Flying Horses and Major Gift Fundraising

by Sherri W. Morr

What you may wonder do these two very different concepts have to do with Jewish organizations? At first glance you may think, not much. But if you understand the major gift process in nonprofits in connection to staying the course then you may think again.

In the mid 1900s a horse jumping off a ledge on the Atlantic City Steel Pier was a great feat and a huge crowd pleaser. Hundreds of people would watch the horse way up high with a practically naked rider jump into the water. Back then animal rights people were either nonexistent or silent. Then 60 years later a promoter, seeking to again draw crowds to Atlantic City in today’s sluggish economy announces this crazy stunt is coming back … with no thought to the public or the horse who actually faced grave danger way back when. Fortunately even in our depressed society where the near poor face daily challenges, the unemployed still beg for jobs, and the one percent does not worry about the poor, our animal rights folks are vigilant, and far from silent. Not even a week after the big Flying Horse announcement the protests are so loud and so strong, the idea is quickly shoved under the rug, and that’s the end of the Flying Horses.

Jews have been making major gifts to critical Jewish needs way before Flying Horses. It’s been consistent; major gift fundraising has not disappeared, or taken a back seat or a lull, perhaps ever. As long as there were issues, Jews in trouble, or Jews lacking resources, Jews have always responded to the requests. Nonprofits figured out early on how to establish a minyon of giving and inviting others to be part of such a group. Giving became a door to acceptance, belonging, and social status. Donors saw the benefits of giving (because someone explained them) even though they were not packaged in a fancy brochure. “Why give” did not have to be explained in several different forms. Donors were smart enough even way back when to know that networking (aka schmoozing) would help their businesses, increase their own notoriety, and maybe even get them invitations to Shabbos dinner. The wealthy donors were asked to sit on boards, the bima and the dais; the richest donors had front row seats on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Fast forward to 2012 and the last several decades have shown enormous changes in major gift fundraising. Its way more than an art; it’s a sophisticated science. Partially because of the Internet, but even before there were on line vehicles for finding out about people, nonprofits were seeking new names, new wealthy people. Federations would purchase lists of Jewish names. Imagine an unknowing Sam Cohen who subscribed to Time Magazine, the New Republic and lived in a ‘good zip code’ … he became a prime suspect for a major gift. Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins had sophisticated research staffs (some behind locked doors) that spent all day looking for new names and researching them. Before Google!

In spite of where nonprofits have been, or where they may be going there are several integral aspects for major gift staff to be successful in new gift prospecting:

  1. You have to know the community and be linked to it. You have to be connected and stay connected. You can’t stop looking, ever. Because the minute you stop looking that is when a very viable prospect will surface and your best competitor will grab him/her. Staff cannot sit in their offices. They have to be out and about, seeing and being seen; they have to be selective with their time and their choices. That’s why major gift officers are smart and sophisticated. They are leaders who believe in the mission, with vigor and with vision.
  2. Once a new name is found and qualified, a strategy has to be developed for this prospect. It’s not the same old outline you used for other donors; it has to be developed personally for this donor … with affiliations, schools and colleges, personal and business associates, spending, and where they live, where they vacation, and what they drive. If grocery stores and big box stores can successfully woo customers so can nonprofits. Staff members have to be avid readers of all media and research information. Especially through what shows up on the Internet. If the prospect sits on the board of a Jewish school, then look to education articles, day school studies, discussions on merit pay for faculty … so you can use all of this data as a means to connect, and stay connected.
  3. The strategy is not a public announcement, but it’s also not a secret document. Try not to be stingy or secretive; one person alone cannot develop it; that’s why there are campaign staff members, especially the IT department, and committees who can weigh in with advice and information. Staff has to know how to use Major Gift Committees. Not with how should we approach Mr. /Mrs. Cohen, but sharing the data, and creating a plan. Boards and executive committees can be taught to feel responsible, and desirous of assisting major gift committees. It’s everyone’s job.
  4. Of course you can purchase the data, and if there is a budget by all means discover the best sources and pay for it. We all know sometimes you have to pay to play, and if your nonprofit wants to be a winner, then plan to use the budget you have.
  5. Maintain records in your data management system. Do not walk around with the information in your head. Most likely your organization paid a fortune so you could record information in a particular section, of a donor’s profile that is easily attainable, and transferrable.

The point is you are not flying off the ledge landing into a sea of names. You are part of a community of people who care regardless of whether you are working for Jewish Day Schools or the Jewish Family Service. You know that to sustain Jewish continuity our agencies and organizations not only have to survive, they have to strive for excellence. That can only happen with quality major gift staff and leadership.

Sherri W. Morr has spent the last several decades working and consulting in the Jewish community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, most recently as Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund for 12 years. She has completed an MA and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her work outside of the Jewish world at independent schools, the Baltimore Symphony and Tufts University have given her an awareness beyond practice in the Jewish community. Sherri has 3 grown sons and lives in Rancho Mirage, California.