Major Donors and Major Gifts

John and Sarai are long-time loyal donors.  Every year, for the past eight or so years, they have made a $10,000 gift.  You consider them—rightly—as major donors. But is their gift a major gift?

Not to them, I would argue.  If every year, every year, they can make what is a large gift, then they clearly have the capacity to —from time to time—make a much larger gift.  A gift that could transform your organization, or at the very least, create or enhance a program that will substantially move your mission forward.

These kinds of major gifts remind us the importance of being donor-centric.  Instead of asking for what we want, we need to consider what a prospect can and will do. That means that for some donors, we should do more than just ask for gift over a certain amount.  We must help them to make a gift that will create opportunities that have a permanent impact on your organization’s future. Your job, should you be responsible for major gift fundraising, therefore, is to create a path for every donor that not only serves the mission and needs of your organization but also enriches the donor’s life in a meaningful (to them) way.

So let’s redefine our terms.

Major donors are people who make large gifts:  major gifts are those that are extraordinary.

Extraordinary gifts, of course, require extraordinary effort.  They require that you understand what motivates your donor.  Yes, of course, they care about your organization and/or your cause.  After all, they’ve been giving to you for years.  But to get a seriously major gift requires a deeper  and more thoughtful connection.

To create those connections takes time. Time to learn about what your donor hopes to achieve through his, her, or their philanthropy.  And time to create something that not just resonates but makes your donor get excited enough to want to be a part of that something.

It’s important to understand that major gifts are more than just money; not, mind you, that money isn’t important.  But a true major gift engages and entices your donors to get increasingly more involved.  And while that is mainly a good thing, if handled poorly it can turn toxic quickly.

For example, the donor who now wants to control the way “his” or “her” money is used.  Not in a strategic way, but down among the paper clips.  Or the donor who insists you hire a specific someone to run the show; or invest their money with their financial advisors.

Major gifts are always more complex than the simple giving of funds.  They require—always—gift agreements that carefully spell out not only any restrictions on the gift but also the obligations of both the donor(s) and the organization.  Those obligations include a payment schedule and the way that financial obligations will be met.

If your donor has committed a million dollars to be paid out over five years, and is hit by a bus in year two, does that million that you made such a hoopla about morph into a gift of just $200,000?  Okay, that sounds cold, but honestly, your job is to protect your organization and that means ensuring your gift agreement covers these kinds of contingencies.  Relying on heirs’ goodwill just isn’t a good strategy.

Thoughtful is a word I often use to describe major gifts.  It takes thoughtfulness on all sides to ensure that a major gift is not just extraordinary but wonderful, fantastic, and every other superlative you can think of for both the donor and your organization.

Janet Levine

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