Video: Six Fundraising Lessons from Reynold Levy

First Republic Bank

Those who have tried their hand at fundraising know it can be a daunting and often challenging endeavor. It entails navigating through various hurdles, targeting the correct donors, crafting a proper message and having the necessary support to fulfill your mission.

Fortunately, there is reason to be optimistic when the need to raise money arises, as nonprofits are deeply engaged in American life and donors exist all around us. In fact, for six consecutive years, Americans gave more to charity than they have saved.

Reynold Levy, President of Lincoln Center, is an expert in fundraising and believes that what you do makes a difference.  He offers his perspective on getting it right, and ultimately, securing the donations you seek. 

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The following are six lessons he has learned throughout his career that he believes can be helpful for any nonprofit institution, regardless of its size, mission, location, or the economic climate it’s in.

1. Develop your Board of Directors. If you think of an organization not as something to be governed but a cause to be championed, then you start to think about what you need in a board.  It takes finding the sweet spot between what they know and do every day and what your institution needs.  For example, if you are launching digitally, you should have experts in digital media on the board. If it is a national institution, the board should reflect people from all over the country.  Every achievement at Lincoln Center has been the result of the sweat equity of its board members and the intellectual fire-power of their colleagues and companies.  Your board should be deeply committed and deeply engaged in the life of the organization, and they should be genuinely involved in its challenges and its pleasures, in order to effectively understand and help the organization.

2. Break through the clutter of busy lives and enhance your fundraising approach.  A proposal that is roughly right, brief and early is far better than one closer to perfection, comprehensive and late.  The more succinct you can be, the faster you can explain what your cause is and why, the better.  If you make it a habit to meet people at their offices, you can pick up on things that will help you adjust your approach.  If you find yourself in a very Spartan office, you probably shouldn’t talk about the glamour of your galas.  If you’re in a very elaborate office, it might be a different story.  Also, don’t ask for money until the end of the meeting.  Spend most of your time on what most people love to talk about – themselves – and begin with how’s business, how’s your alma mater, how are the kids, how are you spending your time.  Creating a conversation that has you relating to the prospect in other ways than what brought you there is extremely important in developing the relationship and making an impact.  It means doing your homework on who that prospect is and being familiar enough with their business and what they care about.

3. Pick up the pace of fundraising and multiply the “asks”.  Fundraising is not a college exam, and one out of two correct answers does not mean you have failed.  In fact, you are a winner when you see three prospects and one says yes and two say no.  In order to get three yeses, though, you have to see twelve prospects. Also, the other nine didn’t mean no, they meant: later, you got me on a bad day, you didn’t talk to me enough, you came to the ask too early, give me more choices or send someone else next time.  “No” is the beginning of a conversation for a good fundraiser.  Wayne Gretzky, the famous hockey player, once said, “I miss 100% of the shots I never take.”  You have to step up to bat more often.

4. Don’t just ask early and often, ask well.  Arrange for an already-committed social or professional peer to accompany you in asking for a specific sum of money from a well-qualified prospect who respects the solicitor.  Look the prospect in the eye and ask for the money without hesitation.  Don’t hesitate to ask for more than you think you’ll receive either.  If you ask for $50,000 and they say the best they can do is $25,000, ask what they can do over the next two years.  Bear in mind that face-to-face solicitation is better than mail, a phone conversation is better than mail, and the combination of all three works best.  Always acknowledge a face-to-face presentation by writing the prospect the same day in hopes of capturing the spirit of the conversation as quickly as possible. The prospect needs to know that you are committed to the cause, that you have given to it and that you care about it.

5. Early money is the best kind, and good friends are ready to help if you ask them.  No one wants to join a cause alone, so you need to get started, and you need to have early successes.  Fundraising is a physiological, confidence building process, and the more you are able to say “Please join us,” the better off you are. After making the sale, don’t forget to ask the donor who else in their network might be interested in the cause.  You are offering them and their network opportunities to see the world in ways that they never thought of before by moving them from professional success to social consciousness. The relationship is very much an exchange.

6. Remember that your overall objective is to diversify your fundraising sources and methods. Try to have institutional trustees, individuals, and when possible, governmental giving as fundraising sources. Reach them with as many methods as you know of, such as direct mail, special events, major gift membership programs, bequests, corporate giving and foundation giving. Develop a balanced portfolio, so that when there is a setback in one area, you have a cushion in another.

Fundraising is an attitude, a calling, a way of life and a branch of sales. Your cause is too important, and the world is too much in need of repair to take no for an answer. Look at everyone as a potential donor.  With your aspirations up, spirits high, energy soaring and optimism undiminished, volunteers and prospects will find it a struggle to ward off your enthusiasm and to reject your cogent appeals.  

Reynold Levy is the President of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. and served as a consultant and board member to dozens of nonprofits throughout this career. He is also a member of First Republic Bank's board of directors. His contact information and biography are available at

The views of the authors of these articles do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank.