The Art of the Ask

How nonprofits turn the wealthy into donors.

Whenever news of a huge donation breaks, everyone wonders: How on earth did that nonprof convince that businesswoman/doctor/tech entrepreneur to write a check for $10 million? People don’t just hand money over on a whim, right? Most likely, not.

Closing the deal on a big donation takes months, if not years, of groundwork. “Ultimately, a gift is never about you asking for the gift,” says Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun, who oversaw a $60 million deal last year to rename the business school after local entrepreneurs Richard D’Amore and Alan McKim, both Northeastern grads. “It’s about the person who is going to make the gift.”

Every major institution, as well as many medium-size ones, employs a “development” team tasked with finding leads for new donors. (Board members help with the hunt as well.) The process starts with trying to identify people who are capable of writing a seven-figure check, and who might be interested in the nonprofit. Typically, it starts with questions like these: Did anyone at that tech company with the planned IPO attend our university? Any chance that hedge fund manager, who grew up poor, is interested in funding scholarships?

Assuming there’s interest, the institution moves on to the long, slow dance of cultivation. A board member might invite the new prospect to a low-key event and introduce him or her to a few people. That’s followed with a thank- you note and a proposal for an introduction to the executive director at an upcoming gala. Eventually, the discussion gets around to the target’s passions, and about his or her opinions about the nonprof itself: What do you think of our direction? What can we be doing better?

From there, the nonprofit begins to put together a few ideas for a possible gift—a new museum wing, the endowment of a university department chair, an expansion to the homeless shelter. Then, says Dan Kirsch, an Amherst-based development consultant, the executive director or board chairman might tell the prospect: “We’ve talked about our vision and we have an opportunity that we would like to offer to you. Here’s the impact the gift would have.”

After the check is signed, successful organizations continue to engage the donor. “You keep them involved,” says Alan Cantor, a nonprofit consultant in Concord, New Hampshire. “Eventually, there will be a bigger campaign when you can approach them for a larger gift. You need to figure out how to form a friendship.”

Developing that relationship is essential to keeping the gifts flowing. As Northeastern’s Aoun puts it: “Every person has a passion. If their passion and our goals intersect and we can become stewards of their passion, then that is what it takes.”


Find out more about Boston’s philanthropy scene in our 2013 Power package.