Transformational Gifts Aren’t Out of Reach — All You Need Is a Big Idea

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By CJ Orr

As the world turned upside down over the past 12 months, never has it been clearer that one of the most important aspects of an organization’s health is its fundraising capability. With little doubt, I can say that every organization across the country, and the world, has had to adapt and change in some way since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And in the philanthropic space, no change has been more effective than a pivot to a fundraising model focused on transformational giving.

Simply put, transformational gifts can take your organization to the next level. Pursuing transformational gifts from a select group of interested and capable donors is not only the best way to achieve your annual fundraising goals, but it can also catalyze further growth and provide a stable future for your organization. In times like these, the ability to be both nimble and secure is truly priceless.

The first step in cultivating a transformational gift is to have a transformative idea — a bold plan for how your organization is going to meet the most pressing issues of the moment. That idea could be as simple as scaling your operation to meet increased demand for your services, which we’ve seen many healthcare and frontline organizations do throughout the pandemic.

Similarly, we have seen success with organizations implementing adapted programming to address the most pressing issues of the moment, like filling the social service gaps in the wake of quarantine or shifting the focus of your work to strive toward racial equity. Whatever it may be, it must appeal to the transformative donor — the mega-philanthropist who is prepared to make a bold 8-figure gift — the one who is looking to make their mark on the most critical issues we’re facing today. Remember, a transformative gift follows a transformative idea.

A big idea is the way to catch the attention of mega-donors who may not be already familiar with your organization. Unlike a major gifts’ strategy, which begins with the standard cultivation of donors already connected to your organization, a transformational gift strategy starts by looking outside of your initial sphere of influence. Most organizations will need to look outside their current donor pool toward a select group of extremely high net-worth individuals, large corporations, or prominent foundations in order to begin securing gifts of a transformational size. Below are a few ideas to begin expanding your donor pool:

Keep an eye on donors already making transformational gifts.

Over the past year, mega-philanthropists have become more public with their priorities and commitments to philanthropy. This trend of giving transparency presents a unique opportunity for organizations to receive large investments outside of their traditional network. Leverage this opportunity as an invitation to get connected and present your transformative idea.

For example, Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and Squarespace, has committed to giving away $1B to global COVID-19 relief efforts through an extremely accessible channel. To date, Jack has given away $300M through his public fund, #startsmall, to nearly 150 organizations working on hot-button issues such as healthcare, hunger and racial equity (full list of recipients can be found here). The best part? It only takes 140 characters to get Jack’s attention – tweet him directly to try to secure a meeting. Tighten your case for support and make your pitch!

Another prime example of a transformational donor is Mackenzie Scott. Scott set a new bar for transformational giving when she committed $5.8 billion last year to numerous organizations all over the world, mostly focusing on gender and racial equity. Through her catalytic philanthropy, and unlike Jack Dorsey, Scott reached out to organizations she was interested in. However, if you don’t have the unbelievable luck to have one of the richest women in the world approach your organization with a transformative gift, that doesn’t mean you can’t get access to another donor operating in this fashion.

The Scott and Dorsey gifts are part of a trend; uber-wealthy philanthropists personally transforming entire philanthropic spaces with unprecedented giving amounts to a variety of organizations. If you hear about organizations similar to yours receiving major gifts from a single philanthropist, chances are that their giving won’t stop there – that philanthropist is likely more concerned with the issue at large rather than supporting a specific organization. Use this as an opening to put yourself in front of these philanthropists and explain how your organization is addressing that particular area of interest. Always try to capitalize on these moments as soon as possible, as they can be fleeting!

Look into leading charitable foundations and their plans to upend philanthropy.

This summer, several leading charitable foundations announced almost $2 billion worth of Social Bonds in response to the effect of COVID-19 on the philanthropy space. As part of a collective effort, the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation all pledged to increase their annual grantmaking, each announcing commitments over $100 million.

According to the Ford Foundation, the primary purpose of these bonds is to “fortify and strengthen key organizations that are advancing the fight against inequality at a time when communities who are most vulnerable have been hit hardest by the pandemic.” Through multi-year, general operating support grants, the Ford Foundation will help these organizations “build resilience, durability, and sustainability now and in the future.”

These leading charitable foundations recognize the impact the pandemic has had on the nonprofit sector and are taking unprecedented action to confront these challenges head on. Big or small, newly established or with a long history, every organization has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in some capacity; this means any organization would be well suited to apply for funding from this massive pool.

Leverage venture philanthropy and challenge gifts.

There are many leaders in the industry using their power and funds to leverage smaller, similar organizations with like-minded missions. These initiatives can accelerate change on a larger scale through grantmaking and collaboration. For example, Equality Can’t Wait, an organization dedicated to empowering and expanding opportunities for women around the world, announced a $40 million challenge to accelerate gender equity in the United States.

Funded by Pivotal Ventures, this challenge calls for applicants with creative ideas to help expand women’s power and influence by 2030. If your organization aligns with this mission, this is a must-apply! If it is not, be on the lookout for similar pledges by organizations in your space, such as Lever for Change, Co-Impact, Blue Engine, and Audacious Project, as these are one of the best ways to land a transformative 8-figure gift.

By incorporating these ideas into your fundraising strategy, you can begin to identify potential sources for transformational gifts. With a transformative idea to tackle the many challenges we are facing today; a transformative gift is necessary to create an impact. Seize the moment and don’t miss out on the opportunity to take your fundraising to the next level!

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