What’s Wrong With Major Gifts?
Just about everything.
First—there’s the name. What’s a “major” gift, anyway?
These days, it can be just about anything. Whenever the term is used in the nonprofit community it almost always refers to the financial level of the gift—the dollar amount. Some nonprofit executives just say, "It’s a really big gift"—whatever that is. Some fundraisers say a “major” gift is satisfied with a multi-year pledge. Still others apply the term to a cash gift of $1,000.
Second—just how big does a gift need to be to qualify as “major”?
I’ve closed “major" gifts that were eight figures. I’ve closed “major” gifts every bit as transformative that were four figures. I cut my teeth in fund development by directing capital campaigns with objectives as modest as $600,000 and as large as $200 million.
The answer lies with those whose points of view you’re considering. A gift is a “major” one only if it is transformative to the giver, not the receiver. More on that later.
Whether a gift is a “major” gift has nothing to do with its financial size. Absolutely nothing. And yet—that’s exactly how it is often seen in the fundraising world.
Fundraising, and its mirror image, philanthropy, isn’t about money. It's about the fundamental, and very personal, values, aspirations and visions of the givers. Notice I said, “givers.”
The emotional commitment of the investors to your cause will determine what sort of gift they will make—and the resources they will use to make it. Many, many large gifts are made that don’t qualify as “major” in my book. These gifts can be $1 million or even more, but they’re still not “major.” They’re still not transformative for the giver.
The key for the fundraiser is whether the donor is making the gift from income or assets. Making a gift from assets requires a much more significant emotional commitment on the part of the investor. When someone makes a gift like this, he or she is with you—through thick and thin. Financial size hardly even plays a role.
I call these gifts of assets—as opposed to gifts of income.
So then, there are income gifts and there are asset gifts. You need both. Both have their places in a sustainable fundraising program. They are interdependent.
Income gifts are gifts of entry. They require a low emotional commitment. Such a gift could be given on the whim of an online click. Asset gifts require an emotional commitment that says, “I want you to succeed. My personal values and visions are embodied in your cause.”
Donors who make gifts of assets are the donors who fuel humanitarian visions. These are the investors your organization must have for sustainability. These are usually the "20 percent" of the Pareto Principle. These investors make gifts, which first transform themselves, then those whose lives they touch. The nonprofit organization is merely the conduit, the facilitator.
Sorry, but it’s just not about you or your organization, per se.
The good news is that they’re out there for any cause. They are there waiting for all worthy causes—big or small. Whether at $1,000 or $10 million, gifts of assets are the place you want to bring as many of your investors as possible. These are the supporters on whom the long-term success of your organization depends.
And—for those of you who already are thinking about “planned” gifts—these are asset gifts. The added wrinkle is a deferred fulfillment scheme and usually an intensely personal as well as transformational motive.
Third—these days far too many fundraisers have made “major” gifts all about the money.
The reason? “Major” gifts have now become the new “shiny thing." Haven’t you heard? They’re the new fundraising panacea, which will put your organization on easy street. They’re the latest fad diet that will shed those useless pounds of financial liability from your organization, lickety-split.
A “major” gifts program will solve all your revenue problems and take away your stress. Perhaps it will even help you grow hair. (If that’s so, I better get some!)
Don’t believe me? Consider these:
- “Don’t get left behind in the major gifts gold rush!”
- “Want to raise big money? Everyone is raising big money this year with major gifts.”
- “Major gifts—the fundraising machine!”
- “Catapult your organization with major gifts!”
- ”Experience the magic of major gifts”
Every one of these hyperboles has appeared in print in a respectable professional source promoting major-gift training or support services.
The attitudes expressed in these tropes are merely the extensions of those who see philanthropists as ATMs dispensing cash to everyone with the correct PINs. For cash-strapped nonprofits whose financial horizon is often three months, such claims are not just a misnomer; they are the ultimate bait and switch.
“Major” gifts are fast becoming the quick fix of fundraising. As long as organizational leadership and fundraisers continue to focus on the "easy" and the opportunistic, they will keep their organizations on financial tenterhooks while donors hold their noses. And justly so.
Let’s set the record straight.
For the treasure hunters out there, there is no El Dorado. So stop looking. Don’t kid yourself. No one technique or tool will ever be the cash vending machine of fantasy. Sustainable philanthropic revenue streams are built by consistently applying The Eight Principles™—the unchanging truisms of strategic fund development.
Any organization is capable of building long-term financial stability and scalability—no matter how modest. Any organization—period.
What does it take? It takes time, effort and consistency. Leadership must make the right choices (sometimes hard ones) and stick with them.
Ever heard the joke that if fundraising were instantaneous, it wouldn’t be called “development"—it would be called “magic”?
Sustainable, scalable fundraising is a lifestyle. It’s not a diet. It’s not something you do for the quick infusion of energy. It’s not the New Year’s resolution to lose weight that lasts an average of 90 days.
So how do you really “do” asset gifts? Where do they fit?
Asset gifts are the result of executing a longitudinal strategy, which introduces investors to your organization in a low-risk solicitation for an initial gift—usually a small, cash gift for operating expenses or an occasional need.
From this gift, you actively grow your partnership with the donor in a manner that brings the donor closer to your cause while raising his or her emotional commitment through an alignment of values. In practical terms, there’s a bit more nuance, but you get the essence. Such gifts are never the result of a safari out to bag big game or snare an unsuspecting donor through some sort of bait-and-switch. And they’re definitely not the result of a major-gifts “program” that’s out there on it’s own without supporting players.
Bottom line—although the philanthropic reservoir barely has been tapped, asset gifts don’t grow on trees, despite the fundraiser who refers to such investors as “ripened fruit” ready for the picking. I kid you not.
Success in building an asset-giving program doesn’t depend on your organization’s size or budget. It’s the result of consistent, strategic choices over time.
Fundraising that is sustainable and scalable, and respects the integrity of both the giver and the receiver, is a lifestyle, never the crash diet.
It’s one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. For it’s own sake.
Larry believes in the power of relationships and the power of philanthropy to create a better place and transform lives.
Larry is the founder of The Eight Principles. His mission is to give nonprofits and philanthropists alike the opportunity to achieve their shared visions. With more than 25 years of experience in charitable fundraising and philanthropy, Larry knows that financial sustainability and scalability is possible for any nonprofit organization or charitable cause and is dependent on neither size nor resources but instead with the commitment to create a shared vision.
Larry is the author of the award-wining book, "The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising." He is the Association of Fundraising Professionals' 2010 Outstanding Development Executive and has ranked in the Top 15 Fundraising Consultants in the United States by the Wall Street Business Network.
Larry is the creator of the revolutionary online fundraising training platform, The Oracle League.
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