Talking Shop: How to Find Your New Audience

Former Smithsonian fundraiser Anna Barber on making cold calls and creating a diverse donor base

By Emily Lombardo

Anna Barber

Anna Barber
Founder and Principal Consultant
Barber & Associates, LLC
Washington, D.C.

As a senior major gift officer for the Smithsonian Institution, Barber had the task of raising $10 million from California donors for the then-forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture. She raised more than $40 million, including gifts from Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Samuel L. Jackson. Recently, she started Barber & Associates, a boutique consultancy specializing in major gift strategy and increasing diversity in development.


Barber will be speaking at CASE's Conference on Diverse Philanthropy and Leadership, April 12–13, in Washington, D.C.

The gifts you raised for the National Museum of African American History came primarily from African-American donors. Did you cultivate them differently than nonblack donors?

No, my approach has always been the same. I believe in the power of one-on-one visits and strong cultivation to build relationships with new audiences. There's a perception that different donor bases must be handled differently, but at the end of the day, they're all philanthropists. They should be given the same respect and attention that every donor is entitled to receive.

Few things sound scarier than cold-calling, but you're a big fan. Why?

My philosophy is: Don't fight over the existing donor base—look for new donors. When I worked in college athletics, I discovered a prospect base that was overlooked: women. I started soliciting and cultivating relationships with female donors, and it was amazing how much support they gave to athletics. It was the same at the Smithsonian. The previous donor base was not as broad as it could be. I decided to begin my cold calls and find a new audience. If you have a project with a strong mission, a strong leader, and tangible goals, you can build a donor audience from scratch. Cold calls are necessary, and you're going to have to make a lot of them. Don't say no for your prospects. Let them tell you no.

How do you manage disappointment when a donor declines a proposal?

Our role is to help donors align with the objectives of the institution. Not all individuals will align with those goals. I don't look at it as rejection per se. You're spreading the word as an advocate for your organization. Every gift officer has experienced disappointment after coming close to closing a gift that didn't materialize. Sometimes it isn't a good fit, but in other cases there needs to be an assessment about what went wrong.

What advice do you have for cultivating relationships with big-name donors?

Generally, it's very different. You typically aren't talking to that celebrity or athlete personally. You're talking to the spouses a lot. You're working with their managers or executive assistants. How you work with their team to succinctly get the message across is crucial. However, a lot of the people around these individuals are not the ones who will help them make that decision, so it's a matter of identifying the right person. That takes a long time. You have to build a circle of trust around their friends or their networks so they will let you in. It's not a simple thing.

Does the museum's fundraising success help erode stereotypes about minority giving and philanthropy?

The success definitely buries stereotypes. I have to give credit: The entire frontline team was African-American. I have never seen a stronger group of fundraisers in my career. Organizations should really consider investing in diverse frontline teams. They should also strive for diversity on their executive teams and within board leadership.

People of diverse backgrounds have the capacity to make significant gifts. They have diverse interests—they're art collectors, history buffs, and scientists, and they should be cultivated with that in mind. Organizations struggling to find diverse donors are going to have to do cold calls and do diligent groundwork to identify individuals in those communities who align with the goals and vision of their organization. They're out there.