When is it a bad idea to ask a billionaire for a donation?

It’s said that becoming rich means never eating another bad meal and never telling another unfunny joke. On the back of my experience this week, at an event with 2,000 fundraisers and a handful of rich philanthropists, I’d suggest it also means never being asked another decent question.

The star turn at this year’s ‘Raising Funds from the Rich’ conference, held in London on the 14th October, was Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin business empire and a man with his thumbs in a lot of philanthropic pies. His current charitable interests range from climate change to health and education in Africa to ‘The Elders’ initiative, which harnesses the moral authority of global statespeople like Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson to intervene in intractable conflicts.

By the time Branson arrived to give his speech, delegates had heard from a range of speakers addressing the central question: How to raise funds from the rich. The advice was pretty consistent and covered the same 3 good points: (1) do your research to identify people who are wealthy enough to give big sums and have an interest in your cause, (2) take your time to build mutually respectful relationships, and (3) don’t make the ask until the donor is engaged with your cause. Unfortunately, this advice was ignored by delegates during the Q&A following Branson’s speech, whose ‘questions’ were almost all variations on the theme of: “Please give my charity some money”.

In answer to the riddle posed at the top of this post: it’s clearly a bad idea to ask a billionaire for a donation when your only qualification for doing so is that you happen to have grabbed the microphone. But reader, they did. Three┬ádays later I am still utterly perplexed as to why anyone could have thought it a good idea to make a pitch for funds rather than seize the chance to ask a more searching question about Branson’s philanthropic journey. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to learn what got him started? how he decides what to support? how he decides how much to give? what’s been his biggest philanthropic mistake?

But worse than this missed opportunity is the terrible impression we must have made on a man who has the ability to pump, literally, billions into our sector should he follow the lead of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett by transferring almost all his fortune into philanthropy. We know that one barrier to giving is donors’ fears (however misplaced) that charities lack the nous to spend their money wisely. This fear is especially prevalent amongst businesspeople who suspect our sector of being full of nice-but-ineffective people. I doubt that Branson left that event impressed by what he heard or thinking he’d spent time with people who could be entrusted with his money.

Of course it’s in every fundraiser’s bones to seize opportunities to promote their cause. But I think we also have a responsibility to advance the reputation of the charity sector as a whole. Asking for money in this setting was not just unlikely to succeed, toe-curling to listen to and a missed opportunity to ask decent questions. It may even have spoilt the chance of encouraging Branson to gear up from being a good philanthropist to a great one.

7 responses to “When is it a bad idea to ask a billionaire for a donation?

  1. Wow.

    I could feel my jaw dropping as I read through your post, Beth. I was unable to attend this year’s RFFTR, and I hope that Action Planning’s Branson coup doesn’t end up being a one off.

    As much as we strive to build trust with donors and professionalize our work (through accreditations like the CFRE and those offered by the IoF and other institutions), behaviour like this repels donors and sends the wrong message about the sector. One step forward, a billion steps back.



  2. toe-curling it was indeed to see all the sound advice and good principles espoused in the morning jettisoned in the afternoon! Though personally I felt that Sir Richard told us a lot about Virgin’s corporate philanthropy and relatively little about his personal giving. Other speakers seemed much more personally engaged with the business of giving away money. The promo video shown before his grand entrance didn’t exactly detract from the suspicion that this was another exercise in promoting brand Virgin….

  3. Hi Beth

    Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t surprise me.

    When I worked for a charity (many years ago), I found myself in the presence of a major funder and unfortunately I just became out of control. One part of me was shouting “Mark, don’t do it. Just be nice. Say how pleased you are that he’s here. Ask if you can help him in any way and then just leave him alone!”.

    The other part of me dropped a very unsubtle hit for cash into the conversation. Luckily the person was very sensible. He changed the topic of the conversation, made his excuses and went to speak to people who knew better. He carried on giving to my charity and I never had any other contact with him again.

    In doing so, he taught me a great lesson.

    And this is the point. The approach of the questioners simply shows inexperience or arrogance (both of which really don’t offer much to a good pitch for support).

    If the actions of the few help the fundraisers at the event to now appreciate a little better the advice of the previous speakers, I think it is a positive outcome and perhaps one of the best learning opportunities that some fundraisers will ever have.

    Your point about the impression it gives is, however, a valid one. Let’s just hope Richard has seen enough of charities to know that they aren’t all populated by twerps like me.

    Great post. Should be required reading for all attendees.


  4. Such a wasted opportunity and poorly chaired by David Senior, indeed he seemed to find these embarrassing pitches amusing and behaved in a most unseemly obsequious way with Branson. Not just one brainless question was allowed but a second, then a third…. by that time I had lost complete faith in the exercise. Those people should never have been given the floor. And was it just coincidence that Virgin had launched Virgin Money Giving that morning? Branson’s speech taught us nothing that we didn’t know already, certainly was not written by him, and he needed autocue to deliver it. Sure he is on the path to becoming a great philanthropist but perhaps he is stretching the old pop star image a bit too far by becoming a walking brand. By contrast, a more genuine speech was delivered by Stanley Fink, who by his unpretentious and low brow approach taught us far more about how the rich think. I certainly will not attend another conference like this, it was a waste of my time and a waste of money too. Action Planning are missing the target here.

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