The 2019 Institute of Fundraising Major Donor Conference was an unqualified success. It brought together trends, challenged accepted norms and best practice and gave us insights into what major donors like and don’t like.

I was delighted to chair a panel on major donor stewardship with some excellent major donor fundraisers. My ten takeaways from the conference are as follows:

1. The major donor fundraiser role is fundamental

This may seem self-evident, but there is a tendency to believe that only a CEO, trustee, ambassador or peer can secure gifts from top donors and that major donor fundraisers are just glorified administrators or account managers. Conference speakers backed up our own research that major donors are perfectly happy liaising with professional fundraisers if they really know their stuff and can fulfil their objectives. Longevity and knowledge are crucial factors that all major donor fundraisers need to consider.

2. Major donors will fundraise if fully engaged

The two philanthropists interviewed were both active fundraisers for the charities they believed in. They did this not under duress, but because they enjoyed asking for money. The first donor actively door knocked and asked directly for gifts, the second fundraised through his businesses. Neither donor felt pressured to do so but did it because they were fully immersed in the cause. We all need to be aware that there is often not a clear distinction between a donor and a fundraising supporter.

3. Personal connection is still key

Despite a potential decline in peer to peer major donor giving due to generational differences, highlighted in the interview session, I was struck by the answer to a question on how best to secure a first meeting. The philanthropist in question paused and replied that the first step is to find a connector to put in a good word – this remains the best way to secure that crucial first face to face opportunity.

4. Impact and outcomes are the key to success

Clearly, this has been talked about ad infinitum, but I loved the car analogy from Plan International UK donor, Chris, who stated that he didn’t know or care how his car worked as long as it got him where he wanted to go. This links to the increasingly used guidance not to talk about what you do or how you do it, but why you do it and what you aim to achieve – a reminder for all charity representatives.

5. Getting it wrong is the best way to learn

In my panel session I asked each panellist to give an example of where they got it wrong with a major donor. Examples included being too hard-hitting and pushing on when it wasn’t the right time for the donor. Nos are part of the deal; sometimes you won’t know why and question what you did wrong. The fact is that you learn more from failure than success. As one speaker put it (paraphrasing), “you don’t learn to become a good sailor in calm seas.”

6. You don’t have to accept the status quo

Norms often become norms because they become the accepted view of the world. Kim van Niekerk superbly outlined some of the norms that become self-perpetuating, such as the 9:4:1 prospect to donor ratio and the 18-month lead time to secure a gift. Whilst these have validity, they are not set in stone and are in danger of limiting our ambition. Every organisation and donor is different – set your own goals!

7. GDPR remains an issue

There was a hush and even a slight boo when I batted back a question on GDPR privacy notices at the end of the Q and A part of our panel session. This was not because it was not a valid question, but it did not feel right to give a short response to such a major concern. The panel were also not experts in this field so were uncomfortable giving guidance in this area.

It struck me that despite a huge effort by the Institute of Fundraising and other bodies such as the Small Charities Coalition, to educate and inform UK fundraisers, this is still an area of concern. As part of a piece of consultancy on GDPR implementation for just one charity I read over a thousand pages of guidance and legislation – my conclusion is that implementation is subjective and that each charity needs to make their own decisions within the spectrums that exist. This is not a one minute, one answer topic.

8. Stewardship is cultivation

This is a subject that led to much discussion between myself and the panellists I had recruited to talk about stewardship. We debated whether stewardship is only post-gift and whether it is to thank a donor or to lead a donor towards a future gift. In reality it is impossible to make such clear distinctions as outlined in the oft-quoted 7 steps of major donor fundraising. The one clear rule we agreed on is that an ask should never be incorporated in a thank you.

9. Professionalism is not fawning

I was taken by the two philanthropists who talked about their dislike for flattery and name-dropping from professional fundraisers and their appreciation of those who listened to their interests, passions and personal goals. Perhaps the term ‘fundraiser’ is unhelpful as it forces a strange power dynamic on both the donor and the asker, which could be why charities are increasingly moving away from major giving teams towards philanthropy and partnership teams – with partnership being the operative word.

10. Boundaries are important

I was surprised by the number of questions from delegates about the boundaries between donor and fundraiser and where the lines should be drawn. Each speaker answered with a very clear ‘the donor is not your friend’. This highlights the difficult balance between having a close and often long-standing (personal) relationship with a donor, whilst keeping a level of professional distance.

I thought Kate Hogg from Beneficial Fundraising said it best when she stated the donor’s relationship is with the charity, not the fundraiser – a good reminder for all of us to overcome our egos and do the job of building a donor’s relationship with a cause not an individual.

Give your major donor programme a health check now