The Re-Introduction of the Major Gift

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

The push for major gifts re-emerges as a critical strategic focus for non-profits to recapture strength, meet goals, and move into “the new normal.

Non-profit fundraising success in 2010 will be predicated on an organization’s capacity to become re-invigorated and to secure major gifts. The downturn in the economy clearly caused some donors to scale back and hold off on certain aspects of their giving, but that does not mean that charitable capacity or commitment no longer exists. Therefore, it is important to develop an understanding of your major donors’ interests as well as your abilities to accurately determine a realistic “ask” without being too cautious, inhibited or out of line.

Too often, volunteer and staff leaders of non-profits are reluctant to place enough significant emphasis on approaching lead and major donors. Fear often strikes so they try to cultivate at an arm’s length in a rationalizing of not offending or “bothering” major donors. This may not be the correct method to employ. Yes, we should always show respect for donors of all levels and not take advantage of their previous support or take future support for granted. But to return “lapsed” lead and major donors to previous levels may require serious nurturing and cultivations to be further involved. We recommend that non-profits review some of the basic principles of donor stewardship and cultivation and integrate them into this year’s fundraising plans.

Here is a real time story from last month: One of our client organizations approached a previously small donor to request a $25,000 pledge, payable over five years. With trepidation, the campaign chair asked the husband and wife to consider this commitment. The response: “Thank you for helping us do the right thing for this campaign! Of course we will do this.” This is an example of how an “ask” can be achieved and how certain donors are looking to leaders to set expectations. Try to understand your donor’s motivations and determine their financial capacity, and most importantly demonstrate confidence in your meeting. While this was simpler than most situations you may encounter, it reflects how setting levels and asking truly make an impact on fundraising results.

Here are three easy directions as you consider the major gifts program:

  1. Non-profits should approach donors throughout the year, not just around holidays and at the end of the year. This will help donors feel like they are a part of the organization and a driving force in its success. In fact, traditional campaigning predicates organizations starting with their largest gifts and then working their way across and down the giving spectrum. Almost all successful campaigns secure a lead (or the largest) gift before others; know that the guide is that the largest gift to a campaign is usually at least 20% of the goal . . . and more is better!
  2. Be assertive as you try to set a face-to-face meeting with a donor or a prospect. You must be straightforward in your approach and indicate the importance of their investment in the organization. They may tell you that they gave just a few months ago to the project; do not let this objection hold up your ability to obtain a gift and be prepared to discuss payment options that they might agree to. Be compelling as you describe the need, and if necessary, what type of recognition they will receive in return for a new charitable contribution.
  3. Do your research and formulate a strategic outreach plan ahead of time. Determine how many major gifts are needed and at what level to reach set goals and expectations. Devise a plan that maps out how each individual donor should be approached. While it seems like common sense, many organizations are jumping the gun and going straight to past donors without really thinking through any strategy. A basic part of every campaign is creating a gift pyramid, indicating how many prospects are required in each category and what the dollar values are as you move toward your goals. Donors like to see where they fit in to the mix!

Last year was an unprecedented situation characterized by reduced major gifts. We even saw that many organizations returned to the 80/20 paradigm (80% of the dollars from 20% of their donors). This year, circumstances require an even greater effort to obtain major gifts, be it from previous donors or from new ones. Whether you are affiliated with a community organization, a school or center, arts agency, house of worship or a social service agency, these larger gifts ultimately enable the non-profit to provide diverse programming and opportunities to its constituents.

Immediate advice: begin the outreach process today or you may start at a disadvantage in this competitive environment, potentially falling behind other organizations that are also appealing to donors for support. A strong focus on major gifts and a sincere effort to better get to know your donor base will be the stepping stones to organizational success in 2010.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.