Preempting the Preemptive Major Gift

A vice president for advancement and a president recently were on a solicitation visit with a donor.  The president is new to his position (less than a year) and the donor is a long-time supporter of this institution and is a major philanthropist in the region.  The vp and president were there to ask for $10 million – the largest single commitment in the institution’s history.  And while this donor has made single commitments of $5 million previously to other organizations, he never has made a $10 million commitment.

As they move past the small talk and get into making the case for support, the vp and president are surprised when the donor interrupts with a preemption.  “I love the institution and the work you do.  First class.  And I’m pleased I can continue to support you with significant gifts.  I know you are here today to talk about a gift and I’m ready to tell you what I’m planning to do. . . . . .”

And then this new president acted artfully.

He put his hand up and said, “If I can interrupt for a moment.  We are so pleased that you are already thinking about a gift.  And we are here today to ask you for a gift.  But it is important for me to be able to ask you for that gift.  I need to ask you for this gift.  My presidency, our institution, and, I believe, your relationship with the institution, will be strengthened today by my asking you for this gift.  So, before you proceed with your thought, will you allow me the opportunity to ask you for this gift?”

For a moment there was silence.  And then, “yes, please go ahead and ask me.”  So, they asked him for $10 million.

This is a true story and it is recent.  The donor hasn’t yet responded to the solicitation, but he agreed to think it over.  When the vp relayed this story to me he added, “We were pretty certain that if he preempted us it wouldn’t be with a gift anywhere close to the amount we wanted to ask him for.  We may not get the whole $10 million, but I believe we will get much more than if we had allowed him to preempt us.”

For many of us, a preemptive gift is difficult, if not impossible, to refuse.  We appear greedy if we attempt to negotiate on the amount of an unsolicited gift.  So, instead, a typical response is to smile and thank the donor for their willingness to give.  In this instance, though, the president didn’t want to be put in that position and preempted the preemption.  Brilliant.

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