From Gauche to Great

Holly Million December 16, 2008

Or: How donor cultivation makes you a successful film fundraiser

"I’m going to a party for a nonprofit organization specifically to meet people who might be interested in donating to my documentary," a friend writes. "I’m not (yet) a member of this organization. My question: is it appropriate to be asking for donations at the party, even though I’ve never met anyone from this group before? Any thoughts?"

What my friend is wondering is when is the right time to ask an individual for a contribution for his film. He is worried that if he isn’t bold enough, he will show up at the event to press the flesh only to miss what he sees as his fleeting chance to ask people who care about an issue — one that also happens to be the topic of his documentary — for their support. That hors d’oeuvre tray won’t be the only thing passing by, he thinks. He’s worried that his chance to fundraise will be disappearing faster than those bacon-wrapped meatballs.

When I wrote back to my friend, I focused my response on what should be a mantra of individual donor fundraising: Cultivate! Cultivate! Cultivate! That is, before you put the arm on someone, you better know who they are, and they better know who you are. Let me ask you this: Say there is a person sitting on that park bench over there, and you find out they are interested in subject x, also the subject of your film, and they happen to have some cash. Would you sit down and put your arm around them and ask them for money? Not unless you want an umbrella smashing down on your cranium, you won’t. That’s what I mean. Going to a party, shaking someone’s hand, then trying to shake them down is not going to go over well. You will soon have the punch bowl all to yourself. Instead of being gauche, be patient. Patient and determined.

If you know someone well, you may have shared a meal with him, swapped Christmas cards, gone to his kid’s bat mitzvah, or watched the Super Bowl at his house. You know what her favorite color is, what vegetable she detests (okra), where she likes the shop, and what Wilco song she likes so much (California Stars) she’s probably humming it right now. If you already know somebody to this degree, chances are good (or should be, you shrinking violet) that they already know you and know about your filmmaking. In this case, you are more than ready to ask for a gift for your film. Up and at ‘em! If you don’t know very much about somebody, even if you do know they are interested in an issue, you really aren’t ready to ask them for dough for your very noble film.

Back to my friend with the event. I told him that at this type of event, you should try to meet everyone and swap business cards with them. If they don’t have business cards, ask them to write their email addresses on the back of one of your cards. Just describe your film and try to pump up interest. I also told him that you should also approach the nonprofit organization to partner with you, maybe find some creative ways for you each to help each other. You should become a member and get their mailings. Find out what is going on. I said that down the road, they could help you with a mailing list for a fundraising event, or maybe there are other resources they can share. And you should think about how your film can help them. Quid pro quo, Clarice!

Last, I said that if there are any potential big donors amongst the people you meet at the event, then focus on sending them information, inviting them to an event of your own, and updating them on your progress with your film. Eventually, you will want to meet face-to-face with these people to ask for a sizeable gift. Schedule a lunch meeting with them at that little French place you know they love so much. Then take a partner and do the ask together.

There’s only one exception to the rule of cultivating before asking. And that exception is where there really is one and only one opportunity to make the ask. Two months ago, I asked a 98-year-old man for $50,000. He gave it. It was my first meeting with him, although I had spoken to him on the phone before. Twice. Why did I ask him so precipitously instead of doing more cultivation? 98. Get it?

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