Preemptive Philanthropy

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Preemptive philanthropy: Perhaps you’ve experienced something like this.

The lead prospect for a major gift has been invited to a meeting. Following pleasantries and “small talk,” the board chair and the executive director begin sharing with the prospective donor their description of the organization’s plans for its capital campaign. They are just beginning to approach the moment when they ask for consideration of a specific amount.

Then it happens. Before they can formulate the words and make the “ask,” the prospect speaks.

“I’m going to make this easy on you,” says the woman seated across the table from the board chair and the executive director. “I’ve decided to give our organization $1 million toward this campaign.”

Normally that would be welcomed news to any organization – except that the executive director and the board chair were going to ask for a $2 million commitment to help launch a capital campaign in an even more significant way! 

Of course, the board chair and the executive director are enthusiastic and sincere in expressing their appreciation for this extraordinary commitment – actually, it was the largest single gift the organization had received in over four decades. So the meeting was not disappointing really.

This is an example of a “preemptive” commitment in which donors have made up their minds before they take the opportunity to listen to the entire solicitation. Some donors are becoming more aggressive in these conversations.

This is nothing new and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, although it is a bit frustrating for those of us who work hard to develop strategies for making the best possible request of a donor.

A few years ago, “Jumping for the Cause Without Being Asked,” a New York Times article by Jack Shakely appeared.  Shakely encourages donors to practice “preemptive philanthropy.” Citing studies by the Bank of America and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University that found more than half of wealthy donors were either “dissatisfied” or only “somewhat satisfied” with their giving, he invites philanthropists to take charge of their own giving.

So, what does that mean for development officers and advancement professionals who are working to develop strategies for successful solicitations?

Recognize that many philanthropists are becoming more proactive in their giving. They are doing more homework and research on our organizations than ever before and approach meetings with solicitors very well prepared – and often with a dollar-figure of what they intend to contribute already in mind.

As more donors begin to practice “preemptive philanthropy,” development professionals must up the ante in making the best approach when asking for a gift.

What are your experiences with “preemptive philanthropists?” How do you address these types of gifts?

In a future blog, we’ll give some thoughts and experiences from the field.

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