27 Apr

Major gift fundraising: It’s not about us

Last week was a great week for spring conferences.  First was AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) Indiana Chapter and next was CASE Indiana.  I’m going to share reflections from both, first focusing on AFP Indiana.

Master fundraiser and former Indiana University colleague Kent Dove presented “The Art and Science of Major Gift Fundraising.”  The Dove on Fundraising series, including Conducting a Successful Major Gifts and Planned Giving Program, is a timeless resource on the principles and techniques of fundraising.

Kent retired earlier this year, so hearing him one last time was particularly meaningful.  His presentation reinforced to me such a simple, but often elusive, approach to fundraising – being donor-centric instead of institution-centric.

For example, what constitutes a major gift at your university?  (At our campus, it is a gift of $25,000 or more.)  Yet, donors make major gifts; institutions do not.  Therefore, how can an institution or any nonprofit set a dollar amount for what truly constitutes a major gift?  I’m not sure what a major gift is at my alma mater Wabash College.  But I’m guessing that if I make a major gift there, my definition would have fewer zeroes than the college’s.

Rather than an institutional definition, Dove advises a donor definition, with the following components:

  • Gift that is a significant portion of donor’s wealth (amount varies according to donor’s means)
  • Of such significance it requires some degree of planning
  • Infrequently given/asked for (thoughtful; decision is emotional/visceral; decision takes longer; result of nurturing relationship; involves spouses, family, expert advisers)
  • Gift given from assets (not income)
  • Giving meets the needs of the donors (rarely are the nonprofits’ needs the most important factor)
  • Not usually a “first gift”

Could an institutional definition of a major gift be placing an artificial ceiling on your fundraising?  Are some of your current major gift donors not really major gift donors at all (but high-end annual giving donors instead)?  In the end, do you truly understand the wants and needs of your donors?  If you do, your ability to maximize private support is greatly enhanced.

What about timing and the pressure to raise more money more quickly?  We know that the key to successful major gift fundraising is building relationships with people over time.  Are we considering the donor’s timing, or are we worried about reaching a certain number by current fiscal year end?  As Dove said, when it comes to annual giving the amount is the variable and time is the constant.  With major gift fundraising, the amount is the constant and time is the variable.

Major gift fundraising is a process that takes time.  This process sometimes leads to a major gift, and sometimes it does not.  When it does, though, it is an amazing experience for the donor, the fundraiser, and the institution.  If your process is donor-centric (and if you’re sometimes the tortoise instead of the hare), the dollars will follow.  As Kent Dove reminded those of us in Indianapolis last week, fundraising is a great profession because we get to work with the best people in society at their best.

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