Major gifts fundraising isn’t normal

Those who have been involved in major gifts solicitations and have spent years trying to get inside the head and heart of a single donor in the hopes of securing that elusive impact gift will agree with the headline. Likewise, major givers who have endured countless presentations for projects in which they have no interest and asking for amounts that are patently absurd, may also agree. But that’s not the “not normal” I’m referring to.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to Major Gifts lately. No, my Powerball number hasn’t come up but I am co-authoring a book based on interviews with many of Canada’s top philanthropists. I’ve been considering how I can use what I’ve learned to help fundraising organizations. The yardstick I often use in approaching challenges in nonprofit organizations is what’s the equivalent for-profit situation and what would the ideal business response be.

I was trying to think of a business that offers products or services that range in price from $10 to $10 million. I couldn’t come up with one. And yet, that’s exactly what a hospital or college foundation is doing. They are selling opportunities that range from two digits to those that often exceed seven digits. Even if your organization’s definition of major giving is 5 digits, that’s still an incredible spread. I suspect that if you proposed a business venture with those parameters to your local bank, you’d be given a lecture about how a $10 sale requires a very different approach than one that is worth tens of thousands or millions.

And yet fundraising organizations have no choice but to do that which would be scoffed upon in the business world – and that’s why I say that major gifts fundraising isn’t normal. So, what’s a fundraising organization to do?

Be honest about the challenge. The for-profit world understands that a large ticket item requires a very different sales approach and so should you. Major gifts fundraising is, in may ways, its own discipline. It requires distinct knowledge and dedicated resources. If you’re going to be successful at it, you have to make the investment in time and people.

Resist the temptation. News of a philanthropist’s record-setting gift to a local organization is like the lure of a lottery ticket. “If she can give that organization $1 million, then maybe she will give mine $100,000.” You likely know nothing about that donor’s interests and have no relationship with her, but that doesn’t stop many organizations from thinking that they are going to secure that donor’s support. The reality is it’s not going to happen. So, save yourself the time and the heartache and mine your current donor base. Maybe, the rule of tens (for every ten donors at one level, there is one donor who has the ability to add a zero to their gift) will work for you.

Be true to your organization. I mean this in two ways. First, define a major gift according to your needs and resources. For some, that will be a four digit amount and that’s OK – especially if it’s within your reach. Second, concentrate on developing a powerhouse case for giving that is authentic and compelling. In the interviews we conducted with major givers, we found that the the most likely determinant of whether and how much a philanthropist would give is the confidence that their gift would make a difference as well as the passion of the cause and its prime mover. There were also many, many instances in which a philanthropist gave more than asked – because the case for giving was so strong. If you worry about building a strong case and even stronger relationships, you may find that major gifts opportunities are less contrived and more organic.

It’s not for everyone. Let me completely contradict myself (I do it often) and say there may be organizations that are simply not set up for any kind of major gifts programs. Maybe that’s ok – as long as you can build a funding model that works on the volume of smaller gifts.

Normal or not, the challenge of major gifts is extremely demanding. Developing a realistic strategy that makes sense for your organization will help you save your sanity.

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