Season 3, Episode 6
Do you wonder how to approach the wealthiest individuals in your community about your capital campaign? In this episode, Amy and Andrea give you a new perspective – and some useful tools – to address this crucial step in your capital campaign.
Does the idea of talking to someone really wealthy give you hives and keep you up at night? If so, today’s episode is just for you.
Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein. I’m here with my partner in crime, Andrea Kihlstedt, and we are super-excited to be talking about how you can approach or if you should approach the richest people in town for your campaign.
So Andrea, as always, get us started here on this topic of talking to rich people.
Talking to Your Largest Wealthy Donors
Yeah, it’s such a funny and interesting topic. I recently had a drink with the Executive Director of an organization that I help and contribute to, and she wanted to know from me if she had to pretend to live like the wealthy people that she is soliciting live.
She said some of the largest donors would’ve invited her up to their country house for the weekend with her daughter and her husband. And she said it was the most uncomfortable weekend they had spent because she and her husband simply don’t live that way and they don’t know what living that way is and they were all across purposes. And she wanted to know if she had to think of being friends with these wealthy people as part of her job.
And that I thought was a really interesting question. And what I said to her was, no, they’re not hiring you to be friends. That your job as an Executive Director isn’t to be friends with rich people. It is to build relationships with them and to know who they are and to know what they like, but that doesn’t mean that you have to go to their house in the country if they invite you. You don’t have to do that. Your relationship with them is really a professional relationship.
Now, it can be friendly. Some of them you’re going to be able to be friends with and some of them you’re not. And that’s perfectly fine. So what matters is that these relationships need to be authentic. If you are not naturally someone who wants to join the country club where the wealthy people in your community go. You don’t have to join the country club and pretend to be something you’re not.
And the reality is that it’s not going to work. You’re not going to feel comfortable or fit in or be able to have the conversations about being out on the golf course or whatever it is. Your real authentic conversation and connection with them is about the cause. And I don’t think there’s anything pretending about that. That’s the authentic connection, and that’s the topic that you should stick to or whatever you feel comfortable with.
Otherwise, it is going to come across as awkward and uncomfortable. You’re not going to pretend to fit in. You’re not an actor, right?
Right. That’s right. I mean, I remember from my own experience years and years ago where I had gotten to know one of the very, very wealthy people in the community, the wealthiest person, woman, in the community where I lived. Somehow she had taken the shine to me. She wanted me and my husband to go to New York City with her and to go out to a very fancy dinner.
Now, I knew I was heading in the wrong direction when she wanted to be sure that he had an appropriate suit to wear.
Now my husband was an academic, right? He was a professor. He tended to wear corduroy jackets and jeans.
With patches on the sleeves, right?
With patches on the sleeves. Right. He didn’t own a real suit.
Right. And certainly not the suit that she was looking for.
Not the suit she wanted him to own. Right. And I knew at the moment that this was not right, that we couldn’t pretend to live that way. Everything about it made us uncomfortable just like she would probably have been uncomfortable in our lives.
So that was a real lesson that that’s not what the relationship was about. It wasn’t about it then. And for anyone wrestling with this, it isn’t what you have to be doing.
Building Relationships with Wealthy Donors
There are [two] serious questions to answer here:
- Of all the wealthy people in your community, who are the people that you will want to build a relationship with?
- And how will you go about finding them?
Now, really you want to build a relationship with people who have some reason to be interested in your cause or you believe have some reason to be interested in your cause. If you start watching carefully to see where they give, what kinds of events or organizations they support or go to, then you’ll start seeing that people have a set of values that may make them interested in what you’re doing. And when you see a pattern like that, then you should reach out to them and say:
“Listen, I’d like to get acquainted. I see that you give to comparable organizations that you have an interest in causes relating to ours. I thought you might like to learn more about the programs that we offer in this community that touch on what I believe your interests to be. Can we get together?”
Right. I think that’s so important. The focus of the relationship is on the mission of the organization. It’s not that your close personal friends, that is not the goal. The goal is to work together, not professionally. They’re not going to be paid, right?
Work in the sense that they’re a volunteer and you are a staff member and you’re going to work towards a mutual desire to change the world for the better in some specific way related to your mission. I think that’s the goal.
And so if you need to get connected through somebody else to make an introduction, I mean, the reality is that you don’t run in the circles with the wealthiest people in your community. And they probably don’t run necessarily in the circles where you run.
They might be grateful for the introduction and the opportunity to get involved in some other way. They may be involved in certain charities, but they may just be looking for your charity and they don’t even know it and they don’t know how to access it.
And so I’ll never forget, one of my mantras, I always said, the wealthiest people in the world put their pants on one leg at a time just like you do. Take a deep breath. They’re just people really, that’s the bottom line. They’re just people and they want to feel good about the things they do and the work they’re doing and do meaningful things just like everybody else.
A Shared Interest in Your Mission
Yeah. So there are two things going on here. One, as we’ve been talking about the focus of all of this is a shared interest in your mission. When you see that someone wealthy in your community has for some reason given to something similar, has expressed an interest in your mission, has a reason to be interested in your mission, that’s a clue that you need to be reaching out to them.
When you reach out to them, you want to be learning more about them. You want to be curious. Why are they interested in your mission? Why do you see that they support a related organization? What is it about their background, their set of interests that sets them up, that predisposes them to being interested in what it is your organization does?
And that’s a matter of going to them and asking questions or asking advice. It’s not a matter of going to them and saying, “Here’s what we do. Now support us.” It’s a matter of saying:
“Hey, I notice that organizations like ours are important to you. I’d love to get to know you better. I’d like to know what it is that drives that interest and how you’d like to get involved with organizations. Can we sit down and talk?”
So once you’ve identified someone as maybe being interested in what your organization does, your next step is turning it to curiosity about them:
- Why do they give?
- What do they give to?
- What’s going on in their lives?
- How do they feel about how your mission is in the community?
Those are the things that you’ll want to find out. It turns out that when somebody is really interested in knowing you and why you do what you do, yes, happy to tell them. No matter how wealthy or non-wealthy someone will be, if you’re genuinely interested in them, they’re likely to be happy to talk with you.
Figuring Out Who Your Wealthiest Donors Really Are
Yeah. Let’s take a step back for a moment. So let’s assume that maybe you even need to make a list of who you might want to talk to and do some brainstorming about how to approach them.
So get a few members of your organization together — your key volunteers, your lead board members, networked staff members — anybody that you think is active in the community, movers and shakers, who would be willing to sit down and have a brainstorming session. And then try and identify 10 people who could really make a difference at your organization. You may not even be aware of who they all are.
And so coming up with a list. And then with each one, brainstorming with that committee.
- Who knows them?
- Who might have access to them?
- Let’s look them up on LinkedIn.
- Let’s look them up on Facebook.
- Let’s see who’s where their kids or grandkids go to school or camp or what cities they live in and who we know there.
So there’s a lot of pre-work to be done. Reaching out maybe the third or fourth or fifth step in the process. Even just finding out who’s connected to who in your community that might be able to get your foot in the door or make an introduction will really make this process a lot smoother and a lot easier.
Yeah. The other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes reaching out to people is easier when you have a context for it. When you can say to someone, not, “Gee, I’ve noticed that you give to organizations that are similar to ours,” but when you say:
“This spring, we want to get to know people in our community better. So we have identified 10 leaders in our community that we want to go to and ask questions and get some advice from and get to know. Your name has been picked as one of those 10 people. Would you be willing to meet with us?”
Now that actually, setting a context is really helpful because then it’s not just out of the blue. Then they have been selected. And you might even say:
“Your name was suggested by so-and-so who knows you. They think that we would both benefit from having a conversation.”
Yeah. I think that’s such a smart point. And of course, leading into a campaign, the context is even more clear, right?
“We’re talking to community leaders prior to heading into a campaign and would love to get your thoughts and feedback on our preliminary plans.”
I mean, that’s what a feasibility study is. And so using the context of your campaign really provides an opening. And I was going to say an excuse, but it’s not a fake excuse — it’s a real excuse. Is there a word for a real excuse? I don’t know. But it’s a real —
It’s an opportunity.
… a reason.
A real excuse is an opportunity. A reason.
An Opportunity to Gather Feedback and Be Authentic
Right. An opportunity to reach out and ask for advice and feedback. Many people are delighted to do that.
Amy, I’m struck just by our little conversation how important language is. That when we think about needing to manufacture excuses, that sets up a certain mindset for us that can be harmful.
When we talk about reasons or opportunities or larger contexts for, well, what are we doing? Well, we’re expanding. We’re looking to talk to the leaders in this community so that we understand how best to grow in the future. We want to understand what people think about the issue of homelessness in our community, for example, if that’s your mission.
All of a sudden, we aren’t so uncomfortable, our hives, to go back to the lead in, right? We’re not getting hives because we’re not pretending. We’re not pretending to be rich. We’re not pretending to be country club members. We’re not pretending to be in the similar social media. We want to go and have real conversations about a subject matter that’s important. And we really are interested in getting to know these people and finding out what they think. The minute the conversation and the context for it becomes real, our hives will… Right?
Dissipate. Right. Will dissipate. Exactly. Exactly.
Right. Right. I think that’s so true. I mean, it is about being authentic. And that may take some thinking.
If you think of it as creating an excuse to go talk to people, you still have more thinking to do because you’re not authentic yet. You are being shady and sort of manipulative. And so the question is, how do you get to a place of authenticity where you really are genuinely creating opportunity that’s a win-win for a person who does care about the community both ways and wants to see good things happen?
You can’t do it without resources and people with resources can’t do it without boots on the ground. And so together you can make things happen.
I think this is such an important conversation, Amy, because what leader of a nonprofit doesn’t want to get to know the rich people in town, right? Everybody thinks that’s what they want. And you and I, in the positions of being advisors and consultants, push people to do that. We say:
“Alright, who are the ten people who could give you the largest gifts?”
So the topic is important, and it’s important for us to say, “Gee, you should get to know these people” in a way that is not manipulative and isn’t trying to take advantage of people because they have money.
It’s trying to find the overlapping interests between people who can help solve this problem because they have resources and you who whose organization can help solve this problem because you have program. And that’s where you’re trying to find the intersection.
That’s right. It was interesting, we were having a conversation just yesterday about an Executive Director who was afraid to talk about money with the biggest potential donors. This is sort of the step before that. If you don’t have access to or can’t or won’t talk to the biggest potential donors in your community, you’re not going to be able to ask for those biggest gifts for your campaign.
So this is the pre-campaign step negative one before you’ve started kind of thing in initiating those conversations. If the wealthiest people in town can’t or won’t talk to you either because you don’t have access to them or because you don’t reach out, you may not be able to be successful with a large campaign.
The first step, is identifying the people who have the capacity and the interest and the willingness to make your campaign dreams come true. And that’s what you have to do.
Amy, before we end this conversation, I want to just circle back and say we started by saying you don’t have to be friends with your donors, and that certainly is true.
You will also find that if you really are active in getting to know people, people who are wealthy and people who are not wealthy, you will find that some people who are wealthy, you will be friends with. That you’ll find you share things with and that you actually genuinely like one another. And that’s fine too.
So I don’t want to rule out the possibility that you will be friends with people who have a great deal of wealth. You may or may not. It’s sort of irrelevant to your professional work to what you’re doing as the Development Director or the Executive Director of an organization. But when it happens, it’s lovely.
Now, what happens and is that when you become friends with people who have great will, then you have to be doubly careful. That you only ask them for gifts when you know that it’s something they would like to support. It puts in some sense an extra obligation on you not to take advantage of what has developed into a friendship.
So that’s an interesting aspect I think of this whole piece.
Yeah. And you want to maybe keep those hats separately and saying:
“Listen, we’re having lunch not as friends, but as I’m with my Executive Director hat on and I’m here talking to you as an important supporter and volunteer of this cause.”
[Say that] ust to establish some boundaries. I do think it’s important.
Alright. Excellent. Well, I hope this was helpful and a worthwhile conversation so that you can reach out and start identifying the wealthy people in your town so that you can get them and engaged and involved and meet them prior to your capital campaign. Thanks for joining us.