Major gifts success often depends more on the organisational readiness of a nonprofit than the skills of a fundraiser. Frankie Airey outlines the five areas an organisation needs to address to aid the chances of major gift success.

Have you ever wondered why some organisations seem to do so well in raising major gifts and others do so poorly? Around 10 years ago my colleagues and I began to chart which organisations did well and which did not, trying to identify what marks the difference. The conclusions we reached were no more than common sense, once we stepped back and thought about it. But for some reason when it comes to fundraising, common sense often flies out the window.

Before we go into the detail, it’s important to look at things from the donor’s perspective. The mental process involved in considering a major gift is vastly different from annual giving, where the main decision is which organisation to support.

When considering a major gift – a gift that will ‘hurt’ financially – there are a number of questions the donor asks themself:

• Does this organisation deliver real impact in the field?
• Is it well run or will they squander my money?
• Who’s involved that I know and/or respect?
• What do they want money for?
• What difference will my gift make?

You will notice that most of these questions have little or nothing to do with the quality of the fundraiser, or even the fundraising program. They are actually about the organisation, its leadership, its financial management and its ability to deliver against the promise. And that is the key.

It was no surprise, then, that our research identified five organisational readiness factors as critical to success in generating a sustainable and growing income from major gifts.

1. Vision

Major giving is about inspiration. It is about the future, not the past. So it is vital to paint a picture of how the world will be a better place as a result of the work of the organisation. For the donor, the vision is brought to life through a case for support which describes the role philanthropy plays in realising it, what contributions they can make, what impact those gifts will have and what they can expect in return. Without a clear link to the vision and strategy the case can look like a disjointed wish list at best, or at worst an ambit claim for cash.

2. Leadership

Organisational culture is shaped by its leadership, consciously or unconsciously. In fact, the CEO alone can determine the success or failure of a major giving program. He or she must ensure that the vision and funding needs are aligned, that major giving is appropriately staffed, adequately resourced and supported by both the board and other executives. Finally, there is clear evidence that asks are more effective and the scale of giving higher when the CEO is directly involved.

The best boards take the time to understand how the organisation needs to position itself for success and support the CEO in setting the tone for major giving internally. Most importantly, they commit time and energy to cultivating prospects and thanking donors. And, they give.

3. Prospects

Clearly, large gifts come from people with the financial capacity to make them. However, trawling the BRW Rich 200 Wealth List is not the solution. People who make major gifts want to make them – so we should start by looking for inclination to give. There is little point in considering a major gift program if the organisation lacks a solid pool of prospects who already believe in the mission – current/past donors, alumni, subscribers, members, friends, current/former board members. These are the people who have already demonstrated an interest in the cause and the task thereafter is to check their capacity to give more.

4. Programs to engage

Marketing experts talk of the ‘AIDA’ journey a customer must take – from attention, to interest, to desire, to action. Nonprofits invest heavily in grabbing attention through various iterations of the introductory event – receptions, dinners, seminars, campaign launches and so on. But then they often go straight to Action and wonder why donors don’t respond.

The best way to build interest and desire is through a program of cultivation – events large and small, private meetings, project tours etc – that provides information, contact points and different experiences to help prospects answer the five key questions listed above. Board members, the CEO and other executives and staff running the projects funded by donations, even other donors can all give different perspectives on the organisation and its work and – crucially – the impact of giving. This does take time and resources, but without it the introductory event is simply wasted energy.

5. Skills and resources

Major giving is a professional role. However, it is much more than simply sales or donor relations. The purpose of the role is to facilitate the prospect’s relationship with the organisation – not to be the focus of that relationship. They are choreographer, not principal dancer.

A skilled professional will also need a good database, prospect research capability, budgets for communications and events, a good working relationship with marketing and other executives and, of course, ready access to the CEO and board. Without that ‘organisational oxygen’ even the most experienced fundraiser will struggle to gain traction in major gifts.

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