Billionaires Are People, Too!

Fairly often I see major gift officers who are successfully cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding their portfolios of $25,000 to $100,000 prospects begin to change their style when the prospect is rated at $1 million or more. Some almost freeze up when it appears that the prospect might be capable of a $5 to $10 million gift.  In some cases they abandon the sound strategies that served them well working with their $25,000 to $100,000 prospects.

Now, it may be that management is a big part of the problem.

Instead of supporting the major gift officer in her or his work with the highly rated prospect, the Director of Major Gifts (or Director of Principal Gifts, Director of Development, or Vice President for Development) moves in to take charge as if the major gift officer is not capable of working with the prospect.

That may be appropriate if the major gift officer is inexperienced, but can be demeaning if the officer is a mature professional who developed the relationship with the prospect.

Obviously more care and attention are going to be given to such a large prospect because of the potential impact of the gift. However, don’t assume that prospects capable of such a large gift are fundamentally different people from those with whom you have been working.

They aren’t.

People are people and that includes billionaires.

I had the pleasure of interviewing a billionaire in New York shortly before he made a $100 million gift (his first at the level but not the last) to a major arts organization. I will admit that I was a little daunted by his reputation as a bold businessman and political activist but he quickly put me at ease offering to hang my coat, get me coffee, and other gracious gestures.

As we began to discuss his philanthropic interests, he was eager to talk about the $100 million gift that was going to be announced the following week. It would be by far the largest he had ever made. He was genuinely excited by what his gift was going to accomplish and described how much he enjoyed the process that educated him about the opportunity.

In particular, he was pleased when the organization asked him if he would be willing to speak to a group of other major donors about why he made the gift and urge them to consider making large gifts. He had never done that before and although initially reluctant to be in the spotlight, finally agreed to do so.

“I realized that had someone done the same for me I might have made a gift of this size years earlier,” he told me in explaining his change of heart.

As I left his office I began to reflect on how similar my meeting with him was to one I had had a few weeks before with a donor who had just made her first $25,000 gift. She was just as excited about the impact of her gift, thoroughly enjoyed becoming an insider to understand why the gift was needed, and was eager to tell others about how they could have as much fun as she had had making the gift.

Forget the difference in the number of zero’s in the two gifts; both donors had the full measure of joy from their giving.