In May 2017, I was a featured speaker at the Compass Conference sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. My presentation, “Story Telling: Best Practices in Major Gift Fundraising,” featured real donor stories that illustrate key principles in the cultivation and solicitation of significant gifts. Here is one of those stories.

A world-class music conservatory had just adopted its first ever “capitalization plan.” The plan outlined—in great detail—the organization’s financial needs over the next five years. Like every nonprofit, the conservatory’s needs included funding for working capital, facility maintenance, reserves and endowment. The plan was an outstanding financial roadmap for the future, and the conservatory was excited to begin its implementation.

The organization’s leadership decided to ask their most significant prospect—an alumna of the conservatory and a successful businesswoman—to fund the first year of the plan with a gift of $1.5 million. They shared the plan with her and began discussions about a gift, but they sensed a lack of enthusiasm on her part.

As a team, S&W and the client asked ourselves why we didn’t see more excitement for a plan that was clearly so vital to sustaining excellence for an organization that the donor loved. We challenged ourselves to think more deeply about this donor’s engagement with the conservatory. We thought back to her conversations with young artists, her deep and abiding respect for the music director and her joy in listening to performances. The project—essential as it was—didn’t tap into those personal connections.

The organization regrouped and asked the donor to endow and name the position of the music director, a gift that would link her philanthropy to an individual she deeply admired. She agreed and made a gift of $2.5 million. Not only did this bring great satisfaction to the donor, but it also addressed a significant need within the capitalization plan.

What lessons can we take from this story? First, it’s essential to think from the donor’s perspective: it’s not what you are selling, it’s what they are buying. Second, never forget the emotional aspect of giving, and focus on the need to engage both heart and mind. Third, remember that it’s our job as development officers to translate dry numbers into exciting gift opportunities that tap into a donor’s true motivations. If we do this well, we can secure gifts that meet our organization’s needs and bring joy and satisfaction to the donor.