A $5 Million Capital Campaign Ask that BOMBED

Our $5 Millon Capital Campaign Ask that BOMBED
Our $5 Millon Capital Campaign Ask that BOMBED

I wish you could have been there. . . .

It was a hot summer day in Virginia. We were 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 an important local college,
  • The wonderful chair of our capital campaign,
  • The successful businessman’s right-hand executive,
  • And me – capital campaign consultant to the college.

Clearly, it was an awkward setup around the table – with our prospect on one side and all of us on the other.

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

Our agenda was an important one. This was a formal Ask Meeting.

We were visiting to ask him to name one of the schools at the college with a $5 million gift.

And we had everything planned out so carefully!

Oh yes, we had rehearsed and even practiced! Twice, even.

We were so smart that we had scripted every single thing we said.

Back then, we thought that is what consultants should do for their clients. They should script all the capital campaign ask conversations.

We were so organized that we timed our conversation 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 to pull it off perfectly.

Only we had forgotten a few big things.  And those things did us in.

Here’s what went wrong:

1. We were not able to 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 executive who was the gatekeeper.

She was on our volunteer team, and we had to trust her to do the warm-up and prepare him for the solicitation. This was not a great way to set up such an important ask.

What would we do differently now?

We’d manage somehow — someway — to find out about his temperament and his level of interest.

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

  • His family’s long involvement in the College.
  • The story of taking his successful business public.
  • The legacy he wanted to leave in the region where he was so successful.
  • Finally, I’d remark about his right-hand executive’s involvement, and much we liked her.

If I could have engaged him in this conversation, I could have possibly opened the door to a discussion about his deeper interest in supporting the College.

2. The room itself was awkward, close, and uncomfortable.

A recent study found that 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. Even more, the owner prided himself on a no-frills office.

So our room did not lend itself to relaxation, jovial conversation, and great visionary thinking. It didn’t even have a window,

Alas. The chairs were not even particularly comfortable.

What would we do differently now?

We’d do everything possible to change the location!

Most of all, we’d look for a location where we could all be comfortable.

And we’d look for comfortable chairs!!

3. We overly scripted the capital campaign ask.

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 a huge mistake.

What would we do differently now?

This was 15-20 years ago, before we really knew how to handle these types of calls. Back then, we’d just go in and give it our best try.

BUT now that we are far, far more experienced, we now know how to approach this type of hugely important asking meeting.

Now we’d use our Conversational Ask approach.  We’d plan plenty of opportunities for him to chat with us. Above all, we’d plan for plenty of pauses so that he could fill in the quiet space.

We’d create a two-way conversation at every opportunity.

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

Yes, speaking of conversations, somewhere along the line, we had forgotten to make this into a conversation.

We had set up a one-way presentation and did not think to ask him to do the talking.

This is also called “shooting yourself in the foot” by talking too much!

What would we do differently now? 

Here’s what we’d do if this meeting were held tomorrow. We’d walk in, and before we had said a word, we’d turn the conversation over to him.

We’d ask him to tell us WHY he cares so much about that small local college. And, in doing so, he would be presenting 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, we would pause and encourage his feedback.

THEN  — after much two-way conversation taking lots of time — we’d probably emerge with a nice commitment.

Bottom Line on a Successful Capital Campaign Ask

Here are your learnings: Don’t throw up a “wall of words” at your donor.

Be sure you do smart reconnaissance before you make the visit. Ask for permission to make the ask, and be sure the prospect is warmed up.

Engage with the donor ahead of time as much as possible, and . . .

Listen Your Way to the Gift!