The Four Best Predictors of Major Gift Success

Projected Table of Gifts

A core part of our work here at The Osborne Group is helping organizations build fundraising capacity.  Very often our clients want to build a major gift program or strengthen their existing major gift program and our job is take a look at the best way for them to create major gift success.  This involves a detailed understanding of what makes major gift programs and efforts tick and taking a close look at how any given organization measures up. While we take a very comprehensive look at data provided by our clients, we interview staff, board and investors, and we look at marketing materials and marketing collateral, etc. we have found that the likelihood of major gift success boils down to a few factors.  I’d like to share four of them with you here.

Do you have sufficient prospects?  Fundraising is a very quantifiable business; there is no reason to ever guess at projected results or be surprised when your numbers fall short.  How many gifts do you need and at what levels do you need to make your goal?  How many prospects do you need to close each gift?  What does that add up to and do you have enough prospects?  It really is just that simple.  I am continually amazed at how few experienced chief development officers and major gift officers fail to have or make active use of a projected table of gifts or the more accurate name by name table of gifts.  If you have enough prospects, there is a good chance your major gift effort will be successful.  If you don’t, it probably won’t.

Do You Have a Vision?  Vision is a fancy word for answering the question “why should I give you any money?” or saying “this is what will be different tomorrow because you gave money today”.  A good vision promises specific outcomes within a specific period of time (usually 1-5 years), is a stretch for your organization requiring increased generosity by your core supporters, and is articulated in terms of the impact it has on the community and society in general.  Let’s be clear, most major donors have a clear sense of the amount of money they are going to give away in any given time period and when you ask for a major gift you are either asking that donor to not to give to something else or give more than they intended and thus make some other interest of theirs less of a priority.  People and institutions are open to this but only when the impact is clearly and specifically defined.  This is your vision and you need it or your major gift program is dead in the water.

What does your leadership level annual giving look like?  Typically leadership level annual giving is defined as gifts between as gifts from $1,000 – $24,999 or $1,000 – $49,999 depending on the size of the organization.  You can think of it as your mid-level gifts for your organization or your highest level gifts that you receive on an annual basis.  Another way to think about it is the level that a potential donor will give prior to making a major gift.  Explicitly or implicitly high capacity donors who give at this level are saying “let’s see what you do with this money.”  They are evaluating if they hear from you on a regular basis, if you’re communicating the impact of their gift to them effectively and regularly, and if they are appreciated.  If they have a clear sense that their gift made an impact and what that impact was they may start to consider a major gift.  If they don’t, they won’t.

This work is usually only effective if you have an actual plan.  What does your stewardship calendar look like for this group?  For your major gift prospects in this group do you know how they prefer to have you communicate impact?  Do you have an individualized cultivation plan for each?

Do you have a sufficiently large, motivated, affluent and influential volunteer corps?  Many organizations approach the creation of, or enhancement of, a major gift program as a exercise in strategic staffing.  Having well trained and high quality major gift officers certainly is very important for major gift success but the best major gift officers in the world can do little if they are not surrounded by sufficient affluent and influential volunteers starting with the board.  You don’t hire your hire major gift officers and development staff based on their personal connections (at least you shouldn’t).  You hire them because they are skilled at working with large numbers of people and getting them moving in the same direction in a motivated manner that results in large gifts.  But they need prospects to work with and those prospects must be generated by an army of volunteers.  The more volunteers you have with high levels of social capital the more prospects you have.  Again, it’s that simple.

There are many other factors such as engagement, culture of philanthropy, sufficient staffing, sufficient capitalization, etc. that go into major gift success but I would consider the above fundamental.  Without them, no matter how good everything else is major gift success will be difficult.  These four predictors are in many ways the hardest areas to develop but by far provide the largest payoff.

you can follow me at @bobosborne17

Stress and the Whole Human Fundraiser

Overheard in an advancement office near you:  “It’s business, not personal.”… “A pro learns to compartmentalize.”…“A bit of fear keeps them sharp.”  Is that true?  Or are we whole humans whom fear makes dull?  What impact does stress have on our ability to be not just good, but truly great at our important work?

Do you try to avoid messy emotions in the workplace?  Make goals and metrics scary- ambitious to drive effort in yourself and your team?

I get it—I’ve done it—we got here honestly.  From first grade on, we learned to ignore discomfort, focus on our left verbal brain, and ignore the wisdom of our right brain, our bodies, our emotions.  But advancement work requires that we learn to engage both sides again.

Living exclusively in the left, verbal brain ignores a big chunk of an advancement professional’s whole human system.  Anxiety results when our bodies get left behind.  As we pursue enormous campaign goals in competitive times,  neuroscience and positive psychology have much to share about the corrosive effects of unacknowledged anxiety in our development shops—and much to teach about learning to work with mindfulness and ease.

Human beings run on three operating systems—cognitive, emotional, and physical—that are designed to work in sophisticated synchrony.  When your mind has a thought, it creates an emotion that is felt in the body.  The body reacts.  The mind may overlook this response or heed its message.  We can learn to use this finely tuned system of checks and balances to achieve delicious productivity—but only if the system is kept healthy, open, and clean.

As a lifelong fundraiser, now a consultant and coach, I help my clients ensure that their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are not ruled by toxins like fear and harsh self-judgments that can inhibit their performance and cause exhaustion and pain.

Many campaign consultants sidestep the emotional and physical components of the human machine, providing benchmark reports and prescribing big jumps in total gift income and visits per month before fully understanding why fundraising progress is slow.  At organizations that anticipate this approach, my first visit can suck the air out of a room—until I breathe, make eye contact, and state my purpose.

I find in many under-performing advancement shops triple, intertwined threats: diffuse focus, insufficient training, and subterranean fear.  Sadly, the pervasive, contagious anxiety often starts within the very person who cares most about success—that dedicated leader semi-consciously driving herself with punitive internal messages every day.

You know that deer-in-the-headlights feeling that wears you out over time?  It starts in a flash.

Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee (2005) and others have shown that in stressful situations, fear-based thoughts activate the oldest, most primitive part of our mind—the limbic system or “lizard brain.”   The almond-shaped amygdala at the base of the brain sounds the alarm and the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, and Cortisol that prepare us to fight, flee, or freeze.  Blood flow is directed away from the cerebral cortex to the large muscles, inhibiting memory and the creation of new neurons.

Living in our sympathetic nervous system erodes thinking and health. Ironically, the first casualty in the development operation’s stress fest quite often are those courageous, delicate major gift conversations we need most.   Survival anxiety keeps us busy rewriting metrics and churning reports instead of seeking out those crucial conversations that spell campaign success.   To the lizard brain, big solicitations seem black or white, all or nothing, win or lose.  Even if we know that solicitation is a process, not an event.

This energy impacts the donor interview.  Without proper preparation, those subconscious “win/lose, make/break, do/die” messages can narrow your visual field and aural acuity so timing suffers and subtle feedback is missed.  Adrenaline spikes blunt your ability to remember details and feel the donor’s truth.  The human body easily confuses excitement and anxiety—this is true for donors, too.

There’s a better way to build transformational gifts.

Joyful, stretch gifts are inspired by love, not fear—and they are born in the present, whole-hearted conversations that only become possible when the fundraiser’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings are calm, clean and clear.

Understanding and improving work teams’ emotional experience—their inner work lives—can seem a daunting investment.  But it pays off big both on, and off, the road.

It may feel risky to explore internal messages and odd to intentionally engage the parasympathetic nervous system at work – but the payoff is huge when your team gels, trusts, and stays.  The payoff magnifies as your committed team facilitates aspirational gifts that delight donors and heal the world.

So next time you sit down with a potential donor or a new hire, slow down.  Notice, with presence and compassion, how he is a whole human, and so are you.

You can follow Beth at: @EBHermanCoach

By Beth Herman, Principal, EBH Consulting   Guest blogger Beth Herman is an advancement consultant, advancement trainer and personal coach.  She specializes in how organizations can build their capacity by focusing on the individuals within the team.

Capitalize Your Development Operation!

by Robert Osborne

Every organization wants more money for its programs but I am constantly surprised at how few organizations are actually willing to spend money to make money. I know of organizations that have cut back their development staff even as they have raised their fundraising goals. I know of organizations that refuse to do stewardship because they think it is too expensive. And I know of “national” organizations that wish to fundraise across the United States but have no travel budget.

The problem becomes even larger when we talk about capital campaigns. Organizations that wish to raise 10x or more of their annual operating budget and tens of millions of dollars often balk at spending even a $100K to do so!

Your development office is a “profit center”, another way of saying that your development office makes you money. But only if it is properly capitalized. While different types of fundraising have different costs associated with them, a good rule of thumb is anticipating spending somewhere between $.15-$.20 for every dollar you want to raise. Events have the highest costs associated with them with a cost of roughly $.30 on the dollar and major gifts have the least with a cost of roughly $.12 on the dollar. But there is no such thing as free fundraising.

Every organization should ask itself what it needs to be successful to meet its fundraising goals. Do you have enough personnel, not just “front line” fundraisers but also administrative support? Do you have the proper technology to operate efficiently and effectively? Do you have the marketing pieces you need including video? Do you have a budget for any necessary travel? Have you built in contingency?

My suspicion is that organization try to do fundraising on the cheap because they do not have the cash on hand when they begin their fundraising. They realize that they are undercapitalizing the effort but are unsure what to do. Ideally, our supporters would help us in this area as Dan Pallotta discuss in this post in the Harvard Business Review and truly leverage their investment, but lamentably capacity building tends to be way down on investors lists of things to fund.

Sadly, there are no short cuts. An undercapitalized effort may even cost you more than not doing it at all. If you don’t have the cash on hand to properly capitalizing a fundraising effort you need to make raising the necessary capital part of your plan. This may take longer but it will be worth it. To not do so is to spend money on what is likely to be an unsuccessful effort. But the right investment can go a long way.

You can follow me on twitter:  @bobosborne17