Big Rock Fundraising

In his book, First Things First, Steven Covey shared a story about a seminar leader who used an empty jar and some rocks to illustrate the importance of setting priorities. “How many rocks do you think will fit into this jar?” the instructor asked. After a few guesses from the audience, he began to carefully place as many rocks into the jar as he could. When he reached the top, he asked. “Is the jar full?”

“Yes!” someone in the back shouted.

He then grabbed a bucket of gravel and began pouring it into the jar, stopping occasionally to shake it into every available space between the bigger rocks. “Is the jar full?” he asked.

Now the audience was catching on and someone replied, “Probably not.”

“Good!” he responded as he reached for a bucket of sand and dumped it into the jar, shifting it back and forth until every crevice was filled. “Is the jar full now?” he asked.

“No!” the crowd yelled.

“Good!” he replied as he poured a pitcher of water into the jar of rocks, gravel, and sand. Then he asked, “What does this jar of rocks, gravel, sand and water teach you about time management and your priorities?”

Somebody replied, “There are gaps in my time, and if you work really hard you can always fit something more into your life!”

“Wrong answer!” he replied. “The lesson is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never fit them in.”

Too Busy to Fundraise

As a ministry leader you have many big rocks in your life: cast the vision, build, lead, and motivate your team, inspire enthusiasm, drive new initiatives, manage multiple constituencies, and successfully engage the board. Then there’s all the gravel, sand, and water issues of budgeting, marketing, organizing, planning, scheduling, writing, reporting, encouraging, and handling personnel issues which can easily explode into big rock issues. I’m convinced. You are an incredibly busy person with no room for another big rock in your life—especially the big rock called “fundraising.”

“Big Rock” Fundraising involves two key principles: identifying major donors and investing your time with them. Yes, you need donors who can partner with you at all levels. Yes, your ministry is grateful for every donor no matter what size of gift. But to reach your gift income potential, you must cultivate personal relationships with major donors. Remember the 80/20 rule: 80% of the resources will come from 20% of your donor base. The ratio is more like 95/5: 95% of your funds will come from 5% of your donors.

Who are your “big rocks?” Do you know their names? Do you know what motivated them to give? Have you personally thanked them for partnering with you? The most important fundraising strategy you could implement is to list your top twenty-five donors and begin making personal visits. Connect a name with a face. Get to know them and listen to their giving priorities. Share stories of lives you’ve touched. Tell them what their gift could accomplish.

Making Time for Big Rocks

If you’re serious about finding more resources for your ministry, the fundraising rock must be one of the biggest rocks in your jar. Now before you pick up a rock and throw it at me, consider this. What nonprofit organization in your city has the most fundraising success? If you were to ask them why they are successful at fundraising, you would discover that their CEO devotes at least 50% of his or her time cultivating relationships with major donors. Those who invest even more time achieve extraordinary results. Those who spend less time often struggle to survive.

You are thinking, “But I didn’t get into ministry to spend all my time raising money.” I understand. But think of this, there are certain things that only the executive director can do; cultivating relationships with major donors is at the top of the list. Major donors want to talk with the boss. They want to hear your passion and vision for the future. They want to make a difference with their gift, so they want to know if you will follow through with what you say you will do. They want to give to people they can trust, and you build that trust by meeting with them face to face. If you can succeed with your big rock relationships, you’ll be able to expand your personnel, programs, and even your property.

I challenge you to commit even 20 percent of your time cultivating big rock donors. Delegate tasks that others could do. Focus your time on big rocks. You ask, “OK, where do I start?” The first problem you will face is the urgent often crowds out the important. Take control of your calendar and clear one day a week from all the gravel, sand, and water that gets in your way. Spend the entire day identifying, cultivating, and soliciting major donors.

Your “Big Rock” Day

Some CEOs try to ease into this time management shift, but it is best to go “cold turkey.” Don’t worry—meetings that require your presence will fill into the cracks somewhere. Divide your time into six key strategies:

1. Research. Identify those individuals who have the capacity to support your ministry. Discover who in your organization knows them the best and can introduce you.

2. Relationship. Invest time cultivating these donor relationships before asking for a large gift. Educate them about how your ministry impact lives.

3. Request. You must ask for a specific gift. Hinting is not enough; you must be straightforward and ask. “Big Rock” donors want to know what you want from them.

4. Recognize. Say, “Thank You” in an appropriate way.

5. Recruit. Encourage your new donor to open doors to others who might also support your cause.

6. Report. How your organization shows appreciation to donors becomes an important factor in whether your donor cultivation cycle keeps moving forward or grinds to a halt. Continue sharing compelling stories of changed lives.

You have an important decision to make. You can spend your time shifting around gravel, sand, and water, trying to squeeze in enough room for big rocks, or you can dump the jar and start over. Remember, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never fit them in.

Resource: Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca R. Merrill, First Things First, New York, NY: Fireside, 1996


Ron Haas has served the Lord as a pastor, the vice

president of advancement of a Bible college, a Christian foundation director, a board member and a fundraising consultant. He’s authored two books: Ask for a Fish – Bold Faith-Based Fundraising and Simply Share – Bold, Grace-Based Giving. He regularly presents fundraising workshops at ministry conferences and has written fundraising articles for At the Center magazine and Christian Leadership Alliance’s Outcomes magazine.

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