During 15 years as a fundraising executive in Canada, Karen Van Sacker witnessed a shift in her homeland’s attitude to philanthropy and major giving. After arriving “down under” two years ago, she believes Australia is undergoing a similar change, and we need to re-focus on the key elements of major giving.

The Australian not-for-profit sector may not have forgotten it was established through the generosity of wealthy citizens, but it appears to have lost its ability to encourage and nurture major gifts.

Throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s records show a strong list of outstandingly generous Australians, but those numbers have dwindled dramatically over the last decade.

In a world focused on short-term profits and immediate returns, not-for-profit leadership has become hyper-focused on “fundraising” and forgotten that philanthropy begins with developing and nurturing relationships.

I joined this profession in Canada during a similar stage of growth and was part of a number of exciting and challenging start-up programs that were paradigm shifting for the communities in which they took place.

Over the last 15 years giving in Canada increased from 0.5% of GDP to 1%. Major gifts and the transformation of Canadian attitudes towards philanthropy, volunteerism and the not-for-profit sector were the driving forces.

What were the critical success factors? Let’s go back to the basics. That’s what the successful Australian charities are doing.

Fundraising or development?

First and foremost, we are in the relationship development business. We need to take the time to get to know the people who support our work, what makes them tick, and how to guide their generosity.

The Garvan Institute’s Foundation does just that, and its manager, Jenni Elliot has led an increase in funds from $2 million to $5 million in 2002/03.

Major gifts are not a marketing exercise

Wealthy individuals do not want you to market to them, they want you to communicate with them. If you are serious about major gifts, you have to take the time to really connect with people.

I know of one Australian charity that saw a regular major gift lose 90% of its value because the major gifts officer thought she was the linchpin in the relationship. Use your board, chief executive and community connections strategically in nurturing relationships that last a lifetime.

Leadership is everything

Does your organisation have a big vision, know what it stands for, where it’s going and what needs to happen to get there? Can it articulate this clearly and concisely? Are your CEO and board willing to step into the fray?

If not, you have an uphill battle. Leadership comes from the top and is expressed through vision, action and direct involvement.

Major gifts require teamwork

It’s always a small team of committed and passionate people who make things happen.Take the time to build up the right leadership team, then train and support them. Life changing events occur when you achieve synergy between the CEO, volunteer leadership and development executive.

Success will only be as good as your prospect list

Is your major gifts prospect list populated by the BRW Rich 200 list? Or did you take the time to thoroughly research your current donor base and the broader community to identify links, interests and financial ability?

Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation recently analysed their donor base and discovered that 95% of donors are within 1% of separation from the disease. Understanding this will transform their Australian major gifts program.

Set a realistic target

Are your annual major gifts targets based on thorough analysis or with the help of a dart board? Have you determined how much each prospect could contribute? Your top gift should be 10%-15% of your goal, the top 10 donors 50% of goal, and you will need at least three times as many “qualified” prospects for every gift required to achieve targets. Win your program on paper before you hit the campaign trail.

Major gift decisions take time

How much time do you think it might take to begin, nurture and close a major gifts ask? One month? Two months? Six months? While there are always exceptions to the rule, we are finding that major gifts are taking 12 months and longer to secure.

This is not a direct mail or monthly pledge program that demands an “out-of-pocket” contribution. You are asking people to dip into their savings, rethink their personal budget and give you a bigger piece of their personal philanthropic pie.

These decisions are not made lightly and when rushed do not result in optimum giving. In major gifts, patience really is a virtue.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get

Take heed from children, they have learnt this lesson well. Other key reasons why people don’t give is they are asked by the wrong person, at the wrong time for the wrong cause.

Every not-for-profit, large or small, has the capacity to generate major gifts, but it takes planning, preparation, understanding of the process, a pool of prospects, involvement of staff and volunteer leadership … and a big dream.

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