Skip to content

Comembership and the BIG Major Gifts

By Gil Israeli, GI Financial Resource Development and Dir. of Operations, Osher ELC

When seeking to connect with a major gifts prospect, it is smart fundraising to draw on a lay person who knows the prospect well or can connect to the prospect through a few degrees of separation. Since this isn’t always possible, the next best strategy is to introduce and connect people who share avid, strong affiliations and affinities. One anthropologist has described these social traits as “co-membership” – unique points of contact in shared identity.

The really good fundraisers and prospect researchers go beyond identifying prospects and look for points of co-membership between your helpful community and prospects. These are ideal launch pads for relationship-building and just a few of these include…

1. A shared interest in a specific aspect of your nonprofit’s work.

2. A shared avocation such as car collecting.

3. An immediate personal experience such as a challenging life event (an illness).

4. A rare personal experience such as triumphing over a challenging life event.

5. Being awarded a prestigious prize, e.g., the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

6. A shared professional background (and memberships in a professional association).

7. Shared upbringing (the same type of neighborhood, rural setting, etc).

8. Shared experience in ownership and wealth (the self-made man versus inheritance)

9. The affinity can also be based in the connection between two personalities that interact well.

10. An actual shared spoken language such as Hebrew or French.

11. Some sort of complementary (clicking) opportunity in which the layperson can advise the prospect on some personal or professional matter.


12. Affiliations through children, e.g., private schools, summer camps, university, fraternities, etc.

I’m sure other types of salient co-membership opportunities are quickly coming to mind as you think of your own community and potential prospects. Your lay people are your best connectors and are essential for facilitating the first meaningful meeting with your fundraiser and the true major gift prospect. Consider that your stewardship efforts are not just key for nurturing serial givers, but also critical for their activation as your network of new connectors into the future.

My experience at the American Technion Society (working with fantastic fundraisers) indicated that it was always difficult to start the cultivation process to raise gifts of any significant amount with a cold call. And why would a prospect respond to an unknown fundraiser over the phone? We all dislike telemarketers’ calls because of the superficial introduction, rehearsed sales pitch and lack of personal connection. Meeting the prospect at a public event by chance can also be a low-salience encounter, especially in a room with other roaming fundraisers. Strategically, true major and mega gifts fundraising require the connector to present you as the professional from a trustworthy organization – and then the fundraiser will artfully initiate a brief introduction and respectful use of the prospect’s time.

Of course, we’ve had relationship mapping tools and software (such as Relationship Science and Prospect Visual) for some years now, though these tools speak in generalities and lack context. It’s nice to see that your lay person and the prospect are on the same board, but does the prospect attend meetings or is he just a figurehead? What’s the size of the board? (Do the board members know each other to any degree or just through superficial encounters every few years?) Co-membership is always positive, meaningful and the more particular the better. Relationship mapping tools can be helpful help, but they share “official” knowledge that is usually historical and cannot be immediately elaborated in meaningful human terms. Co-membership is in real-time and dynamic… and, therefore, actionable.

Co-membership opportunities can be quirky and even unusual.

One fundraiser told me about a prospect and the professor (seeking funds) who discovered that they both were avid Table Tennis players (saying Ping-Pong would be a neophyte’s misnomer here). They met, donned their sporting white Table Tennis shorts (yes, custom apparel exists), armed themselves with custom paddles (which the prospect packs on all trips) and they battled away for several hours. So, games (forgive me, I mean Sports), fit in here too… with everything else that makes up salient and clearly passionate life activities.

Discovering and building on these affinities is the art of true MAJOR gifts fundraising.

In social network theory (and fundraising), the dyad is the beginning of every network. This dyad is the first step in developing the strength of a fundraising organization, however, the organization’s long-term success is contingent on the expansion of the dyad into triads and more complex structures. Picture a myriad of connections (a complex and messier spiderweb than pictured at top where every cross-point is connected to every other point). This is one reasonable analogic representation of a community and its points of contacts – its opportunities for healthy staff-prospect-donor-lay person-board interactions.

Successful organizations not only nurture personal relationships with individual prospects and donors; they create a culture where all the participants can convene, talk, learn about each other, celebrate their gifts and your organization, discover their co-memberships and ultimately gel (beyond a linear network) into a thriving community replete with messy, overlapping and healthy interconnections.

The micro-macro relation interweaves the fine fibers of your everyday interactions with individual prospects and donors to the special events and annual traditions that bring everyone in your community under your inclusive warm tent and singular banner.

To go back to the spiderweb metaphor, each strand represents a significant layperson – often a donor – who helps you reach out to their communities. The more strands you have, the greater the reach of your Development operation.

It sounds simple, yet, honestly, I’ve sketched a naïve picture of the ideal community. Reality speaks to the possibility of donors who don’t particularly like each other or get on well together. No wonder every community naturally forms subcultures and even more limiting cliques. But in these cases, when your community coheres, the ultimate and compensating co-membership turns out to be their shared passion for your organization.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: