect and spent an incredible amount of time preparing. I had brochures, talking points, and client stories — and had rehearsed at work and home countless times. I spoke clearly on the program’s benefits, offering the prospect multiple ways to fund and support it. On the day of days, I was spectacular and made my ask...and, on the spot, received a clear and resounding “no.”
That evening I was panicked. Raising money was obviously going to prove critical to my success. But I had given it my all and failed.
Once I gathered myself and performed my own post-mortem, I realized why. The entire ask was about what I wanted for my organization, without empathy for the prospective donor. I had unintentionally made the situation incredibly transactional, thinking only about my wants and needs, not the donor’s.
It was a painful lesson, but what I learned now drives any conversation I have with nonprofit leaders about fundraising. It’s not about you or your organization — no matter how wonderful they may be. Ultimately, it’s about your funder. That doesn’t mean funders are selfish; it just means you need to understand what drives them … what are the incentives and disincentives for them to invest in your work?
Modeling your Conversation
There are a variety of tools I’ve used over the years with nonprofit leaders to help them prepare for critical fundraising or partnership conversations — focusing on how they’re solving the other leader’s challenges, and not vice versa. All my suggestions start with writing down what the funder wants and needs. I know you’re probably doing this intuitively, but for key meetings with funders, I strongly recommend writing it all out to ensure you’ve included everything. At the least, it provides a helpful “check” on your thinking. Plus, almost every time, I’ve found that it reminds me of potential levers for the ask that prove key to integrate into the conversation.
To ensure you capture everything possible, the resource I’ve found most useful in recent years is the Value Proposition Canvas, which is part of Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas. You may recall that I mentioned the Business Model Canvas in the past. It gives you an incredible, simple schematic for diagramming and building business models. The authors of the Business Model Canvas understand the key importance of knowing the needs of the one you’re “selling to” (be it products or programs), so they created a schematic just to map out the business proposition — that is, how you’re going to provide value per customer.
Pains & Gains
So how do you do it? I recommend blocking off 30 to 60 minutes to work on it. Yes, I know you’re likely extremely busy, but if the conversation with your prospect is important, it’s worth the investment of the time and effort to ensure you maximize the opportunity. Go to a place where you won’t be interrupted, put the cell phone away, and don’t worry about email. Now,using the Value Proposition Canvas, map out your funder’s “pains,” “gains,” and “jobs to be done.” Let’s review each of these.
1. A “pain” is something you relieve for them — a challenge of theirs that making this gift will ease. One example of how you may help with the pain is by providing an impactful solution tailored to the geography they’re concerned about. Many funders are admirably focusing on communities needing a great deal of support; however, programs to help those communities may not really be suited to them and, therefore, a “bad” investment. Further, in the rush to get money into places of focus, foundations often missed the mark and become very frustrated (that is pained) by their inability to gain traction in a community that the organization is trying to advance.
In your conversation, this may play out in the form of you pointing to successes in similar communities or with similar populations. Another pain could be making payouts. I often talk with grantees about the pressure to make foundations’ legally required payouts. It often seems so simple that we can think of a million ways to give money away. But having acted as an adjunct to foundation staff many times over the years, I can say that, in practice, it proves far more difficult. Often you need to hastily craft an investment, knowing that your governing board will grill you on the presentation before approving. One way to mitigate this pain is by emphasizing a long record of success. Independent evaluations will show the efficacy of your model and note your historical partnership with this particular funder. Each of these points would resonate with any foundation’s program officer, but they would also see that you’re helping to build their case to the board and making their lives even easier.
2. Conversely, a “gain” is what funders get out of giving in terms of value. This could be as simple as clearly noting the exposure a funder will gain. Exposure can be particularly important for corporate foundations, who will then see the gift’s “double bottom line” of both advancing a charitable mission and increasing their marketing exposure or even sales. This could play out by you mentioning that their logo would be included at the start of a series of training videos going to 10,000 mentors, who may be in the market for their services or products. The gain could also include something intangible such as allowing the funder to get in on the ground floor of a major innovation in your field or geographic area that will increase their gravitas with peer funders.
3. The third element is the “job to be done,” which are the actual tasks the funder is trying to undertake and the problems they’re trying to solve. For example, the government funder may put out a request for a proposal for teacher professional development. Another example is a funder who may want to have their every investment build the system of homelessness services in their state. These jobs to be doneprove important as you design your ask since they can often act as constraints on what you might offer. Put simply, you don’t want to make an ask for a program that’s outside of their interests entirely. It will not only result in a quick “no,” but it could also hurt your chances of any future ask.
It’s important to note you don’t have to fill this out in a linear way. As you build your canvas for a given funder, you might start in pains, jump to gains, jump back to pains, and then hop over to jobs that need to be done. So, you should add the ideas to the canvas as you have them, rather than going section by section.
Once you have the pains, gains, and jobs to be done, you’re ready to think about your solution. What is it that you’re offering that will directly address the funder’s needs? This can prove challenging since it’s very easy to focus on what we want funded or why we want it funded, rather than on the potential funder’s needs — so take your time and keep coming back to what you wrote down for the pains, gains, and jobs to be done. Before you conclude the exercise, clearly ensure that your solution matches what your funder wants and needs.
Two final thoughts. First, as you craft how an investment in your program will address the funder’s needs, the ways may be very tangible (such as their stated commitment to give funding in a certain community) but can also be very emotional and intangible (such as being part of the legacy the funder will leave behind for the future). Second, it’s easy to sink into a fundraising rut. Since you are trying to gain perspective on your conversation, consider sharing your Value Proposition Canvas with another staffer, board member, or peer at another organization to “test” your ideas and ensure you are being clear on how this gift will prove a win/win for your organization and the funder.