Check-Up Clinic: Major Gifts

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Getting Leaders on Board with Major Gifts

by Richard Perry

We’ve seen it over and over again: CEOs, presidents, executive directors who actually block progress in the major gift program. And the blocking or lack of progress usually occurs in four areas where the leader:

  1. Doesn’t really value major gifts as a major fundraising function in the organization.
  2. Doesn’t think long term, so it is difficult to gain support for investing in the program.
  3. Wants to help, but doesn’t know how to relate to donors or do the ask.
  4. Doesn’t understand what is needed to bring in larger gifts.

Here are our thoughts on each of these four leadership obstacles, along with our suggestions on what you can do about each one:

1. Not Valuing the Major Gift Program

What we have discovered about this point is that the numbers can do all the talking and convincing. Jeff and I wish that it was more than that — like simply valuing the donors because they are donors, but it really isn’t true. It’s about the numbers. And here is what gets a leader’s attention: If you do the donor value analysis right, you can show all the money that is being lost year after year because of a lack of proper stewardship and care that a major gift program can provide. The amounts lost are always staggering — just show any responsible leader those facts, and you will have their attention and be on a path toward them valuing a major gift program more.

When you can show that the current value lost from the same donor year after year is in the 40% to 60% range, and that the losses drop to 6% to 11% with a major gift program (when you can show that it is clear that there is a huge source of revenue that can be captured to fund program), then things start to change. But here’s one problem: You have to show this information to the top decision-maker. Jeff and I frequently experience the following dynamic: We show a lower level person the facts. They are shocked, disturbed and motivated to do something about the situation. Then they try to present the info up-line and fail at doing it properly. So the case to value major gifts fails, and we all are back in the same reality where the top leader does not value major gifts as he or she should. You must get the top leader and the top person in finance, plus the head of development, involved in this presentation of the facts.

2. No Long-Term Thinking. Therefore, No Investment

This is symptomatic of the first point above. If the top leader doesn’t understand that there are funds to be captured from existing donors, he or she will not be motivated to make the investment to harvest those funds. So you have to make the case.

3. Doesn’t Know How to Help

This is the result of a lack of one or more of three things: (1) lack of understanding on how major gifts work, (2) being uncomfortable with the ask and (3) a lack of natural or even trainable ability on the part of the leader. The last one you really can’t do much about except to talk openly about it and have the leader become comfortable with playing a representative role vs. a functional role in the major gift process. In other words, they will not be doing anything in the major gift process with a donor except “showing up” when needed. The other two items are training items.

It is important to have your leaders clearly understand all the elements of major gifts and how it works. We recommend you get them into some sort of training. We have found that when leaders can understand how major gifts work, it clears up a lot of problems. The last item, being uncomfortable with the ask, is also a lack of understanding on the part of the leader about what the ask is all about. Jeff tells the story of a top leader who he counseled through this point. When, after several conversations with Jeff about the topic, this leader was able to understand that asking a donor to fulfill their passions and interests by giving to his organization (the ask) — that this was a gift to the donor and not taking money from them — it all cleared up and the discomfort with asking went away. You need to have this conversation with your top leader(s).

4. Lack of Understanding About How to Get Larger Gifts

This is one of the most common problems in nonprofit work today — not having donor offers that can generate six-figure, seven-figure and even larger gifts. And the primary reason is not because the nonprofit doesn’t have the program to present or the nonprofit lacks the donors to make those larger gifts; the problem is that the organization has not packaged its budget and program into compelling offers. It is really that simple. Why it’s not done is beyond me.

For example, if you and I owned a retail store that carried lower-priced items as well as higher-priced items, but all the shelves only carried lower-priced items, would it be any surprise to you that we were not selling higher-priced items? Of course not. This is what is happening in most nonprofits. There are no donor offers in the six-figure and higher range. And that is a lack of planning and program and budget packaging. If I were a nonprofit leader, I would employ one full-time person who did only that full time — packaging the budget and program for high-value donor offers. It would be worth the cost.

Getting leaders on board with all the aspects of major gift fundraising boils down to addressing these four points in your organization. Find a way to make that happen.

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