My $5 Million Capital Campaign Ask that BOMBED


I wish you could have been there. . . .bombed

It was a hot summer day in Virginia.

I was seated in a small conference room, with one of Virginia’s top business kingpins.

There the successful businessman sat —  so smart and so together – at the head of the table.

And we all lined up on the other side of the table:

  • the President of a fabulous local college,
  • the wonderful Chair of our capital campaign,
  • the successful businessman’s right hand lady,
  • and me – consultant to the College.

And we were there to make a $5 million solicitation.

We were going to ask him to name one of the schools at the college.

Oh yes, we had rehearsed!

We had even practiced! Twice, even.

I was so smart that I had scripted every single thing we said.

We timed our conversation down to the minute – who would say what, and when they would say it.

It was like a performance.

Or, maybe it was more like a sales presentation.

We were so organized, and so proud of ourselves.

I had even memorized my part so that I could pull it off perfectly.

Only we had forgotten a few big things. 

Here’s what went wrong:

1. We didn’t have any private conversations with the donor ahead of the big solicitation.

There was no way to know if he was really excited about the idea – or not.

We had to work thru his right hand lady who was the gatekeeper.

She was on our volunteer team, and we had to trust her to do the warm up.

What would I do differently now?

I’d manage somehow — someway — to find out about his temperament.

I would manage to chat up the donor somehow at an event. I’d be charming and make his acquaintance:

  • I’d ask him to tell me about his family’s involvement in the college.
  • I’d ask him to tell me the story of taking his business public.
  • I’d remark about his right hand lady’s involvement and much we liked her.
  • I’d ask him about the legacy he wanted to leave in the region where he was so successful.

I’d hope that might establish grounds for me to chat with him more and find out his interest in a large naming opportunity.

2. The room itself was awkward and uncomfortable.

I read a study recently that said people were more generous and open to new ideas if they were seated in comfortable chairs.

Well . . . . this wildly successful company had a reputation for sparse amenities.

The owner prided himself on a no-frills office.

So our room itself did not lend itself to relaxation, jovial conversation and great visionary thinking.


What would I do differently now?

I’d do everything I could to change the location!

I’d find a place where he was comfortable.

But a place that had comfortable chairs!!

3. We overly scripted the solicitation.

In our nervousness about the whole thing, we clung to our previously assigned roles.

We stuck to the script for dear life.

Everything was completely programmed. I think maybe we threw up a “wall of words.”

There wasn’t any room for HIM TO TALK.

What would I do differently now?

I’d plan for every time we mentioned a topic, to pause and wait for him to fill in the quiet space.

I’d create conversation at every opportunity.

 4. We didn’t plan to allow for conversation.

Somewhere we had forgotten to make this into a conversation.

We didn’t think to ask him to talk to US.

We just wanted to talk to him. :(

What would I do differently now? 

I would walk in with my group, and before we had said a word, I’d turn the conversation over to him.

I’d ask him to tell us WHY he cares so much about that small local college.

I’d let HIM present the case for support to US, not the other way around.

That way, our meeting would get off on the right foot.

Step-by-step through this big ask, I would pause and encourage his feedback.

THEN  — after much conversation taking lots of tie — we’d probably emerge with a nice commitment.


Don’t throw up a “wall of words” at your donor.

Be sure you do smart reconnaissance before you make the visit.

Warm your donor up as much as possible, and . . .

listen Your Way to the Gift!