Three Myths of Major Gifts

Today’s guest blog post is written by Bradley Hayes, Senior Consultant at Plus Delta Partners

It’s easier to fill a room with elephants than it is with mice. Whether you work for a small arts organization, a large multinational NGO, or a mid-sized community organization, major gifts — however you define them — ought to be an important component of your fundraising strategy. As important as it is to have a broad base of support, major giving has more immediate value to your organization than does grassroots fundraising.

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It may be heretical, but if your resources are limited (and, really, when are resources not limited?), and you have only one dollar to invest in your fundraising operation, I’d invest that dollar in harvesting gifts from your major gifts pipeline. The return on investment is unmistakable. Whereas resources spent on donor acquisition through annual giving or event-based giving are often loss leaders, the ROI from money invested in major gift prospects can be 10 to 1 or more.

Large gifts can be intimidating for fundraisers. Because the stakes seem so high, gifts of five-, six-, seven figures, or more lead to all sorts of aberrant behavior on the part of gift officers. The reality is that the size of the gift is irrelevant; what matters is adherence to a rational process based on transparency and collaboration between the donor and the fundraiser in order to generate the best result. So, let me take this opportunity to debunk three common myths that often trip up fundraisers in their work with major gift prospects.

Myth #1: People give to people. Really? Maybe you chip in 10 bucks for your sister’s walk-a-thon, or you buy a box of cookies from the neighbor’s daughter, simply because of who does the asking, but most philanthropists do not make significant gifts simply because they like the person who makes the ask. You’re charming, but not that charming.

Major gift donors give to ideas. If your donors aren’t making big gifts, it might be because you are not offering them big ideas. All too often, we enable our donors to make default gifts — gifts that reflect the amount of money that the donor is willing to part with out of loyalty to your cause. But you don’t want your donors to give out of loyalty; you want them to give out of desire. Show them something they desire, and they will take notice. Give them a vision of the world as they want it to be, and you change the impetus from loyalty to impact. That’s important, because there’s usually a big difference between the amount donors will give out of loyalty and the amount they are willing to pay to get something they desire. Have desirable ideas.

Myth #2: Good fundraisers are good schmoozers. We’ve all seen them perform their magic. The schmoozer can work a room like a Clinton — always on the move, always on the lookout for a more prominent target. Small talk flows from their gullet with ease as they press the flesh, share a few laughs, and distribute both winks and grins with abandon. Schmoozing can be hard work, but it is the work of a raconteur, not a fundraiser.

In fundraising, it is better to be sincere than slick. Even an introvert like me can be a successful fundraiser. That’s because the work of major gift fundraising is not about glad-handing, it is about communicating with purpose, applying a process, and facilitating donor interactions.

Despite one common misperception, raising major gifts is not an endless series of cocktail parties and fancy dinners (although there may be some of them along the way, so watch your waistline). There’s real work involved. Partnering with high-net-worth donors to achieve transformational goals requires the care of a professional. Anyone can do it — it’s not a dark art — but not everyone has the training and discipline to do it well.

Myth #3: We have a communication problem; we need to get the word out about all the good things we do. You’re right, you do have a communication problem, but it’s not the one you think you have. Your problem is not about tooting your own horn. It’s not about having better materials to tell your story. All the PR advice in the world won’t solve this one. Your communication problem is that you are not listening to your donors.

All too often, we make the donor engagement process all about us. Let me talk about our needs and how wonderful we could be with the help of your money. Pretty inspiring, huh? Dollars to donuts, you’re asking your donors neither enough questions nor the right questions. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know what your donors care about? How will you know, if you don’t ask them?

Major gift fundraising is about creating alignment between your donors’ passions and the priorities of your institution. Accomplishing that goal requires extensive and candid conversation with the donor. Instead of casting an ever-wider net to expand your outreach to new potential donors, why not start with the people who are already supporting you? Can you honestly say you’ve taken the time to get to know them and their interests?

Fundraisers at all levels partner with donors to put values into action. While this is as true at the bottom end of the gift spectrum as it is at the top, the impact is not the same. The ROI is compelling and suggests that institutions of all kinds are underinvesting in their major gift strategy. So, here’s the game plan for those who want to do better. Be bold, be ambitious, have ideas that will make a difference. Hire good people and give them the resources and training that they need to be competent fundraising professionals. Listen before you ask.

Good luck!

Brad HayesBradley A. Hayes is a senior consultant for Plus Delta Partners, where he works with public and private colleges and universities to achieve measurable and sustainable increases in fundraising capacity. He previously led a successful, $250 million comprehensive campaign for Oberlin College and served that institution as executive director of individual giving. His fundraising and management career spans nearly 20 years and includes non-profit organizations of multiple types and sizes. He may be reached at

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2 responses to “Three Myths of Major Gifts

  1. My thanks to Mr. Hayes for his helphful and important remarks. Another myth to raise is “you should always ask people for the largest gift possible.” It’s been my experience that people do give to ideas. However, even if it’s a big idea, if they don’t know you, they might not know how much impact you’ll have. So if you ask for a small gift, and you’re able to demonstrate the impact of small gifts, the big gifts will follow. Mice can become elephants.

    1. Well put, Mr. Yoshitomi. Mice can, indeed, grow to become elephants with the proper care!

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