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Major Efforts for Major Gifts
Elizabeth Hurley
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Opera America Magazine9/1/2007

Editor's Note:
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Whatever the size of an opera company, 80% of individual contributions will come from about 20% of all donors. Sometimes it is an even smaller percentage. Identifying, cultivating, providing stewardship, motivating and upgrading individual donors each year are fundamental concerns of every development department. The highly personalized process of major gift fundraising can be successfully undertaken by any size company, even small companies with tiny development staffs, because major gift fundraising is ultimately a one-on-one dialogue.

Former U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neil famously said, “All politics is local.” Voters support a candidate or an issue because of how it impacts them personally or, possibly, because of how they resonate with a particular vision. The same can be said for major donors who make a significant investment in an opera company — donors give because they have a personal connection to the company and/or the art form of opera. This is true if a company has a budget of less than $1 million and considers $1,000 a major gift, just as it is true in the case of larger companies receiving multi-million dollar gifts.

To continue the political analogies, major gift fundraising can also be compared to a presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire. Just as it is possible for a candidate to meet every single registered voter in the state, it is not only possible, but critical, for company leaders to know all of the major donors. While the development department is responsible for campaign strategy, management and volunteer support, everyone in the company has an important role to play in fundraising success. A major donor should have multiple points of contact including, but not limited to, the general manager, board leadership, development officers, senior staff, singers, directors, musicians and more. Successful major gifts campaigns are supported by a diverse group of company leaders because a variety of relationships honors the donor’s commitment and serves to strengthen the relationship.

Prospect identification is the first important step in a major gifts campaign. Look for annual fund donors who contribute every year, make increased gifts without being asked or make a large gift without being solicited, and who attend performances regularly. Virtually every major donor to a performing arts organization attends performances, so look for those with multiple subscriptions, who have been attending regularly for several years or who purchase the best seats. While it is tempting to believe that a high profile philanthropist who supports other causes can also be persuaded to make a similar gift to an opera company, this likely will not happen without creating a personal connection to the company. It is far more effective to develop ways to identify and get to know those individuals who are already valued customers.

At the Metropolitan Opera the development department organizes a variety of events designed to bring likely major gift donors into a closer relationship with the company. The events feature a speaker from the company — usually someone directly responsible for various aspects of the performance such as the artistic administrator, assistant conductors or company managers. This gives guests an insider’s view of what happens backstage and an opportunity to ask questions of an expert. Select board members, volunteers and development officers host the event so all of the guests have an opportunity for personal interaction with a representative of the Met. We also introduce our giving programs and outline the benefits of a larger investment. All guests receive a specific solicitation and follow up. Every opera company can create a program that works well within its schedule and structure. The important thing is to get to know people who are already in the house but who have yet to make a significant investment.

It takes more work to identify major gift prospects who are not in the house on a regular basis. In this case there is really no substitute for good referrals. Most opera companies have board members or other key volunteers who are active and prominent in their communities. It can be effective to tap their connections and ask them to introduce the opera to their business colleagues or friends by making tickets available so that they can bring people to a performance. Identify key community and business leaders who are not involved and develop a specific strategy for bringing them into the fold. Again, consider what will be most effective in your community and make sure the right company leadership is involved.

A good institutional communication plan is also important. There are many tools to help opera companies stay in touch with donors and the wider communities. The Met makes robust use of e-marketing for everything from performance reminders to donor solicitations. It is a wonderful way to touch donors regularly and keep them up-to-date with the latest news about your company. A content-rich Web site is an important tool, as are the variety of in-house publications such as performance programs. The Met also keeps promotional materials front and center in the lobbies and throughout the house — several generous gifts come in each year from people who visit the Met.

It is extremely important that major donors receive information about the company — both good news and bad — directly from you. In some cases this means picking up the phone to share late-breaking information before it appears in the press. A well-rounded communication plan — one that makes use of all tools available — is critical to a successful major gifts campaign. The various communication vehicles are not a substitute for face-to-face solicitation, but they keep the conversation going — keeping your company front of mind for those times when patrons are not in the house.

Once you have identified some good prospects, what will motivate them to increase their giving? The truth is that most major donors expect to be asked for regular increases, but if they are not asked, they probably will not increase. In many cases, a direct personal solicitation is not only necessary in a major gifts campaign; it is an important way to honor a donor’s investment in the company. A regular schedule of personal conversations with major donors provides an opportunity to solicit their feedback on the important issues facing the company. Major donors are akin to a company’s biggest investors, and it is important to know what they are thinking.

Before discussing the actual process of a solicitation, it is good to touch on donor benefits. A well-integrated program of donor benefits is a valuable tool in getting major gift donors to increase their giving within the context of an annual campaign, but these benefits are probably not the primary reason major donors invest in a company. Donor benefits provide a good starting point for a conversation about an increase and are important ways to thank patrons. Additionally, donor events that are provided as benefits provide development officers and volunteers with a scheduled time to see patrons.

Now, about face-to-face solicitations: every major donor to a company, however that is defined, deserves a personal visit each year specifically to discuss his or her support. That sounds like a big logistical challenge, but if the responsibility is shared among the development officers, other staff members, board members and volunteers, it can be accomplished, and it will lead to larger gifts and greater loyalty for your company.

The first thing to determine before an annual visit is, obviously, the amount and purpose of t
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About the Author: Elizabeth Hurley is director of development for the Metropolitan Opera.
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