On a recent trip to Rome, Ga., I had the opportunity to visit Berry College. Berry is a beautiful place nestled on 30,000 acres in Northwest Georgia, making it the largest college campus in America. The school was founded in 1902 by Martha Berry to serve rural boys when few public schools existed in Georgia.
I was quite excited to be there for two reasons. I certainly wanted to visit Berry’s childhood home, which was featured in the movie Sweet Home Alabama.
More intriguing to me, however, was to see the school she founded where low-income students could get an education. Her passion for the cause of educating these young people was quite contagious; she traveled extensively to share the vision of providing hope and education with many well-known philanthropists of her time, including Andrew Carnegie; President Theodore Roosevelt; and Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson. Henry Ford was the most devoted donor to Berry’s cause.
Berry was an accomplished fundraiser, and I was determined to explore how this place in rural Georgia had become one of the most heavily endowed colleges in America. As a fundraiser in Georgia for all of my professional life, I had heard the possibly apocryphal story of how Berry traveled to Detroit to meet personally with Ford to seek his investment in Berry College.
As the story goes, Ford agreed to give a small donation (some say a dime) and said he would consider giving more if Berry could show good stewardship of that donation. She graciously thanked him and headed home to Georgia, where she purchased ten cents worth of peanut seeds.
Anyone who has ever planted a bag of seeds knows how they multiply. One year later, Berry made another trip to see Ford, and he was impressed by the crop of peanuts she laid on his desk. So impressed, in fact, that he made the first of many trips to Rome, Ga., to spend time at Berry College. His investments in Berry helped the college survive the Great Depression, as well as construct many of the beautiful buildings that are still in use today.
Why was Berry’s approach with Ford so effective? Because she understood eight crucial pillars of fundraising:
• Do your homework. Learn everything you can about prospective donors. Treat them with respect, and listen.
• Develop a compelling case statement. It is appropriate to share data about your organization, but you also must communicate that the case for giving is bigger than the institution itself. Share what your organization has accomplished, as well as what the investment has the potential to do. The best case statements inspire and challenge donors to be agents of change.
• Ask in person. Nothing is more effective than being face-to-face with a major donor. Are you more inclined to give when you receive a mail request, telephone solicitation or personal visit? Major donors are no different. Get face-to-face.
• Ask for an investment, not charity. No one wants to invest his or her hard-earned money in a sinking ship. Berry didn’t ask Ford to help keep the doors of her little school open, but rather she asked him to invest in the lives of young people who would become productive members of society through education.
• Cultivation is key. Say thank you promptly, visit your majors donor regularly, and build relationships based on trust and fulfilled promises. I’ve seen many a relationship between an organization and a major donor break down because of unfulfilled promises.
• Earn the respect and loyalty of your donors. Let donors know how their investments have changed lives. Share testimonials, photos and visits to demonstrate the importance of the investment. Be eager to answer questions and address concerns.
• Retain donors for a lifetime. It is much better (and less expensive) to keep a donor than to find a new one.
Ford and his wife, Clara Ala Bryant, remained loyal to Berry College even after the death of their good friend, Martha Berry. Their bond — built on trust, friendship, fulfilled promises and a shared passion for education — was so strong that even death didn’t deter it. Ford’s legacy is no more apparent than on the campus of Berry College.
Ford’s own words say it best: “The highest use of capital is not to make more money, but to make money do more for the betterment of life.”