Emma Lewzey’s Modern Take on Major Gift Prospecting

emma lewzey major gift

Even the most experienced of fundraisers feel butterflies when major gift fundraising. 

Finding major gift prospects is a daunting task, especially since you are dealing with multi-figure gifts. But it’s important to remember nerves are normal and that donors are people. So instead of putting the focus on your organization’s benefit, take the time to learn about your donor. 

Emma Lewzey is an award-winning fundraising expert with 20+ years experience raising millions of dollars across the arts, education, health and human services sectors. Emma is the founder and lead consultant at Blue Sky Philanthropy, where she works with nonprofits to increase their revenue and exceed their fundraising goals by helping them raise more 5, 6 and 7-figure donations.

Now she joins us to share her philosophy on major gift prospecting within your current donor pool, and how to get over the anxiety a lot of fundraisers have. 

Emma’s Top Major Gift Prospecting Tips 

  1. Start with people who are engaged with your organization. Don’t focus on the size of the donation, rather focus on how often they give or work with your nonprofit. Monthly donors, volunteers, and long-term supporters all have the potential to become major gift donors! 
  2. Don’t be intimidated by your data. Instead, get curious and try to learn from it. See if you can pick up patterns that some of your major gift donors have. Ask yourself what the numbers mean. 
  3. Focus on your relationship with the donor. Don’t go into a call or meeting with the mindset of pitching your organization. Have a meaningful conversation with your prospect and focus on them. 

Our Favourite Quotes 

[2:10] I hear people talk a lot about having feelings of fear, intimidation and imposter syndrome. Those are descriptors that come up a lot when even experienced fundraisers are talking about working with major gaffes. So first of all, I think it's so, so important that we normalize it. If you do feel some fear and intimidation around major gifts, this is perfectly normal. It is perfectly normal, even if you have a little bit more experience.

[25:40] Perfectionism leaves the most money on the table of anything else. I think in major gifts, whether it's a cult, like an organizational culture of perfectionism or this belief that we always need to have everything absolutely perfect, simply impossible as a human to have everything absolutely perfect.


Learn how to find major gift prospects within your database with the Amazing Emma Lewzey.

Hi and welcome to Driven's Fundraising Superheroes podcast, I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and as an innovator in nonprofit technology, our team at Driven is determined to help you unlock the true power of your data. We specialize in donor, volunteer and member management. We even have a point of sale system. So if you want to make an even more efficient and effective step towards fundraising, please give us a visit at trustdriven.com to learn more.

When you think of your donors, how many of them would you consider major donors when prospecting for major donors? It can be a common misconception to start the search outside of your database. The truth is, it's all about relationships and there has to be a connection between you and your donor before you even think about approaching them for a major gift appeal. This is why the best place to look is often within your current pool of donors or your database.

Emma Lewzey is an award-winning fundraiser with over 20 years of experience helping nonprofit organizations like yours build and grow successfully, sustainably and create better fundraising programs. She is the founder of Blue Sky Philanthropy, and I'm so excited to have her here today. So thank you for joining me.

Thanks for having me, Sabrina.

So can you start off by talking about anxiety in major fundraising?

Oh, yeah. Yeah. And let's just dive right into, like, the meaty stuff, right. Because I think that this in my experience so I've been fundraising for close to twenty five years now. And I think in talking to a lot of front line fundraisers, like even those of us who are more experienced, it's something that's so common, but we don't talk about it enough. So part of my mission is to start like normalizing some of the feelings that we have that come up when we're working with major donors and high net worth individuals, because it can definitely provoke a lot of anxiety.

And I wouldn't even say sometimes fear. I hear people talk a lot about having feelings of fear, intimidation and imposter syndrome. Those are descriptors that come up a lot when even experienced fundraisers are talking about working with major gifts. So first of all, I think it's so, so important that we normalize it. If you do feel some fear and intimidation around major gifts, this is perfectly normal. It is perfectly normal, even if you have a little bit more experience.

So, yeah, I think that, you know, I think that one of the messages I like to leave folks with is that fear... Our brains are hardwired to fear and feel fear. Right. Especially when it comes to uncertainty. That's why this past 18 months has been so fun with the pandemic. When it comes to uncertainty, trying new things, not necessarily knowing the outcome, it's evolved as a protective device for us to some degree. Right.

It's protective for us and it's totally, totally normal. So I think what I want and we can delve a bit deeper into this as we chat, but I think what I want people to think about is even if I do feel fear come up when I'm thinking about major gifts to work through that and not necessarily let it stop you because it is so normal. And there are a whole bunch of reasons why we feel fear, including like a lot of the beliefs we're taught as kids around money and around power.

So this could be its whole own dedicated podcast, probably. But I think I love that we're starting there because I think for a lot of folks, they just feel that sense of fear or intimidation around major gifts. So they don't even get started. They let that be a really big barrier to taking even a small step forward to landing a major gift for the organization.

And I think whenever you're talking about major fundraising, fear has to be addressed because for me, like I'm not even a fundraiser and the thought of approaching somebody and asking for a six figure gift is like terrifying to me. And imposter syndrome is very real. And I think that some of the issues surrounding it that make it harder to address is that often you don't even know that you're experiencing it because it's so tricky. You think that it's just the situation you're in.

Oh, this was a mistake. I just got lucky with this one donation. So it's important to, like you said, recognize the work that you're putting in and also keep track of the strategies you're taking. Oh, maybe it didn't work because it was like maybe it worked because you've been working on the relationship with this donor for a long time. And now that you finally built that relationship, you know, they were willing to give you.

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I don't often like to say trust the process. Right. Trust the process when it comes to fundraising. And some of us have some. Resistance around the idea that fundraising can be step by step process or a system, but, you know, in my experience, you know, if you are sort of following the process and you are following a proven strategy and you're being consistent with it, that can make all the difference and that can actually really help address that sense of fear as well.

Right. So, yeah. So it's I think it's so important. And people just think often that they're the only ones that feel it. Like I feel fear around this and then they kind of isolate themselves. So it's so fascinating. We don't talk. I talk and teach a lot around mindset as it relates to major gifts. And one of the things I've noticed is we've only just started scratching the surface on this. And it's not something that we talk about, like at our conferences, in our trainings, you know, in the workplace necessarily.

And I think it's such an important conversation for us to have for sure. So I'm very glad we started talking about fear. And the final thing I'll say about fear is it can actually be a good sign sometimes that you are experiencing like a sense of discomfort, like if you're always comfortable in your work. To me, what that means is that you're not taking steps outside of your comfort zone to grow. So our brains, sometimes they go, I'm afraid I'm uncomfortable, danger, danger or something that's going to happen.

But it truly is a really important part of our growth and our learning as fundraisers. And it's just part of the package deal in terms of the way that our brains are wired, no matter how much experience we have, if we're going to continue to grow and push outside of that comfort zone and try new things, having that sense of discomfort that sometimes can tip into fear can actually be a good sign. Right. And sometimes being totally comfortable in your work one hundred percent of the time could be a danger sign that things are stagnating a little bit.

Right, exactly. Before we move forward with the major gift fundraising specific questions, can you let our audience know exactly what you do at Blue Sky Philanthropy and a little bit more about your major gift prospecting philosophy?

Oh, for sure. So as we mentioned, I have been fundraising pretty much since I graduated from university. It's all now working in the nonprofit sector and I love it. I love major gifts and I love front line fundraising and fell in love with major gifts when I signed up to do my first capital campaign back in 2010. Q So I you know, I teach, I train and I do strategy development around fundraising and I specialize in major gifts.

So essentially I work with fundraisers and non-profit leaders to help them raise more five and six bigger donations for their mission. So it's something that I love and it's something I think that's a it's a great need out there because there are so many organizations, especially smaller to medium sized organizations, that have tremendous untapped potential that they're not necessarily recognizing when it comes to major gifts. Right. Especially when it comes to leading into our prospecting specific conversation. Right. There's so much untapped opportunity there for organizations.

And it's one of my passions to help organizations and fundraisers tap into that.

Prospecting donors really is about your history, your relationship, how you communicate with them. So when thinking about major gifts, is it always best to start within your current pool of donors? Is there any signs or tips that they give you that could indicate that they might be interested in a major gift?

Yes, let me you asked me and I didn't address what my prospecting philosophy is. So let's start off with that. That was that was me. I got carried away. And yet my prospecting philosophy in general, I think, can be summed up in one phrase, and that is starting with those who have already said, yes, start with those who have already said yes to your organization, because I think one of the biggest mistakes I see in nonprofits when we start thinking about prospecting or where are we going to find that big donor, what we do is we start looking outside of the organization first.

Right. Which can be you know, it can be a very important part of the prospecting process. But from my perspective, it should not be your first number one step where it should not be where you start. Because in my experience, working with organizations, without a doubt, every organization already has. Donors who are giving or supporters who are already giving to you passionate about what you do, committed to your cause, who have a much, much greater capacity to give than they are currently giving at.

Right. So I think when you're thinking about prioritizing your prospecting, you need to start with those who are already engaged with your organization. And this is interesting because this is often where I see the mind set and come in a little bit is that people jump right to the very common to jump right to the conclusion. No, we don't have anyone with capacity already giving to us. You know, we don't know anyone with deep pockets. That's another favourite one.

So a lot of us sort of put a barrier in place, largely based on this idea that like where there is another thing I love talking about is that there's no such thing as a big or a small donor. So what we're doing when we're thinking about prospecting is we're looking out there for the big donors and we're not looking internally at the small donors. So I'm doing air quotes on a podcast, the small donors who are already giving to us.

But I think that the big error we're making there is, you know, just because a donor comes into our organization with a first gift of fifty dollars, one hundred dollars, like we apply this permanent fix to labels, to donors based on one interaction with us. You know, I come into your organization, I get fifty dollars. And now forever and ever and ever, I'm a fifty dollar donor. Right. So we get a little too fixed and kind of labeling donors and applying permanent labels to donors that really inhibits really inhibits us from serving those donors well, engaging those donors and possibly raising much more money from those donors who do have capacity.

So, yeah, I think that's my philosophy in a nutshell is definitely start with those who have said yes. And be sure that you understand that there is no such thing as a big or a small donor. These are labels that we're placing on donors oftentimes after only after one single interaction with the organization. So those are really helpful things, I think, to keep in mind when you're starting to think about getting a lot more effective in building a better pipeline and building a prospecting process.

Yeah, one of the things that took me months to kind of learn when I was doing my research on donations, fundraising, is that at the end of the day donors are people and people are unpredictable. There's no formula. There's no set of steps that you can take to make a person react a certain way or donate a certain amount. And I think that with our donors, it's the same thing. Just because they donated twenty or ten dollars doesn't mean that they don't have that capacity.

It does not mean that you can't lead them on a journey to become a major donor? So I think that that philosophy is perfect in the sense that it opens the floor to so many more possibilities.

Yeah, and I've seen it happen over and over and over again. You know, everything from donors giving seventy five dollars for 10 years and ultimately upon and we'll get into this, you know, building a meaningful relationship with that donor, having deeper conversations than what we thought was a seventy five dollar donor turn into a two hundred fifty thousand dollar donor. I've also seen donors coming in with a fifty dollar membership that ultimately ended up leaving multiple seven figure bequests happens over and over and over again.

And if it hasn't happened at your organization, chances are that you're maybe missing some opportunities that might be right there in front of you.

So when you're prospecting donors, what is the first thing they should look for? So they know that look in their database, but where do they start?

I like to think about this. I think I like to think about, you know, one of the fairly common things that I teach is just around knowing your basic data segmenting. So I often like to think about recency, frequency and value. Right. So while I say I talk a lot about not labeling donors, I do see that there's great value in actually in segmenting your donors properly and understanding your data. So just to be clear about that, I am not saying to not do that.

I think it's an important part of prospecting. So typically I'll look for any kind of unusual patterns. So you might look for donors who have been giving for a particularly long time, right, so those longer standing donors, the seventy five dollar donor I described earlier, is actually, I think the donor that created the light bulb moment for me, because it's someone that I worked with. And I was just astonished at a small organization at the time.

And this donor had been giving seventy five dollars a year for 10 years, very consistently. So there is a real pattern there around commitment, long term dedication and also engagement. Right. So I actually started a conversation with this donor when we invited some of our longest time donors to come to an open house and she came and she engaged and we started to build that relationship. So looking out for those donors who have a longer time commitment, who are more engaged, so they show up for something like an open house.

They want to have a conversation with you. You know, maybe they've shared a really interesting story on a survey, but looking out for those two pieces are really helpful. I think also this idea around really focusing in on what I would call the mid-level or intermediate donors is huge value as well. And this is always really interesting because at bigger organizations, this is sometimes where major gifts and annual giving like collide. And maybe we can talk a bit more about this if we have time as well.

But those mid-level donors, that depends on where you are, what kind of level you put those at, but they can range anywhere between two hundred and fifty to a thousand, some bigger organizations that's quite a bit higher. It might be a thousand to five or even a thousand to ten. But what you're looking for is those donors who are giving a gift that is more generous than average. Right. So it's not quite at the major gift level for you, but they are giving a gift that's more generous than maybe your average gift is for the organization.

So, you know, I think for some organizations, this can start feeling a bit overwhelming, like either it's like, oh, that's too many or, you know, how do I even get started with this? But I think that's a great place to start is is with that data and starting to have a look. So your long time folks, your folks are giving up perhaps more generous than average gift, depending on your organization, if you've defined mid-level for your organization, having a very close look at your mid-level folks, if you haven't defined mid-level for your organization, this can be a really important part of your building, your prospect pipeline.

Right. And again, we have to get over this notion as fundraisers that there's such a thing as an annual donor and a major gift donor. Donors don't label themselves that way. Donors don't think of themselves. As you know, my donor I talked to would think like I'm a seventy five dollar a year direct mail donor. That's not what you thought. Rich thought. Like, I'm committed to making change, you know, on this issue. And nobody's asked me to give more at this point.

So but yeah, that's a good place to start, I think. Long time mid-level, more generous than usual and just like play around with that data. I always love to talk about this idea. One of the most important skills, I think that a major gift fundraiser or an aspiring major gift fundraiser can cultivate is the skill of curiosity. Curiosity is always going to serve you really well in working with your donors, but even in working with your data.

Right. It's kind of fun. I often describe this when I'm working with my students. I'm like, think, think of it like you're in your lab, right? Like, you know, get pull some lists and have a look at that data, see if you see any patterns. Experiment a little bit. Right. Like, look at this. If I looked at this and if I looked at these folks and thought like, these are mid-level folks, do I see patterns or do I see trends?

So this idea of like getting curious and kind of digging in to see what's true for your organization and what you're seeing when you are looking at that data, I think that can be super, super useful. So I get curious and like, don't be intimidated by your data. I am not a data person at all. I interact with data to the degree I need to to be an effective major fundraiser. But it's important for us to do right.

It's important for us to do so. Yeah, it's definitely recommend that. Get curious. You're in your lab, you're experimenting. Look for those patterns. Look for what might be true of your organization, because absolutely. Like those donors are there for you. One hundred percent. Right. They're hiding hidden gems and you're in your donor base.

Totally. Yeah. Yeah, that's a great philosophy. I mean, like here at Driven we're obviously obsessed with data, but that's all we do. So, like. We've seen know metrics don't lie, the numbers don't lie, and what's cool about exploring and getting curious as a fundraiser is that you're not only looking at facts, but you're like kind of almost a sociologist. Like you're looking at patterns, you're studying behaviour. You're studying what motivates people.

So there's so many different sides to it. You mentioned RFM, huge fan of RFM here. Recency, frequency, monetary value. But are there any other metrics that should be considered? I'm looking at numbers?

In terms of prospecting or in terms of like measuring major gift effectiveness. There are many you know, I think one thing I like to talk about that is one, I think one of the most under-measured metrics when it comes to prospecting is related back to this idea I was talking about with regard to mid-level donors.

So sometimes what I see, patterns I see, especially at larger organizations, is that we're not necessarily effectively identifying potential major gift donors who are already in the database because people have a sense of ownership around donors. Does this make sense? Because what's happening is, of course, we're getting measured by hitting our fundraising goals for the year. So someone who has an annual is not going to want me for major gifts to come along and pluck one hundred thousand dollar donor out of the mix there.

So what we as organizations have to do is start getting a lot smarter about the way we're measuring and rewarding behaviors in our organization. Right. And what we're measuring, because unfortunately, what I see happen repeatedly, especially at large organizations, is silos tend to develop between annual giving and major gifts, for example. And sometimes those silos develop from a protective place of if I'm going to hit my goal, I can't be losing a donor because I have I have a target I have to hit in order to be perceived to be successful in my job.

So this is when I do get to the metrics that I have to give you a bit of background. We need to start measuring and rewarding behavior that is contributing to like healthy prospecting with our internal with our internal donors. So what that looks like to me is starting to think about, like, OK, what is the flow look like between annual giving and major gifts? Right. Are we identifying and sending over to major gifts, folks, so they can qualify these donors and decide if they belong in a major gift portfolio?

You know, when that happens, is that recognized? Right. So it's a metric you can measure. And it's as simple as being how many donors are going from annual to major gifts to get qualified and then how many donors are going back to annual after they've been qualified. So we're looking at that and starting to get metrics nerdy. Hopefully folks like metrics nerdy on your podcast, but starting to measure that and actually starting to reward that as opposed to rewarding the very you know, it's it's not a metric fundraising target is not a metric that tells you a lot.

It's not a metric with a lot of dimension. But for some organizations, that's all they measure. So they're not getting the results they want because they're so focused on the bottom line. So I think we need to get a little more sophisticated, a little more nuanced and start thinking like how are we measuring and rewarding what we want to have happen? And in this case, we want to break down the silo walls and we want to be able to identify folks that are giving, you know, at an annual level who may have the capacity and interest to be giving it a major gift level.

How do we encourage that as opposed to discourage that as organizations? Does that make sense?

That makes total sense, yeah. Oh, that's awesome. Yeah. And I think going into the next part before we wrap up today, taking all that you said because you gave some great information on prospecting and also collaborating with your team. We also had a conversation a few months ago about data silos and the fundraiser that I interviewed, Denise Fernandez. She gave a perfect example of how the marketing team and fundraising team came together. So it's all about collaboration here.

So, yeah. So you've prospected you've collaborated with your team. You're now ready to make an ask. Going back to the first question we got, I asked you about kind of anxiety in asking. There's a lot of fear. So how would you recommend they begin approaching in a way that they could be confident?

And I think that starts with mindset for sure. One hundred percent. So, you know, one of the things I often like to remind my students is major donors are human, too. I think sometimes we kind of put them up on. Still, and we're so worried we're so worried about taking the first step to even reach out to a donor, to connect with them, to find out where their interest may lie in their giving with us, where their philanthropic priorities are sometimes are so afraid to do that, like we don't even take that first step to do so.

So I think first and foremost, reflecting on your own mindset and barriers first and understanding that major donors are human, too, you're not necessarily always going to get it perfect. I think perfectionism is one of the perfectionism leaves the most money on the table of anything else. I think in major gifts, whether it's a cult, like a organizational culture of perfectionism or this belief that we always need to have everything absolutely perfect, simply impossible as a human to have everything absolutely perfect.

Right. So embracing that, like right off the bat, remembering your donors are humans. And I think and this, again, could be its whole own podcast, probably, but, you know, making sure that you are making your connection about the donor as opposed to being about the organization. I often say we'll see. Oftentimes fundraisers, organizations go in to wanting to connect with or meet with the donor. And it's basically all like me, me, me, me, me, me.

Here is all of the great accomplishments. Here's why organizations great. Here's why. Organizations effective. That's not necessarily the best way to open a door with a donor. Right? I think it's a good way to start off. It's always about making it about the donor. It can be so, so simple, can be starting a conversation by asking a donor, you know, their opinion, their impression of something, wanting to speak more with the donor about what you know, what those priorities are that are driving.

They're giving what's most important about, you know, the impact of their gift in terms of what they want to achieve, the change they want to achieve in the world. So, you know, I think, like I said, this could be its whole own separate, probably multipart multipart program to talk about this. But I think that's one of my favorite quick tips is just make sure get your mind set clear first and make sure that you're that you are not kind of getting in your own way when it comes to reaching out to donors, but also making sure you're reaching out to donors in the right way.

Right. And that's not just about you know, it's not just about pitching your organization. It's not just about trumping your organization's accomplishments. It's really about engaging the donor, making it about the donor. We really love nothing more than to talk about ourselves as humans, let's face it. Right. So to have that opportunity and it's helpful. Right. It's helpful for you as a fundraiser to understand like what's motivating their engagement. Right. Like, why have they been giving to your organization, say, for ten years, like my favourite seventy five dollars a year to direct mail donor.

And the answers to those questions can be absolutely fascinating and can open the door, you know, in a continuous fashion. Obviously, the meaningful conversations need to continue, but to open that door just to really have the bravery to reach out, but also understanding that if you do need to make it about the donor to some degree, it can't just be sort of a one way stream of information about the organization, which I see a lot of us even experienced fundraisers still doing, taking that kind of pitch approach versus having versus aiming to have a meaningful conversation.

So in which you're doing way more listening than talking, which can be hard to retrain ourselves to do for sure.

Definitely. Well, thank you so much for coming on to the show, and I know I learned a lot about major fundraising might be my career future.

The more major fundraisers, the better I feel like. So yeah. Though I love it. I love it. And I know we barely scratched the surface in our time together today because it is, it can't be like a fairly deep, deep topic for sure. But I'm glad we get to have the beginning of a conversation.

Hopefully it peaked folks interest for sure.

Definitely. I know it peaked mine before we hop off today, can you let our listeners know how they can get in touch with you?

Absolutely. So probably the best way to find me is at Blue Sky Philanthropy dot com. Also, I'm pretty active on LinkedIn. If folks want to look me up there and connect with me there. I'm Emma Lewzey. So yeah, either place. I would love to stay in touch and I definitely do a lot of writing and training and videos on my website that delve a lot deeper into the topics that we started discussing today. So, yeah, come on over.

I'd love to continue the major gift conversation with you.

Well, thank you again for coming on to the show. I've linked her free master class in the description box. You can get in contact with her at blueskyphilantrophy.com. I highly recommend you go check it out, which is a fantastic blog with a ton of amazing resources to go even deeper into a lot of fundraising topics. So if you enjoyed a conversation today, that is definitely the place you want to go. As always, thank you so much for listening.

And we'll see you next time on the Fundraising Superheroes podcast.

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Podcast Aug 11, 2021, 12:00 AM

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