The Viper and the File

A viper entered a carpenter’s shop and moved around from tool to tool desperately looking for something to eat. Among the tools he addressed himself to the steel file and asked for a favour of a meal. The file replied in a tone of pitying contempt ‘What a silly person you must be if you imagine you will get anything from me who spends my life taking from everyone and never giving in return.’

A summary of this fable could perhaps be that the covetous are poor givers. In fundraising this can be true of some wealthy individuals and it is therefore good practice as a major donor professional to not assume that any high net worth person found on your charity’s database will be fair game to approach for a large gift.

Many major donor executives, including some I have worked with, spend an inordinate amount of time chasing dreams with high profile individuals who might provide them with that one huge gift. Sadly this often ends in tears and wasted time.

It is far more effective to build relationships with high profile individuals who have shown some interest in your work. For example, this could be demonstrated in sending a small gift. I once remember a major donor worth £20 million sending in a gift for £20 which was the first time they had shown any interest in the charity. Learning point: Never judge donor potential by a previous gift size.

Be on alert and look for connection. Have they bought a book from you? Asked a question by email? Signed up for something? Look for signs on your database. After having your database profiled to see who the wealthiest are, commonly known as a wealth screening, be poised ready to look for any connection by those individuals to your cause and begin to build your relationship from there.

How you as a major donor fundraiser spend your time is the most crucial part of your job initially. I would suggest going for the wealthiest, yes, but also with some eye on who has shown some warmth to your cause. It is good practice to plan who you are going to approach and in particular why, looking for warmth to your charity as well as wealth. If a highly rich individual has shown very little connection to your cause, I would put them lower down your ranked list, making contact with the warmer ones first. Start your contact with a thank you first – for their interest or even for £20!

Relationships have to be built slowly and methodically before asking for a gift and during this prospecting process, many individuals will fall by the wayside as the steel file in the fable ….. but this is ok as you sort out those who are genuinely interested in your cause, this is where you will have the greatest success.

Samuel Croxall in his explanation of this fable in the 1700’s said:

By this fable we are cautioned to consider what any person is, before we make an attack upon him, after any manner whatsoever…… If wit be the case, and we have a satirical vein, which, at certain periods must have a flow, let us be cautious at whom we level it; for, if the person’s understanding be of better proof than our own, all our ingenious sallies, like liquor squirted against the wind, will recoil back upon our own faces, and make us the ridicule of every spectator.

Ruth is the principal and founder of Ascent Philanthropy, author of two books and passionate about helping non-profits with their major gift programmes by offering advice for introducing a new major gift programme or enhancing the productivity of the philanthropy team

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