What to Do About Ignorance in Major Gifts
With major gifts being the top net revenue generator in a nonprofit — next to planned gifts — it always amazes me how many managers and leaders can come up with statements like these:
- “Why are you taking good direct mail donors and putting them on caseloads? It doesn’t make sense to me and it hurts direct mail.”
- “We need some big gifts now and if the frontline fundraisers don’t start delivering them, we may have to close the program down.”
- “I don’t understand why it takes so much time to get the major gift program going. These donors love us. What’s the problem?”
- “Look, I don’t care that we don’t have a lot of donors in that area – our organization needs to be represented in that metro area so plan to put a frontline fundraiser there.”
- “What do you mean the frontline fundraiser has nothing to present to donors? She knows our organization. She knows the mission. What’s the problem?”
- “We don’t need a bunch of management in major gifts! What we need is those frontline fundraisers out in the field talking to donors!”
I have actually heard — and continue to hear — all of these statements. They all have one thing in common: ignorance.
Ignorance about how major gifts fundraising works and fits into the fundraising strategy of the organization. And this ignorance falls into these five very familiar categories.
1. A Lack of Understanding About How Major Gifts Fits Into the Organization’s Overall Fundraising Strategy
Major and planned gifts are the end game in a carefully managed donor acquisition and cultivation pipeline. The reason an organization acquires a donor — usually at a loss — is because that donor can then be cultivated via a direct marketing program and eventually moved into a high-touch major gifts program where the ROI is substantially better and the net revenue contribution to the organization is greater.
Major gifts fundraising is not some isolated activity. It is part of a carefully managed, strategic fundraising plan. And, yes, donors will move from one media strategy (direct mail, for example) to major gifts and that will change the numbers. But isn’t that what you are trying to do? You are trying to migrate the donors up in their giving level. Many managers and leaders do not understand this.
2. Inability to Accept That Major Gifts Fundraising Takes Time
Everyone knows that good relationships take time. One of the better frontline fundraisers I have known and been privileged to work with wrote me once about a caseload donor she had been nurturing for eight years before giving $50 million cash to her organization — $50 million! It took time. Another frontline fundraiser had a relationship for four years when the donor gave $4 million.
It takes time. I am always amazed how managers and leaders think this major gift thing is like going to a slot machine, pulling the handle and hitting the jackpot. It just does not happen that way.
3. Confusing Frontline Fundraisers With Public Relations Reps
I have never heard anything crazier than a highly intelligent and competent CEO looking me straight in the eyes and telling me that a frontline fundraiser needs to be placed in a metro area where the organization has few donors. Why? “Because we need representation there.” OK. Put a PR person there, not a frontline fundraiser. Nope. Doesn’t want to do it because “we may be able to raise some money along the way.” Goodness. Now there is some fog on the brain.
4. Believing That a Frontline Fundraiser’s General Knowledge of the Organization Is All That Is Needed to Be Effective With Donors
Whoa. That is like telling a salesperson that all she needs to know about the car she is selling is that it has four wheels and drives. Really? Do you really think your frontline fundraisers can be effective with just general knowledge about your organization? It’s not gonna happen. Frontline fundraisers need well-thought-out donor offers, at different price points to effectively secure donor support.
5. Thinking Major Gifts and Frontline Fundraisers Do Not Need Management
This one just amazes me. This is like telling any company that is selling anything that they do not need a sales manager. Everyone knows that is not true! Sales management exists not because salespeople are stupid and lazy. Management exists because good planning, focus, inspiration, encouragement and accountability is what helps a salesperson, or frontline fundraiser, be successful.
This one really baffles me. We know from experience over many decades that the frontline fundraiser teams that are managed are more successful than ones that aren’t.
I know of one situation where the average caseload value of each of the 20 frontline fundraisers in the organization was $500,000. In two years, under management, that average rose to $850,000 per frontline fundraiser. A new leader came in and “saved money” by removing those managers. And now the average caseload value is going back down. Oh yeah, they are going to save a lot of money, or so they think. The net revenue is dropping like a rock. I do not understand this kind of thinking.
Well, what can you do about this if you are in a situation where ignorance is blooming?
First, be patient. Major gifts fundraising, although it has been around for a while, is generally misunderstood. There is more to it than the art of asking. But here is the good news: I have been in a number of situations where after explaining how major gifts fundraising works, the importance of management, etc, the authority figure jumps on board. It just takes time.
So, if you find ignorance in your organization, education really does work. Spend time educating those around you. And after that education, if ignorance persists, you might consider looking for a different place to work.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.