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Unleashing Organizational Possibilities, Part One: The Big Idea at the Beginning of Serious Fundraising

“A nonprofit can’t generate major gifts in this economy unless it’s already supported by the wealthiest one percent of the population.” A consultant shared this opinion with me a few months ago. Fortunately, it’s not true. I have witnessed many organizations leap from dependence on galas and grants to a full-fledged engagement with affluent and generous individuals. This series will describe the sequence of that metamorphosis. The first step is the spark of an idea: there are people in our circle who could write big checks.

This is a radical transformation because it reorients fundraising from focusing on activity to focus on relationships. There are many ways that idea can pop up at different organizations. Here are four scenarios that I have seen:

  • The executive director realizes that government and foundation grants are not sustainable. Foundations aren’t getting the return on their endowments they used to. Government budgets at every level are squeezed. And when you do get that grant, it is likely to be have so many strings attached that you would think the grantors are in the kite-flying business.
  • A donor says "I want to help." Do your top donors know what your big-ticket wish list looks like? If donors are excited about what you do, they will want to help you do more or better. It’s rare -- but not unheard of -- for the donor to be the first to make the first move.
  • A fundraiser realizes that big gifts are possible when one or more people expresses a willingness to consider a special gift. Or makes intimations about getting an inheritance and not knowing what to do with it. Or says, “I realize that I have more than I need to live on."
  • None of volunteers that have managed the annual gala for the past 15 years is willing to chair this year’s event. Some smart person, staff or volunteer, says, “We have generated a lot of goodwill by doing that event. Let’s think about how to keep those relationships going with more of a focus on mission and less of a strain on scarce person hours.”

A person with an idea alone is not enough to turn an organization from the grants and galas mindset to a focus on individual donors. But it is the start of conversations. Board members sticking around after meetings to toss around ambitious ideas. Executive director and fundraiser talking about what relationships the organization already has and how to grow and multiply them. Program staff imagining what they might be able to do for their clients if they were not constrained by grants. When a couple people with a “why not?” mentality start talking together, watch out.

If you are the idea-monger in your organization, and you see the potential for people to write big checks, don’t try to make it happen by yourself. An idea is the unsprouted seed of a conversation. The transformation requires the executive director to think differently about her job. It requires the board to take on new responsibilities. So find allies. Find other people who can imagine a bigger future for the organization. Figure out how other organizations have made the leap. Do some thought-experiments: If donor X offered a $50,000 challenge gift, how would the board react? Are there other donors who would accept the challenge? In next week’s post, I will describe how an idea gains traction.

Paul Jolly Paul Jolly

The preceding is part 1 of a 5 part series, "Unleashing Organizational Possibilities" by regular guest post contributor Paul Jolly, founder of Jump Start Growth, Inc. Paul worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth. He began his career serving various Quaker institutions, then moved to The Wilderness Society, and then the American Civil Liberties Union. In every instance, he has zeroed in on gifts from individuals at the top of the giving pyramid. The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are outside of the philanthropic mainstream. His successes include leading three capital campaigns for organizations new to major gifts fund raising, securing millions of dollars in bequest and planned gift commitments, and bringing new life and laser-sharp focus to disheartened development departments.

Topics: Fundraising