Nonprofit Branding: Major Gifts – It’s Time to Pick High-Hanging Fruit!

The best response to an uncertain economy? Focus on high-hanging fruit. 

Major Gift activity once terrified me.  I dug in my heels. Resisted participating in this aspect of my professional responsibility. Made up excuses. Refused to grow.  Whined a lot. Then, a board directive forced me to act. I was terrified.

I soon learned my fears and insecurities were unfounded. Major gift activity turned out to be fun for me and rewarding for my nonprofit.  I learned that personal involvement in cultivation and solicitation is a nonprofit’s most direct, most productive, most easily managed path to financial stability.

Here are two anecdotes from my experience to illustrate the key lesson I belatedly learned about harvesting High-Hanging Fruit……

Anecdote #1)  A wealthy acquaintance supported nonprofits throughout the country. Back in the 1970s he made a restricted gift to each of two institutions where I worked – $500,000 and $350,000. This kind, humble man thoughtfully responded to my solicitations even though he had only modest interest in the institutions I represented. His real passion was large urban museums like the Art Institute of Chicago, many of which he actively supported.

Oddly, he was not a major benefactor of the museum of art in San Diego, even though that was his city of primary residence.  One day I asked why he neglected the local outfit. He reflected for a moment, then said “We do visit that museum every month or so. I gave it several paintings when we needed to open wall space to hang new acquisitions in the living room. We pay our annual museum membership at the at the patron level. I guess we don’t give more because they never asked us.”

“…because they never asked us.”

I thought he had skipped over the local museum. WRONG! Instead, the local museum had skipped over him.

Until this conversation, I never understood the central dynamic of the major gift process. More about that after the next couple paragraphs….

Continuing the theme of high-hanging fruit, meet somebody on the development side of the equation. (This guy is like I was  early in my career – afraid to move into major gift solicitation, but quick to rationalize! It will blow your socks off to learn what he missed, and why.)

Anecdote #2) The development director of a client nonprofit and I were both well acquainted with a local personage who automatically contributed $500 each December. The owner of a major corporation, this $500 donor was one of the most easy-going, approachable power-brokers I ever knew. More important – he had the highest regard for that nonprofit, something he mentioned to me several times.

I informed the development director of the donor’s regard. Urged him to do the following – just basic practice with prospects who combine high affinity with high capacity.

Build a personal relationship with the major gift prospect. Honor the donor’s regard for your mission by enhancing the satisfaction your donor receives from association with your cause.  The first step might be to meet for a few minutes so you can personally bring the donor up to date with what you are accomplishing with his or her gifts. Talk one-on-one about your organization’s aspirations. Give the donor a tour to meet your colleagues and to see the inner workings – your mission in action. Put the donor’s affinity and competence to work by asking him or her to become a volunteer or board member.

When a more solid relationship has developed, the next step is to ask the donor to move from his or her annual gift level to something much larger.

Back to the anecdote about missed opportunity. Even though the donor was an exceptionally accessible, down-to-earth person, the development director did not act. Each time I made these suggestions he demurred. He would explain that he was too busy running day-to-day fundraising activities to personally deal with a single donor.

That excuse is a near quote. To me the claim that he was too busy hustling nickles to ask for a dollar revealed that, as I had once been, this development director was afraid of dealing with major gift cultivation and solicitation.

Like the folks at the art museum in anecdote #1, this development director never reached out and engaged the major gift prospect, even though they saw each other at community events every few weeks.

In time the $500 annual donor sold his company. He quickly endowed a college, disbursed a pile of money to several other institutions, arranged to fund nearly 1,000 scholarships over a decade, gave his kids enough money to buy a major league sports team and created two foundations with current combined assets of $43MM, and annual giving of $7MM!

Notice this: the development director in this anecdote made the issue about himself, rather than about the donor’s aspirations or about the needs of the nonprofit that employed him.  

Hiding his fear behind the rationalization of being “…too busy…,” he never personally extended himself to the donor. He never asked for more. So his nonprofit never got more. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in large and small gifts went to area nonprofits whose executives worked with the donor to help him satisfy his philanthropic urge and establish his legacy in the community.

These two anecdotes represent dropped balls, wasted opportunity and adroit excuses. I hope they shed light and give confidence. In this period of financial stringency you must go after the high-hanging fruit. There is no professionally acceptable choice. I learned years ago – and assure you now – that the process is actually quite easy. It is fun. It is also the most productive way to spend your time.

Pick high-hanging fruit. Start by reviewing your contributor list. Identify your largest contributors. Research them. Select those with capacity well in excess of their current gift level. And get to work. But keep the following six points in mind….

  1. These folks are already committed to your mission.
  2. You do them a favor when you invite them  to merge their resources with your program because – by working together – you can produce something great for society.
  3. You won’t get to work together until you ask.
  4. You can’t ask until you have a relationship that draws them closer to your nonprofit. Fortunately, you will find the cultivation process is fun.
  5. Once the relationship is established and the donor’s affinity has been enhanced, you will also find the solicitation is fun.
  6. You will raise more money per hour devoted to your major gift responsibility than you will raise per hour in any other facet of your job.

Everything you need to know is accessible. Strategies, techniques and personal experiences are available from experienced professionals in hundreds of websites, books, blogs and consulting services.

COMING UP: In the Market Impact & Cost section of this website (upper left corner) I report on market research findings to help you decide which branding products will give you the best, and the worst, bang for the buck. One of my rants on this subject earned a pretty strong rejoinder from a highly experienced promotional products salesperson. My  wife, VisABILITY president Janice Gavan, also disagreed with me. So, in the next post we’ll put forth all sides of the issue to better equip blog readers to deal with the risks and rewards of imprinted pens.


3 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: Major Gifts – It’s Time to Pick High-Hanging Fruit!

  1. Too true, and so well explained. Instead of fear, there should be the exciting prospect of “what if I just ask.” (We know what happens when one doesn’t…) Thanks, John, for more wisdom and inspiration.

  2. Pingback: NONPROFIT BRANDING: Reader Rebuttal to My Logo-Pen Rant | Nonprofit Branding Blog

  3. Pingback: NONPROFIT BRANDING: Her Name Was Mary (Another Major Gift Anecdote) | Nonprofit Branding Blog

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