The key role of the chief executive officer and board in gift-making decisions was elaborated on two of Australia’s most generous philanthropists – Simon Mordant AM and John Grill AO – at F&P’s recent major gifts seminar, Liz Henderson reveals.

John Grill and Simon Mordant smallerA nonprofit’s chief executive officer and board have a central role to play in the process of major donors deciding to make a significant gift.

This was just one point made by John Grill (left) and Simon Mordant (right) – Australian philanthropists who between them have donated more than $35 million – in a candid interview at F&P’s recent Art & Science of Major Gifts Seminar in Sydney.

Mordant also stated that lack of engagement by a chief executive officer had been a factor in him ending his involvement with an organisation. While Grill said “too small” a vision of what he could help to achieve had prevented him committing large gifts in the past, and that he believes nonprofits should be prepared to cater to donors’ say in where their money goes.

The pair have plenty of experience in both major gift-giving and big business. Mordant is a long-time corporate advisor and recently retired managing director of the global investment banking company Greenhill, who with his wife Catriona started making significant charity gifts 15 years ago after they resolved to give away all their wealth during their lifetime. In 2010 they gave $15 million to support a major re-development at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

As for Grill, in 2012 he supported excellence in industry through a $20 million gift to establish the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney, where he studied himself before going on to become chief executive officer of international resources and energy company WorleyParsons.

Here are four of their insights:

1. Nonprofit leadership has a key role in major giving

SM: We’ve got to believe in the governance, the chair, the board. We’ve got to feel very passionate about the CEO and the vision the CEO has. We want to spend time with the CEO’s team and make sure it is cohesive. With institutions we feel passionate about and where we believe in the CEO and the board, we’re very comfortable to support core overheads.

JG: I think if you’re going to get major gifts or major projects being undertaken for your charity or nonprofit organisation, unless the CEO is involved it’s very unlikely to happen. Because you’re very unlikely to satisfy the demands of the donor and make them feel they are contributing to a worthwhile part of what you’re doing.

2. Lack of executive engagement can end relationships

SM: I’ve had a couple of experiences with institutions we’ve supported where we’ve drifted apart – either because the CEO hasn’t wanted the level of engagement that we’ve sought, or there’s been a change in CEO and the incoming CEO has taken a different approach. Catriona and I have both been on boards, contributed meaningfully, served for years and at the appropriate time come off the boards – and never heard from the institution again. And you scratch your head a little bit.

3. Big vision inspires big gifts

JG: I’ve looked at giving a donation and really haven’t been able to sort out an arrangement that I was prepared to support – and in some cases, because the charity, in my view, weren’t thinking in a large enough manner. They had too small a view of what I might do, I suppose. And I think if they’d be prepared to come up with a bigger plan in the area I thought of, I probably would have supported it.

4. Charities should try to meet donor requests

JG: Sometimes, if they want to get that donation, they have to change what they are doing in an area. I think that, increasingly, donors will want to have a say in how the money is used: not directly, but certainly in how it’s streamed and if there is a particular project they think should be developed with their money. The charity should work with that donor to try to achieve that aim. And if they can, they get the money. If they can’t, they won’t.

 Liz Henderson is the editor of Fundraising & Philanthropy Magazine.

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