A new study of the major gifts landscape in Australia provides much insight and some strong messages for the sector. Wendy Scaife reports.

Among some of the key findings of a new study about major gift fundraising in Australia were that charities felt this area of fundraising was hugely under developed, but boards have little understanding about it.

The research, carried out by the Australian Centre of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies (ACPNS), was a first-of-its-kind project and involved qualitative interviews with nearly 50 people on both sides of the giving coin, i.e. fundraisers and philanthropists.

Latent opportunities

One of the strongest messages that came out of the focus groups and interviews was the view that there is abundant undeveloped potential for major gifts. This is a particularly interesting finding given the research was undertaken in late 2009 during the economic downturn. Comments from seasoned fundraisers around the nation jointly representing 400+ years experience indicated:

“It [major gifts fundraising] is significantly underdeveloped and there are so many people capable of major gifts … there is still enormous scope for it to increase.”

“People are beginning to realise there’s a big hole in the market in Australia in major gifts.”

Donors often agreed, saying:

“…the majority of them [affluent Australians] are extremely focused on how to continue to increase their wealth. They don’t feel a sense of responsibility really.”

“They’re on a couple of hundred million dollars but what they give is minimal.”

Boards need to get on board

A heartfelt and resounding plea from many fundraisers was for more boards to make the effort to ‘get’ major gifts fundraising. Fundraisers said boards need to resource their organisations better: with an internal culture and understanding of giving, with peer asking ability, and with money to capitalise on opportunities.

Donors also voiced demands of boards. They wanted reliable and professional management of their gift/investment; enough reputation capital to encourage them to entrust their money; and the reassurance of links to people they know somehow connected to the organisation or cause. Comments from donors included:

“Somebody approached me … from the organisation itself, so not a friend … that’s a difficulty to overcome first off if you don’t know somebody when you’re considering an important decision.”

This preference for being introduced to a particular need and nonprofit through a respected peer was strongly articulated by other donors.

“It’s pretty much who you meet.”

“… I just need more word of mouth … more contacts … more conversations.”

“They have a patron who is fairly high profile and they arranged for people … to have dinner at this person’s house. That was what really took us to the first step.”

Donors scathing of nonprofits

A myth of Australian charities as fumbling, ineffectual do-gooders also came through loudly. In the words of some donors:

“… almost without exception, charitable organisations are ineffective … nil productivity or business skills.”

“… they couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag.”

As a sector we need to scotch this myth, by getting our organisational houses in order where needed and proactively showcasing the real calibre of our many whip smart operations. The image of our sector is weak and we carry some blame for this. It seems the sector is damned if it is too businesslike – and we don’t want to be business clones – but it is equally criticised for being too fuzzy and compassionate.

An investment, not donation

A persistent message was that major donors seldom think or talk in terms of gifts. Everything is about an investment in outcomes. Apart from wanting their investment to be soundly based and stewarded, these donors are single-mindedly results-orientated and talked of their money as ‘firepower … for effective projects’ ‘to get positive outcomes’.

Action and change is a widespread driving force and many would like their quarterly return on investment report but rarely receive sufficient – sometimes any – feedback. Sometimes the fundraiser moving on was identified as the problem. Comments included:

“I can’t stress enough how important it is and how meaningful it is when they make an effort …”

“… you like to hear how the project is progressing …”

Donors said they often tested the organisation’s ‘service’ levels with a small gift first before deciding to invest.

A culture of major giving?

Respondents said there was a discrete giving culture in Australia compared to a more ‘showy’ version in the US. Donors said they were happy to talk about a cause to their friends if they felt they would be well looked after by the nonprofit.

Major giving here is substantial, important, long-established in some quarters and emerging in others, but not necessarily very visible. Major donors commented that Australia does not celebrate either wealth or giving.

To download the full report log onto https://wiki.qut.edu.au/display/CPNS/Major+Gifts.

Dr Wendy Scaife MFIA, FPRIA is a senior research fellow with the Australian Centre of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at QUT.

The author would like to thank the Perpetual Foundation and the EF and SL Gluyas and Edward Corbould Charitable Trusts which funded the research.

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