All too often, the term "major gifts fundraising" is misused, misrepresented, and misunderstood. Nearly every nonprofit professes to do some version of major gifts fundraising, and all consulting firms claim to be major gift experts. However, I believe that few nonprofit organizations have a true major gifts program and even fewer consulting firms grasp the philosophy behind a quality relationship-based funding strategy. In fact, major gifts fundraising often becomes a game of confusing oranges for apples.
We all know that painting an orange red doesn't really change it into an apple. At first glance, we might think we see an apple, but we quickly realize the difference. Our ability to discern an apple-colored orange from a real apple comes from our knowledge of how a real apple looks, feels, smells and tastes. However, if we did not possess that knowledge, it would be more challenging to perceive the difference.
So what does that have to do with major gifts fundraising?
First, it’s important to agree on a definition of major gift fundraising. It is not simply about asking people for more money, although that is the essence of how it is commonly defined (and constitutes the metaphorical red paint on the orange). Major gifts, or transformational gifts, the term I will usefor the remainder of this article to make a distinction, must represent a philosophy and approach that permeates all aspects of a nonprofit organization.
Transformational giving is the result of creating a unique experience for a single donor, crafted around his or her passions and interests, and built on a solid and trusting relationship nurtured over time. The term "transformational" describes the effect on every part of the relationship and decision-making process – nonprofit leaders, mission and donor.
It is challenging, indeed, for most nonprofit leaders to discern the difference between something called “major gifts fundraising” and what constitutes a true quality, relationship-based, transformational gift strategy. Most have not experienced or witnessed such an approach.
Transformational giving represents the greatest growth potential for every nonprofit, regardless of size and type – no exceptions. From the largest universities to smallest social service agencies, there is always untapped capacity in giving waiting to be realized. Whether you are a part-time development director or part of a 50-member development staff, there is potential for you to reach a fundraising level far beyond your current one.
However, in order for transformational giving to happen, the nonprofit must be willing to reframe the way it thinks about relational fundraising. It cannot come as a result of simply getting the development director some training; he or she must also have the support, participation and complete buy-in of senior staff, the board, communications team, and finance department. If not, the change will be superficial – like painting an orange red.
Let’s consider another analogy: most of us attempt to lose a few pounds at one time or another. We buy diet books or try fad diets or weight loss systems. The result – we lose a few pounds, but find that it is difficult to maintain the weight loss. That is because we rarely allow our lifestyle to be changed. We go back to eating, exercising and living the way we always have, and then are disappointed that the weight loss was temporary.
This is a perfect analogy for the challenges a development office faces as it attempts to build a major or transformational gifts program. Permanent change in a development philosophy is as difficult to achieve as permanent weight loss – but it is possible. Here is some advice as you plan the year ahead and seek to implement true transformational gifts fundraising:
Make sure you have buy-in and support from your boss
Partner with a board member or two to ensure the entire organization understands the philosophy and vision of the strategy
Beware of the consultants who, like diet books and fads, bring only superficial change
Find a consultant who is a trusted advisor and who will function more like a personal trainer to guide, support, and help you through all aspects of institutional change
You represent a mission that wants to grow and requires funding to do so. Believe that there is enormous potential within your existing donor base that can be realized with a quality, transformational gift strategy. Getting the right guidance and support will help you to avoid the frustration of misfires and temporary gain.