Aug. 16, 2018 12:45 pm

You don’t need Lenfest wealth to make a difference

Fundraisers: Stop spending time strategizing about how you might be able to get to those bigwigs who have already committed the bulk of their giving to other nonprofits, and start paying attention to the next generation of philanthropists.

Gerry Lenfest cuts the ribbon of Lenfest Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music in 2011.

(Photo by Mitchell Leff, courtesy of the City of Philadelphia)

The recent news that Gerry Lenfest has passed away has me feeling some kind of way — not only because the world lost a wonderful human being, but because Philadelphia lost one of its few remaining major philanthropists.

I’ve written before about what the city would look like if Philadelphians gave at the national average (hint: $1 billion annually). And it’s no secret that Philly’s wealthiest would-be philanthropists are not stepping up as well as they could be.

Yet, nonprofits continue to focus on those big names when fundraising. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had where we sit down with a list of names of wealthy folks who are known to be philanthropic and play Six Degrees of Separation. The fewer degrees between the prospective donor and your organization, the higher they go on your prospect list.

After the meeting is over, you cross your fingers that someday, your board member’s partner’s brother actually sends the introduction email to the local sports team owner you drafted for him. Your committee chair is convinced the email will lead to a first-time gift of $250,000 in general operating funds for your organization. Before the end of your fiscal year. Without any prior knowledge of your nonprofit’s mission or impact.

Managing those expectations can be tough.

Don’t get me wrong; of course you should be building relationships and connections with well-known philanthropists where you can. I am not advocating that you ignore philanthropists your organization is already connected with.

From our Partners

Here’s what I am advocating for: Stop spending time strategizing about how you might be able to get to those bigwigs who have already committed the bulk of their giving to other nonprofits, and start paying attention to the next generation of philanthropists for your organization.

Middle-of-the-road donors

Many organizations have people who are giving between $100 and $1,000 per year but actually have the capacity to give $10,000 per year. What’s holding them back from giving more?

Call that donor and ask them what inspired them to support your mission. Invite them in to tour your facility. Begin building a relationship with that donor that will hopefully result in your organization becoming more of a priority for their philanthropic efforts.

Spending a couple of hours on this outreach could result in several increased gifts and immediate revenue for your organization; a couple of years could take several of these donors from middle of the road to major donor; a few years after that and one or more of these donors could become one of Philadelphia’s major philanthropists. When compared to the time you may spend ghost writing emails to major philanthropists your organization isn’t already connected to, this is a no-brainer.

Volunteers and casual supporters

You never know someone’s capacity to give. Immediately putting folks into categories or boxes could seriously hinder your work as a fundraiser. Don’t look at your organization’s volunteers as just volunteers — look at them as supporters who should be cultivated.

Your volunteers come to you because they believe in what you do and want to help. That’s the same exact motivation most donors have for giving. Make sure that you ask your volunteers just like you would ask your donors; they may give less right now, but could ultimately have a much higher lifetime giving amount because of their strong relationship with your organization. And don’t forget to talk about planned gifts with volunteers!

The same is true of casual supporters. I ran a campaign called #CouchesDontCount where we brought a couch to the streets of Philadelphia to bring awareness to the hundreds of young people (almost half of whom identify as LGBTQ) who are couch surfing without a stable home in the city. At each pop-up event, we would talk to dozens of people — explaining why we were there, what the couch was for, how they could help.

Six months later, I received a check in the mail from a family foundation in Alabama. One of the people I spoke to on the street had a family member with a foundation, told them about what we were doing, and their family chose to send a major donation to us as a result. Never underestimate someone’s capacity to give.

Younger supporters

Most of today’s major philanthropists weren’t giving millions in their 20s and 30s. Younger folks who can’t give a lot right now are the future Lenfests of the world. If you’re not engaging them until they’re a Lenfest, you’re too late.

That person has already had years (or perhaps decades) to build relationships with other nonprofits. Is it possible to get a major gift from a philanthropist in their 60s who already supports dozens of other organizations? Yes. Is it a lot more difficult than getting a major gift from someone who has already been supporting your organization for 20 years? Yes.

Pay attention to the nuances between generations. A Gen Xer will have different motivations and communication styles than a millennial. Study up and know your audience. And please, from a reluctant millennial, don’t lump us in with Gen Zers. Please! Teenagers are not millennials, so don’t treat them as such. Read up on the types of things that Gen Zers respond to.


As a fundraiser, I see my role as bigger than just getting donations for my organization. I want to ensure that philanthropy is essential to all generations (especially younger generations) so that nonprofits can continue to flourish in the future.

If we’re not communicating the need for philanthropy and engaging folks of all levels of wealth, we’re not doing our jobs properly. It’s not enough to focus on wealthy, well established philanthropists — that’s the short game. We have to play the long game.

Build relationships with major donors, yes, but also build relationships with middle- and lower-level donors, volunteers and pretty much everyone you meet. Don’t just talk up your own organization, talk nonprofits in general. Again: Building a city-wide culture of philanthropy could result in an additional $1 billion in donations in Philadelphia each year.

Fundraisers communicating the importance of philanthropy at all levels will help us to get there.


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