A weekly rundown of the latest fundraising news, ideas, and trends gathered by our fundraising editor Eden Stiffman and other Chronicle contributors. You’ll also find insights from your fundraising peers. Delivered every Wednesday.

September 30, 2020

From: Eden Stiffman

Subject: Making the Ask on Zoom

Hi, I’m Eden Stiffman, a senior editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

This week, major-gift fundraisers offer advice on how to make big asks during socially distant times. Plus, a new report quantifies the global philanthropy that has gone to mitigating climate change.

Thanks to sponsor DonorPerfect for supporting Fundraising Update.

In many recent editions of this newsletter, we’ve talked about fundraisers’ staying connected with supporters with check-in calls and Zoom meetings. Today, we look at the issue of actually asking for gifts at a time when traditional face-to-face fundraising has been upended.

My colleague Maria Di Mento spoke with veteran fundraisers to answer questions from readers like you about how they’re approaching challenges in their work with big donors.

“Many of our large donors are not emailers, so reaching them through email isn’t always the best way to connect,” a fundraiser at a community grocer that serves people in low-income neighborhoods in Massachusetts asked in a recent Chronicle webinar. “What are some other ways to stay in touch with big donors in today’s unusual landscape and ask for a big gift virtually?

pink question mark on blackboard

Picking up the phone and calling donors is a great way to stay in touch, says Tammy Messina, who leads big giving at Medical Teams International.

“I often follow up with a brief text as well in case they don’t listen to my voicemail. Knowing your donor and their individual preferences is really key,” she says.

But if you don’t know how your donor would like to be contacted, Messina suggests trying different combinations of calls, emails, and texts to find out which ones prompt a response.

When it comes to asking donors for big gifts, Messina says that lately she has been telling donors over the phone that she would like to give them an update on her charity’s five-year strategy and talk to them about how Medical Teams International is responding to the pandemic. She then asks if she and her team can provide more details and a gift proposal at a later date.

If the donor agrees, Messina then schedules a 45-minute video-conference meeting, and if she plans to request a six-figure donation or higher, she will ask the charity’s CEO and another member of the executive team to join in the meeting. She also mails a customized proposal to the donor, which doesn’t include the amount, before the scheduled video call and explains that there is no need to read it in advance; they will review it together during the virtual meeting.

“We have not been including the ask amount in the proposal mailed in advance but are making the direct ask amount over video,” Messina says. “Then I usually follow up after the meeting with a personal thank-you note and an email, which includes the ask amount in writing.”

Her group’s CEO or the main executive team member then follows up with a phone call to the donor, usually roughly a week after the virtual meeting, to see if the donor has made a decision.

Read more questions about major-gift fundraising and answers from pros, including Earl Granger III, chief development officer of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Giving on a Grand Scale

Be sure to read Maria’s story about tech mogul Jack Dorsey’s philanthropy and the experience of five nonprofits he recently supported.

In April, Dorsey, who co-founded Twitter and the payment-processing company Square, announced he was transferring $1 billion — about 28 percent of his wealth at that time — to an LLC called Start Small. Since then, he has given 119 organizations more than $209 million in gifts of $100,000 to $20 million. The recipients are primarily human-service and social-justice-nonprofits in the United States and abroad.

Nonprofits that have benefited from his largess in recent months haven’t had the same kind of close contact Messina has with her donors.

In some cases, Dorsey or the small staff at his LLC had connections to charities that have received funds. But in August, Start Small donated $10 million to Boston University to jump-start its new Center for Antiracist Research, which is being led by the historian and bestselling writer Ibram Kendi. The Boston University gift is unusual among Dorsey’s recent donations because Kendi didn’t know Dorsey and the university didn’t approach Start Small for funding, says Beth McDermott, vice president for development there.

We were surprised,” McDermott says. “They reached out either several days before the center formally launched or something like on day three of its opening. It was really the best kind of starting gun that we could have.”

While some nonprofits have expressed frustration that they don’t know how to reach Start Small, and they don’t understand the team’s process, recipients said they appreciate the quick proposal process.

Unity Council, a 55-year-old human-service group that primarily serves low-income immigrants and people of color in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, landed $2 million from Dorsey in August to support its Covid-19 Resilience Fund.

Dana Kleinhesselink, the charity’s development director, says the Start Small team didn’t ask her team for a lot of metrics or for financial statements. She says the experience was much more like working with an individual donor rather than a foundation, which typically asks for reams of information about a charity’s work and finances and has multiple conversations with the group over many months.

In some ways, she said, the process was frustrating, “like catching lightning in a bottle.” But she also appreciates the way Start Small’s vetting saved her time. “It wasn’t like a 12-page-long narrative and all these millions of things,” Kleinhesselink says. “With a crisis like we have with Covid-19, we cannot afford to spend time on that. We must trust the organizations doing the work.”

Read the full story about Dorsey’s recent giving. As always, feel free to share your feedback in an email.

Need to Know

Less than 2 percent

— Share of all giving by individuals and foundations worldwide that’s gone to support climate-change mitigation

Philanthropic giving to curb climate change last year totaled $5 billion to $9 billion worldwide, according to a new report from the ClimateWorks Foundation. Still, as Dan Parks writes, the report notes that while funding to mitigate climate change has nearly doubled since 2015, it remains a very minor priority for philanthropists.


  • A coalition of leaders from 38 national nonprofits and nonprofit support groups sent a letter to the White House and leaders in Congress last week calling on them to negotiate a Covid relief package now and not to wait until after the election. “Congress and the administration must return to the negotiating table today and stay in Washington until a relief package is enacted that addresses the needs of the nonprofit sector,” the letter states. Many members of Congress from both parties have hoped to enact another relief package soon, but the negotiations have bogged down, Dan writes.
  • Fidelity Charitable has eliminated its $5,000 minimum-balance requirement for donor-advised funds. By removing its minimum contribution amount for new accounts, Fidelity believes it will open up donor-advised funds as a choice for many new donors, Alex Daniels writes. Removing a minimum could delay money actually getting into the hands of a charity that is providing food for the hungry or running an after-school program, one DAF expert told Alex. Those charities rely on establishing close relationships with donors to keep the cash flowing — relationships that could be harder to establish if more people create advised funds.
  • The new Price of Impact Index is “like a rate card for social impact,” writes co-founder Jason Saul. It tracks the average cost for a charity to achieve 132 of the most common social outcomes, such as hunger relief, academic achievement, arts appreciation, job placement, better mental health, and positive youth development. “The benchmarks can also help nonprofits take back control of the fundraising conversation by establishing the true cost of what it takes to do the work that nonprofits do,” Saul writes. “By putting a price tag on outcomes, nonprofits can use data to change the power balance in fundraising by selling impact instead of begging for donations.”
  • Fundraisers should view silence from Black donors as a call to action, philanthropy scholar Tyrone McKinley Freeman writes in an opinion article. Nonprofits tend to create one mainstream story about how they affect lives and communities and then wrongly expect all constituents to fall in line with that story. “If Black prospective donors are not responding to your solicitations, ask them how to connect differently based on their experiences,” he writes. Fundraisers should harness their power to decide who gets a visit, who gets called, who gets an event invitation, and who makes the prospective donor list — and who doesn’t.

    Tips & Tools

    In Case You Missed It

    What We’re Reading

    • Another revelation about President Trump’s charitable giving record. The New York Times’s bombshell report on President Trump’s tax filings noted that 92 percent of his $130 million in personal and corporate charitable donations came from a conservation tax easement for a family retreat.
    • Another milestone for the effective altruism movement: The Giving What We Can pledge to encourage people to give at least 10 percent of their lifetime earnings to effective charities has attracted 5,000 signatories, according to a post on the nonprofit’s website.
    • As donors shift more of their giving to Covid-19 relief and racial-justice efforts, new tools are helping them find nonprofits and other recipients they might have otherwise overlooked, the New York Times reports. Give Blck, launched last week, features about 200 Black-founded nonprofits that are too small or little-known to show up in major charity ratings services. And an interactive map to be released next month by Vanguard Charitable allows donors to zero in on pandemic-focused charities that serve particularly vulnerable places, such as those that lack adequate medical care or whose populations have a high percentage of underlying conditions.

    Free Online Briefing: Will the Economic Crisis Force a Philanthropic Reset?

    Join us tomorrow — Our country’s interconnected crises – the pandemic, systemic racism, and a faltering economy – provide an opportunity for the philanthropic world to create a more equitable and effective version of itself. But where do we begin?

    In her “Reimagining Philanthropy” series for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Stanford University philanthropy expert Lucy Bernholz points out that measures of charitable giving and nonprofit vitality have declined during the pandemic even as thousands of people take to the streets, deliver aid to neighbors, and create online communities of care. “While we search for ways to reconstruct our shattered economy into something better,” says Bernholz, “we also need to reflect on how best to rebuild the nonprofit world and not simply recreate the ‘old normal.’”

    Join us on Thursday, October 1, at 2 p.m. Eastern for the first of two briefings drawn from Bernholz’s series. In this one-hour session, we will zero in on questions triggered by the economic crisis, such as:

    • How can we go beyond short-term fixes to shore up nonprofits, such as increasing payout rates and issuing social bonds?
    • Do we need to reconsider philanthropic structures themselves, including tax privileges and laws that have allowed these institutions to thrive in an inequitable system?

    We’ll explore these and other questions in a session that should appeal to all who think and care about the future of philanthropy.
    Individual Chronicle subscribers are automatically pre-registered. Reminder emails will be sent out in advance; just click on the link to join.

    This free briefing is open to everyone, but nonsubscribers must register to secure a spot.

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    Eden Stiffman is a Chronicle senior editor. Subscribe to her weekly fundraising newsletter.