CHICAGO – When Monique Hanson sold her first box of Girl Scout Cookies at age 8, she got hooked on fundraising.
She went from selling cookies door-to-door to raffles in high school and then, after college, a career helping organizations like the Alzheimer's Association, the YMCA of the USA and National Public Radio raise money.
Hanson was on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois for a decade before joining the organization as director of development earlier this year. Her charge at the nearly 71-year-old organization is to increase its donor base and embrace what she calls the "next generation" of philanthropists aimed at keeping the group's mission — promoting civil rights and criminal justice, among other issues — alive.
Hanson, 53, sat down with the Chicago Tribune to discuss philanthropy and how to convince people to give.
Q: What are the ACLU's biggest challenges and priorities today?
A: Our priorities are the work in racial justice, women's rights and reproductive rights, the rights of children in foster care, and people with disabilities. The primary challenge is resourcing the work adequately in a time of budgetary constraints.
Q: Why did you get involved in the ACLU so many years ago? Why is it important to you personally?
A: My father was an immigrant — South Asian, and as a newcomer to this country, he believed, and I believe, this is the greatest country in the world. I learned very early that what makes this country special is our Constitution, our rule of law.
Q: Yet there are many nonprofits and important causes you could have taken on.
A: It's always been about access, equality and equity for me. And being a kid from northern Wisconsin, mixed race, I know what it feels like to be different. So I wanted to reach out and make sure every kid has a sense of belonging.
Q: How do you court and cultivate relationships with donors? How do you talk to people about money and how do you convince them that you are the organization they should give to?
A: When you talk about development, you think about it in terms of the pitch — the ask. What I'm really doing is listening. If I'm talking less and listening more, then that's a successful meeting. Then I'm really learning what matters to them, what they care about. So if a development person is pitching, it's probably less authentic than building a philanthropic plan with someone that is suited to them.
Q: How do you get to know your donor base?
A: I'm having lunch frequently. I'm making a lot of calls. Some of the people I knew already because I was on the board. So I'm reconnecting with people. It's very personal. If I can't see them, I call. If I can't call, I write.
Q: You are charged with raising nearly $5 million for the ACLU of Illinois this year. How will you do it?
A: I do it by building relationships. I break fundraising down into four essential activities: you identify who cares about the organization, you get to know them, you make "the ask" and you keep current donors giving. I'm sort of an old-fashioned fundraiser. I believe it's incredibly important to get to know the people. Understand what they care about. Match the organization to their desired philanthropy roles and it should be meaningful to everyone. That's how we build a major gift.