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At nonprofits, asking for money becomes part of the job

Gina Purtell says her daily contact with visitors at Mass Audubon’s Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary makes her uniquely suited to ask for donations.
Gina Purtell says her daily contact with visitors at Mass Audubon’s Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary makes her uniquely suited to ask for donations. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)

When Gina Purtell became director of Mass Audubon's Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in Dartmouth, it seemed like her dream job. She envisioned spending her days clearing woods, building trails, and counting birds at the property's 1,000 acres of salt marsh, coastal oak woodlands, and grasslands.

But she didn't realize that she was also expected to beg patrons for cash.

At first, soliciting donors "definitely felt uncomfortable, and I was very hesitant and resistant, even resentful," Purtell said. "I was like, 'That's not my job!' "

With competition for donor dollars growing ever stiffer, many nonprofit organizations no longer consider fund-raising and marketing the exclusive realms of development officers. As groups search for more creative ways to raise money, they are often turning to other members of their staffs to help pass the hat. This approach widens the circle of fund-raisers and, several nonprofits say, helps add to their coffers.

From Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians who attend small-group dinners with elite donors, to MIT scientists who invite philanthropists into their labs, to Massachusetts Audubon Society field staff who ask for donations wearing hip boots and sun hats, the people who do "the ask" may no longer have the title "fund-raiser" on their business cards. While hospitals, universities, and other nonprof its have long relied on their top executives, deans, and prominent faculty to cultivate prospective donors and aggressively raise money, a growing number of nonprofits are tapping front-line staff members, too.

"There's much more of an understanding across the organization that we're all fund-raisers and marketers," said Susannah Lund, a spokeswoman for Mass Audubon, which offers half-day fund-raising training to its 20 sanctuary directors and some of its science and program staff. "We're all trying to make connections with the public and encourage them to volunteer and get engaged in our work - and some of those people will go on to support us financially, as well."

Even Purtell has grown to believe that her daily contact with sanctuary visitors makes her uniquely suited to ask them to contribute money and volunteer time to programs such as constructing osprey platforms and building nature boardwalks. She also realizes that some wealthy patrons are eager to put their fortunes to good use and that any money she helps raise specifically benefits the Dartmouth sanctuary.

"If I want the resources and I want to expand what we do, that means getting more money - and asking people for money doesn't have to be scary if I do it in my own way, even if it isn't a grandiose or polished approach," said Purtell, 41, who has increased individual annual donations to the sanctuary from about $11,000 to nearly $38,000 since she became director six years ago.

To cultivate prospective donors, Purtell may invite them to do volunteer field work at the sanctuary, such as pulling weeds. Then, if she can summon the courage to ask for a contribution, she might mention she's trying to reach a fund-raising goal but explain she feels awkward asking for money. "I'm very comfortable admitting to them my lack of experience," Purtell said. This approach, she added, seems to work.

As the public faces of their organizations, staffers are particularly well-positioned to identify prospective givers, build long-term relationships with them, and give them a hands-on view of the nonprofit's mission, whether by explaining the implications of their scientific studies or educating them about wildlife conservation. After all, staff members often do the work that stirs donors' passions, such as conducting cancer research, keeping the Charles River clean, or playing the violin.

By developing long-lasting connections with potential contributors, staff may grow comfortable enough to ask them to donate. Nonprofits also look to their staffs to recruit volunteers whose time can be as valuable as their checkbooks.

"Nonprofits are recognizing that if their fund-raising campaigns are going to be successful, they need to turn these kinds of people into ambassadors and make them part of their development team," said Roger Sametz, president of Sametz Blackstone Associates, a South End marketing firm whose roughly four dozen active clients are mostly nonprofit groups. "You have to try to create a culture where people understand that what's in their job description isn't necessarily enough to advance the organization, and that helping raise money is good for their own personal growth."

That's especially the case at small organizations with tiny development staffs - or no development staffs at all - and at large organizations whose operations are spread across the state.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, for example, hosts seven pre-concert dinners each season where small groups of elite donors who contribute at least $2,500 annually share a meal with one or two select musicians in a private room at Symphony Hall. Jeffrey Marshall, a BSO donor and member of the symphony's board of overseers who attended all of last season's dinners, said one of the most memorable featured two BSO players who are married, timpanist Timothy Genis and violist Cathy Basrak.

The players tell their personal stories and answer donors' questions, creating what the symphony's development staff hopes will be a more intimate bond between contributors and musicians. The dinners are "just extraordinary, and you don't really see them as fund-raising," said Marshall, a Boston retiree. "It's a way of participating and thanking the orchestra and sharing your love of music . . . and it's a good formula for orchestras to build audiences and bring people in and help to raise money."

The dinners, Marshall added, have not only spurred him to increase his giving - he declined to disclose a dollar amount - but to volunteer to call other people and urge them to renew their memberships or give more generously.

Development officers still play a critical role in the fund-raising process, often by matching key staffers with prospective donors. For instance, the development staff at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research routinely connects members of the institute's Leadership Board, a select group of affluent business people, with McGovern scientists.

One of those connections resulted in a friendship between board member Thomas F. Peterson Jr., a wealthy entrepreneur and MIT graduate, and neuroscientist Christopher Moore - as well as in a $500,000 gift by Peterson to support Moore's work. In the past two years, similar relationships have resulted in an additional $1.5 million in donations by Leadership Board members to support the research of individual scientists, said Laurie Ledeen, McGovern's development officer.

"Fund-raisers come and go," Ledeen said, "but you also have tenured faculty and renowned scientists who can establish long-term relationships with donors, and those are the people donors at very high levels want to have access to and be associated with."

Nonprofits say they do not pressure nondevelopment staff to make the formal request for money if they feel uneasy doing so.

"They're not charged with being heavy-hitter sales persons," Sametz, "and they're not going to be making 'asks' unless they feel comfortable doing that."

In Purtell's case, if she has developed a strong relationship with a potential donor but feels awkward asking for a contribution, she has a tactic for reaching the next step: After promoting a worthy Audubon program to a prospective contributor, she then relies on a development officer to make the formal request for money. Sometimes, she will attend meetings where a development officer asks a potential donor for a contribution, since her presence can provide a sense of familiarity.

"I'm getting better at it," said Purtell, "and I understand that people put their money where their heart is, so if someone is showing me they have the heart, it's not too much for me to ask them to put their money there, too."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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