What Happens When Lead Gifts Fall Through

abacusBy Robert Evans

Dear Fundraising Expert:

I made the cardinal mistake of fundraising: I counted the money before it was pledged. I told myself not to do it, but I couldn’t help it. I run development at a mid-sized nonprofit and I was sure we had a million dollar donor lined up: a lead gift that could set the pace for the entire campaign. It didn’t happen. We did receive a much smaller six figure gift from that donor, with the door being left slightly ajar to ask for more at a later date. But without this lead gift, I just can’t see us making our goal. How can we salvage our campaign?

Panicking Development Director


Dear Panicking Development Director:

You certainly did violate a cardinal rule of fundraising: we always warn everyone involved in nonprofit fundraising not to count money too soon. Yet it is almost impossible not to do so at some point. We are human beings and we make assessments based on human interaction, past history, and all the information we have available. What do we do when our assessments turn out to be either not entirely correct or flat-out wrong? First of all, we don’t panic. Even if this donor has really given all he or she plans to give, all is not lost. But I wouldn’t write this philanthropist off yet. The donor does not want to carry the whole campaign on his or her back. He or she is saying to you “show me how much you can raise and come back to me.”

Now, to prevent this from happening, you should have obtained written confirmation of the pledge before announcing campaign pledges in total. That is a mistake I trust you will not repeat. In this instance, be sure to be honest with your organization’s professional and lay leadership and alert them that a large donor has either changed his or her pledge or come in way below what the leadership was expecting or hoping for.

When lead gifts fall through, you have to double and triple your efforts to solicit others. Essentially, what you have to do is run the campaign you had planned to run, but execute it flawlessly and work even harder. Make sure you have done solid research on your donor prospects. Assemble a proverbial army of campaign volunteers who will make calls and set meetings with large donor prospects. Remember, donors are most moved to give to people, not impersonal organizations. Make sure you have great materials and compelling talking points. In order to make your goal, this campaign will require existing donors to stretch their gift, to make the biggest gift to the organization they have ever made – and you need to show them why. Once you build momentum, you may find new donors will be attracted to your cause. And you just may convince your initial lead donor prospect that your organization is worth the larger investment.

Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group in suburban Philadelphia has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofits on fundraising campaigns and strategic planning. A member of the Giving USA editorial review board and a board member of the Giving Institute, Mr. Evans is frequently quoted in media outlets such as The New York Times and is a regular contributor to www.eJewishPhilanthropy.com. Questions to the Fundraising Expert should be directed to info@theevansconsultinggroup.com.