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Unleashing Organizational Possibilities, Part Three: The First Big Gift

This post is the third in a series about instituting major gifts fundraising at an organization that has been funded by a membership program, events, government or foundation grants, membership, or any combination. The first two posts (Post 1 & Post 2) described how the possibility of big gifts gets sparked at an organization and how that idea gains traction when it is embraced by a handful of people. In this post we will explore the importance and the impact of the first big gift.

Here are the ways that the biggest gift you have ever gotten can transform a nonprofit:

  1. The board is heartened. The board will be touched in two ways. First, it is a confirmation of the vitality of the mission that they have committed themselves to. Second, whatever their role in fundraising is, that big gift is likely to inspire them to tackle it with more gusto and confidence.
  2. The program staff is encouraged. Most program staff – teachers, social workers, curators – live deep in the day to day world of service with its challenges, setbacks, and disappointments. What a delightful surprise that someone feels strongly enough about what they are doing to write a dramatic check!
  3. Cautious donors are inspired. Every donor has a mental number assigned to every organization he supports: what that organization is “worth”. A mega-gift inspires people to rethink those numbers.
  4. Solicitors are heartened. Asking for gifts from individuals is amorphous work, beset by delays, mysteries, and rejections. A big gift is a welcome reminder of why we keep at it.
  5. Planners are liberated. I know of a board which got a $100,000 gift a few days before the board meeting where they approved a growth campaign. They responded by raising the goal from $500,000 to $700,000. (After the euphoria settled, the goal was reset to $500,000. But it was a pleasant detour.) People charged with imagining the future of the organization are going to see new possibilities.

In short, a big gift puts a spring in everyone’s step.

There are some master fundraisers who believe that the dramatic gift is the pinnacle of development, and that it shouldn’t even be attempted before all of the building blocks of a full-fledged development program are in place. To them I respectfully say Baloney! There is no reason not to do both at the same time.

Here’s how to make it happen:

  • Make a list of your top donors who are not giving at capacity.
  • Scan that list for mavericks. Most donors are cautious – they want to walk a trail that has been blazed by someone else. So you are looking for an independent thinker.
  • Consider the impact. What could your organization do with a gift of $50,000, or $500,000, or $5,000,000?
  • Justify the request in terms of your past achievements. The most compelling request is: “The demand for our services has been so great that we need to grow to meet it.” If you are a theater with empty seats at every show, or a school that is under-enrolled, you probably need to postpone the solicitation of a mega-gift.
  • Think about every strand of the donor’s relationship with the organization. The person who made the introduction. The donor’s relationship with board members and executive director and program staff. The program that the donor cares most about. The gifts that the donor has made in the past.
  • Ask the donor if you can meet to discuss a big idea. This is not the moment for solicitation. This is the time to find out if you are on the right track. This is where your skill in reading body language gets put to the test. Before the end of that meeting, make sure you have agreement on the next steps in the conversation.
  • Think about what it will take for the donor to say yes. Will she be more likely to give a challenge gift than an outright gift? Will she want to give a seed gift and be involved in soliciting other donors?

Get ready to shout from the rooftops. Think of all the people who had even the slightest role in the organization’s relationship with the donor, and get ready to sing their praises. Now, go make something big happen.


Paul Jolly Paul Jolly

The preceding is part 3 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