Posted May 2nd, 2017

“Do Your Homework”: One Donor’s Perspective on Fundraising Strategies That Work

A donor shares his passion for benefitting his community, including what most influences him to give to a particular cause and mistakes some fundraisers make.

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Michael J. Bruns is a businessman and civic leader in Memphis, Tenn. Following the sale of his company, Comtrak Logistics, and his retirement in 2010, Bruns began focusing more of his time on philanthropy. He has served on the boards of Youth Villages, the Assisi Foundation, the University of Memphis Board of Visitors, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute and others, and actively supports a number of other nonprofits. Bruns is a member of the Society of Entrepreneurs and is a past recipient of AFP’s Outstanding Corporation/Outstanding Philanthropist, Rotary Club’s Citizen of the Year and the University of Memphis Distinguished Alumni Award.

He estimates he has given several million dollars to nonprofit organizations and institutions over the last two decades.

Bruns recently sat down with Give & Take to share some thoughts and experiences on why he gives as well as advice on how to build relationships with donors that are more likely to lead to major gifts.

Give & Take:

In addition to contributing your time over the years, you have been incredibly generous with your financial resources, both personally and professionally. What are three things that have influenced your giving?

Bruns:

From a personal standpoint, when I realized I was making more money than I needed, I decided I wanted to use it to help others. I believe we all have a responsibility to do that. I give to organizations that mean something to me. It’s something I’ve taught my two children and I am now teaching my five grandchildren. I’ve made many friends and had a lot of great experiences because of my involvement with nonprofits.

The other two influences are more closely related to my company. At Comtrak, we made giving a part of the company’s culture. It took us a few years to do this, but in the end, it paid huge dividends. My employees wanted to be involved and I listened. We provided opportunities for them to volunteer and had fundraisers where the employees decided which organizations to support.

Something else we did was put posters on the sides of our trailers when I was asked to help raise awareness for Youth Villages. It became a point of pride for Comtrak drivers to talk about Youth Villages with other drivers. Our trailers became recognizable across the country—we were the company that helped kids.

I truly believe these things contributed to Comtrak’s growth and financial success. My employees took great pride in their involvement and thanked me all the time for making that a part of our company culture.

Another influence came as a way to say thank you. After I sold Comtrak, I thought back to things that had contributed to our success. Many of my employees had graduated from the University of Memphis, so I decided to focus some of my giving to pay back the school that had, in a way, helped me build Comtrak.

Give & Take:

Tell us about your first significant gift and why you made it.

Bruns:

In 1997 I made a six-figure gift to Youth Villages. I wasn’t asked for it—I just made it. There were two things about Youth Villages that impressed me. I love kids, so their mission of helping improve the lives of kids and families tugged at my heart.

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The second thing is something that is very important to me as a businessman. Youth Villages is well run. My gift was a financial investment in Youth Villages and I was confident it would be used to produce measurable results.

Give & Take:

As someone who has made a number of major gifts over the years, what advice would you give to someone new to fundraising when seeking a significant gift?

Bruns:

Most of this is common sense. First and foremost, do your homework. Know something about me before our first meeting and, when we meet, ask questions, learn more and, above all, listen. Then, before you come back for the second meeting, study what you learned.

Don’t come with a script you’ve used to ask 10 other people for a gift. Show me you have a real passion for your organization, that you know it inside and out and that you listened to what is important to me.

Give & Take:

You have said you built your business on writing thank-you notes. Share some thoughts on how organizations can effectively use thank-you notes in their development efforts.

Bruns:

There are many ways a handwritten note can be effective. You should always send me a thank-you note after we have had a meeting. Then, send me a note a few months later, out of the blue, telling me who my gift helped or how my gift was used. Surprise me and let me know you are thinking of me from time to time, not just when you are asking for money. That is much more effective.

The most powerful notes, though, are from those who are directly helped by the gift. Every charity should do this. I’ve never been more touched than when I received a picture colored by a 6-year-old at Youth Villages. There’s nothing better than that personal connection.

Give & Take:

Speaking of a personal connection, many nonprofits are now increasingly using email and social media to communicate with existing and potential donors in their fundraising efforts. What are your thoughts on this?

Bruns:

Well, I understand younger people might be receptive to this, but personally I find it offensive. If you are using email and social media as your primary means of communication, it just won’t work. If you are using these to try to form a personal relationship with me, it just won’t work. If you want me to give you a $10 one-time gift, it might work.

Give & Take:

Looking to the future, where do you see the focus of your giving?

Bruns:

I see my focus much more on making an impact and less about the big gift—I’m looking for a game changer. I’d rather see the results of 20 $50,000 gifts over time than a $1 million gift to a $50 million campaign. Those kinds of gifts are boring to me.

I think I can speak for others who make larger gift commitments with a few final comments: We want to know how our gifts will make a difference. I know my gift won’t solve “the” problem but it might solve “a” problem. Show me how I can help you make that happen.

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted and written by Sharpe Group Senior Editor Ashley McHugh, who shared tips for writing donor stories based on her 20 years of experience in “Three Interesting Things I’ve Learned From Writing Donor Stories” (Give & Take, July 2016). For more information about how to incorporate donor stories in a Sharpe Group Gift Planning Newsletter, click here. Or contact us at 901.680.5300 or info@SHARPEnet.com. ■

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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