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Fundraising and Donor Development: An Interview with Museum of the Bible’s Jon Sharpe

For a long time I’ve wanted to interview Jon Sharpe about fundraising and donor development. Jon serves as the Chief Relations Officer for Museum of the Bible. He joined the museum in April 2020, where he oversees the advancement efforts of the museum and is responsible for strategy, execution and results concerning development. Jon has spent over 40 years in Christian leadership, with an emphasis on developing and connecting people, organizations and mission. Whatever the size your church, ministry, or nonprofit, I think Jon’s advice will hit home. His insights could have a powerful impact on your own ability to make your dream happen.

Phil Cooke: Over the course of your career in fundraising and donor development, what’s the most common mistake you see churches, ministry organizations, and nonprofits make?
Jon Sharpe: Common mistakes we all make are to ask too little, too late, and too often. We usually ask too little because we are not looking at the true costs of our stated mission if we were to fulfill it, so we only ask for our immediate and usually urgent need. We ask too late because we are not typically thinking far enough down the road to ask when the project or even the idea is paramount in the donor’s mind. For example, to ask the donor to solve a crisis that happened six months ago is not relevant. We ask too often and make a crisis out of every ask because we are not thinking about the future. It is better to live through the present crisis without an ask than to ask prematurely.
Donors want to participate in a mission or project that will make a worthy impact with their investment. Organizations always believe that their project is the most desirable and life changing but the donor is typically looking at a wide variety of opportunities and this is just one of them.

Phil: Why are leaders so often afraid to ask for financial support?
Jon: Leaders love acceptance, and being rejected when we ask is one of the most disheartening experiences we face. I remember asking a very wealthy individual if he would pray about donating $10,000 to our work. He looked at me and laughed and said, “I don’t have to pray about it. The answer is no.” Needless to say, I was devastated. I determined to never ask him again because I felt humiliated. About three years later I invited the same person to an event for another organization and he wrote a check for $1 Million. At that point I realized it was not just me he had turned down but it was a cause that better aligned with his objectives. The fear of rejection can paralyze us. I’ve been paralyzed many times by fear of rejection. Leaders soon learn that donors will participate when and how they choose but we need to present them with realistic opportunities and trust the process.

Phil: How do you help them overcome that fear? ​
Jon: Fear and anxiety are at the core of the human condition. We need to get delivered from it and I think it’s a spiritual condition. We all deal with it. Most of my life I’ve wrestled with anxiety and questions like, “What if God doesn’t show up?” I had a friend that used to quote this little saying and I think it is what most of us believe, “If it’s going to be it’s up to me.” A contrasting thought is the concept taught in beautiful Psalm 23 which gives us an alternative to a self-centered approach to achieving goals or even living life. We are not producing life but we get to participate in it. A subtle difference. According to the Psalmist, our lives are being shepherded. The leading line in the Psalm is, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” The last few years of my life have been focused on learning how to trust God’s provision rather than trust my ability to provide. I talk to my development team at Museum of the Bible about God being the provider of the provision we seek and we are working with him. I take comfort in Jesus words, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” The birds are not idle as the search for food, but they simply trust there will be worms for them when they fly about. The same is true of us. If we are active, trusting, and open, we will find the provision necessary for the project given we are on the right project!

Phil: When it comes to raising money, what are the secrets to casting a great vision for a project?
Jon: If I knew the answer to that I’d be rich! However, I’ve observed that people respond to a vision they can see themselves in. Being a part of a great mission to end illiteracy, poverty, feed the hungry, care for veterans. And in the Museum of the Bible’s case “Inviting everyone to engage with the transformative power of the Bible.” When people realize the significance and the possibilities to change the world and they see the part they can play, they envision it. That’s great vision!

Phil: What about smaller organizations just starting out? Since they haven’t built a donor base or mailing list, are high donors the strategy to begin with?
Jon: Since most of my experience has been with smaller organizations, I’ve always been a startup guy, just tilling bare ground to gain momentum. I start with the principle that there are a few people with influence who will join me. I look for people who have enough resources to influence others with resources. I start testing the vision on a few to see if they lean-in to the idea and concept of a new work, organization, or movement. If people start showing interest I ask them to make an initial investment of their time and energy. If they will give their time and energy, they often invest in the mission. Also, there is nothing like a team sport. I grew up playing organized sports and I’ve learned that the team spirit is the most powerful environment to seed a common goal When people begin to connect with others who carry a common vision, it’s electric, especially when they are influencers. I naturally enjoy recruiting and gathering people so it is normal for me to gather people around a new idea and vision. In my experience the high wealth donors usually come later in the organizational development. Building a team and a community is the key to starting from scratch. When a community or team is formed it has strength that attracts.

Phil: What are the best ways to cultivate high donors?
Jon: I had a friend who used to say, “Eagles don’t gather.” High net worth individuals are usually flying high, a little removed from the flock, unlike those pesky geese. However, I’ve observed that eagles like to observe how other eagles fly. If a high net worth individual is involved in a work, a mission, or a ministry, other donors on their level want to check out what they are doing and why they are investing. Getting high net worth individuals to hear or see others participating is a great way to cultivate them. In the museum we have a Wall of Stones, where some well-known business owners in America have their names displayed commemorating their investment in the mission to invite all people to engage with the transformational power of the Bible. I’ve observed other business owners standing at that wall and taking pictures of the names. Often people will ask us, “What does it take to get our name on that wall?” The wall becomes symbolic of being on a wall with other significant leaders across America who want to make a statement for generations to come.

Phil: When it comes to finding funding, if there was one great piece of advice you’d give to church, ministry, and nonprofit leaders, what would it be?
Jon: Your funding is right in front of you. It is all around you. It is not distant but it is close at hand. If you have a worthy cause and you believe in it, there are many who will join you in the effort. Start looking at who God has placed in your world. Share the vision and pay attention to who leans-in.

—-   If you’d like more information about how to partner with Museum of the Bible, you can find out here.

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