Navigating the surprising benefits and challenges of receiving your first major gift
By Donna Schwartz
Five years ago, I was approached by a major donor about expanding our services at the University of Delaware’s Kristol Center for Jewish Life. The $1 million gift came with several expectations: First, that we radically increase student engagement. Second, that we increase the size of our staff to better our support of students.
I was so excited to receive our Hillel’s first seven figure gift that I underestimated the difficulty of meeting the donor’s third and final expectation, that we make the gift sustainable. That meant more than doubling our annual budget and changing our mindset and culture in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Virtually on the fly, our staff would have to go from thinking and operating a small nonprofit to a large and sophisticated organization.
Almost reflexively, I said “yes,” because a $1,000,000 donation has a certain irresistible attraction that you just can’t say “no” to. Unfortunately, while this gift was in many ways a boon and a blessing to our mission, we didn’t achieve all the donor’s expectations for us in the agreed upon timeline.
As a Type A driven person, I hate failure. I can’t change the past. But I can give you the benefit of my experience. Hopefully, if you haven’t already received your first seven-figure donation, you will soon. And when that times comes, I hope you’ll think through some of the steps I didn’t.
Here are five takeaways from my experience:
- Getting everyone on board. Not everyone on your staff will share your goals and that is OK. As a leader, it is essential for you to articulate your vision to your staff. Your staff can’t read your mind and may not initially see your vision. For some people, change can be uncomfortable, even unsettling. Your decisions may result in unhappy staff members or turnover. This was a lesson that took me a few years to really understand. But you must lead your staff to see the vision and help guide them along the path.
- Set clear goals. Growing an agency from one with a small budget to one with almost a seven-figure budget that is sustainable takes time. When our organization accepted the donation, our donor wanted us to raise our annual budget from $400,000 to $1,000,000 in the span of four years. Our goals were aggressive; our timeline was tight. Set realistic goals and stretch goals – just be clear about which goals are which.
- Keep donors in the loop. When you receive a generous donation, it is a best practice to speak with your donors at the outset about what your shared goals are. Take some time to share with them what the process for achieving those goals will look like. Let the donors know that you plan on updating them regularly about what you are working on. Keeping donors in the loop will allow a more hands-on donor to feel more involved and will help you be more transparent about how their donation is beneficial, as well as any challenges that you are facing. Having a donor who was a great thought partner was helpful we when we realized that we might not achieve all our agreed upon goals. Being transparent allowed us to ask for another donation at the end of four years to give us more to time to sustain the original gift.
- Do more with more. For some of our students, who were accustomed to significant autonomy and creative latitude, scaling our Hillel came with significant growth pains. Before the large donation, our students mostly led the charge on projects with the support of our small staff. Our students typically took on large leadership roles in our organization. But in accepting the donation, our agency was able to hire a much larger professional staff. Many of our students were surprised when our staff began having a larger role in our organization. But after we evaluated our changes, we realized that we had gone too far and reached a compromise solution with our students. Now our students can gain valuable leadership skills with the support of our larger staff.
- Ask for help. Having an executive coach or an expert to rely on is invaluable. I have worked in Jewish nonprofits for 25 years, but this project has been the biggest challenge of my professional career thus far. A coach can help you point out small wins along the way if you get caught up on making sure every change is perfect or if the original plans and goals you laid out for yourself are not met. Take advantage of a coach or an expert to provide an outside perspective that neither you nor your staff may have considered.
I have been asked many times if in hindsight I would still accept the money. While the past five years have been the most challenging of my career, I would not change my decision.
We still have a lot to celebrate. We achieved two of our original goals with our first $1,000,000 gift. Our next step is to make this transformative grant sustainable and incorporate all that we have learned in building a much larger organization.
The key is to stick to your vision, set clear goals and work with your staff and stakeholders to get everyone on board. You may face some unexpected challenges like we did, but if you prepare yourself, your team and your donors for what lies ahead, you will be able to grow your organization and achieve more than you ever thought possible.
Donna Schwartz is the executive director at the University of Delaware’s Kristol Center for Jewish Life.