The Global Financial Crisis hit Starlight’s heavily corporate focussed fundraising program hard. Louise Baxter explains how the economic downturn provided the catalyst for Starlight to make major gift fundraising, which has grown fourfold in the last two years, part of its fundraising bedrock.

 At Starlight Children’s Foundation Australia, we had been aware of the need to shift our fundraising model towards individuals and, importantly, major gift philanthropy for a number of years. However, our DNA had traditionally been very corporate: whatever the fundraising question, our answer had often been a corporate one.

Starlight is an organisation with high need, delivering programs to support the wellbeing and resilience of seriously ill children and their families in over 110 hospitals nationally, and grants a Starlight Wish every day. However, our communications spoke more about our achievements rather than the need for our programs and our need for funding, so a shift towards communicating the impact of Starlight’s programs as well as the growing and changing need was critical.

 Corporate and community support is and always will be very important to Starlight. However, Starlight needed a more diversified revenue base, and now we needed to move quickly.

 In hindsight, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and subsequent impact on corporate philanthropy was the catalyst we needed to truly focus on the area of major gift philanthropy.

Stepping into major gifts

 To start the increased focus on major gifts, we gave this area the ‘oxygen’ it needed by adding a resource with the sole responsibility of being the custodian of this area. Previously, it had been one part of someone’s role, but now it was their only responsibility.

 Our philanthropy executive was supported by an expert consultant in this area, Philanthropy Squared’s Frankie Airey. She ensured that we were always focussed on appropriate and personal relationships, and did not revert to a more corporate, transactional style which had been part of our fundraising heritage for so long.

We manually reviewed our list of current donors who had given over $500 and realised there were many amongst Starlight’s existing database who might have the potential to give more. So, without needing to buy a list or start cold with an individual, we were able to engage with a group who had already given to Starlight.

 Establishing engagement initiatives

 To provide momentum to the focus on major gifts, we introduced a number of initiatives to enable prospective major donors to become more connected and engaged with the impact of Starlight programs. These included coffee meetings, invitations to our Starlight Express Rooms in major paediatric hospitals to observe the impact firsthand and dinners with smaller groups of current and potential supporters.

 Chief executive officer breakfasts were also introduced as nurturing events. These events featured guest speakers who would be of genuine interest to those in attendance – like governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia Glenn Stevens and prominent businessman and philanthropist David Gonski.

 These events provided a forum for discussion to enable us to better understand potential major donors’ areas of interest. We spend a lot of time listening so as to understand their philanthropic motivations before any discussion about a gift to Starlight can begin. Major gift philanthropy requires a high level of engagement and trust – these individuals are making decisions about investing in the impact they can make happen. It is about the relationship. It’s about connecting them with the impact and it is about respect – it’s very personal.

 Growing the major gift network

We have grown our major gift philanthropy fourfold over the last two years, with $1 million raised in major gifts over the past 18 months from gifts in the $6,000-$50,000 range in addition to a further $1 million for specific capital campaigns, made up of four $250,000 gifts. Starlight has now added a philanthropy executive resource in Perth and Brisbane and is recruiting in Melbourne as a result of the success this push into major gifts has experienced.

 Our individual giving, which includes major gifts, direct mail and bequests, has increased from 7% of revenue in 2004, to 26% in 2011. While Starlight was hit hard by the GFC and suffered its first ever revenue decline in 2009 and 2010, it will return to growth in 2011. This result has been achieved in part because of our focus on the area of individual support.

 While I ask our staff to use me selectively, for there is only one of me, I’m glad to get involved with the major gift process at the right stage and around 30-40% of my time is now spent in this area. Likewise, we’re working towards a longer term goal of warming our board members to the major gift process by encouraging them to introduce their connections to the organisation.

 In looking to the future, we must continue to grow this area of individual and major gift support as there is increasing need for adolescent-specific programs and for our indigenous support program, delivered into remote communities. Several major paediatric hospitals are also being re-built, so we also require the capital to rebuild our Starlight Express Rooms in these hospitals at a cost of $1.5 million per room.

 From a donor perspective, our aim is that all these individuals enjoy an exceptional Starlight experience – that through the impact they help us deliver they understand the power of their giving. Over time, we hope major gift philanthropy truly becomes part of Starlight’s fundraisingDNA.

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