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.
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