All Donors as Major Donors

by Jason Dick · 29 comments

Here is a crazy idea. What if we treated all of our donors like major donors? What if instead of cultivating and personally soliciting donors we started treating them all as if they were major donors?

This is a question I’ve been pondering in my head over and over again for a number of weeks. It is linked to the concept of what is a major donor and why do we only personally cultivate donors at a specific level? To get a little more background on where this idea has developed look at Turning it Over to the Donor, and The Rich Young Ruler. I have a follow up article for this ready for Friday and I’d love to include some of your comments, arguments for & against, and ideas.

I think it is a little untraditional and want some of your expert opinions. This idea first crossed my mind when I realized that I am a “major donor” to the church that I go to. I do this out of a passion for the work of my church and because I’m connected to it’s purpose and mission. And I think that is what we want from all of our donors. I’ve struggled sometimes because in non-profit we will often set a value on each donor based on their circle of influence and their giving capacity. But we in non-profit have set our expectations extremely low. I often will spend more time cultivating a give from a wealthy person to give what equates to small gift in proportion to their wealth and forget that the “normal” donors are often giving a much higher percentage of their wealth with a gift of the same size.  There are many wealthy people that are giving generously out of the money that they have-don’t misread me. All that I am saying is that percentage wise a $500 gift costs more for someone who makes $50,000 a year than $1,000 gift from someone who makes $150,000 a year.

Giving is connected extremely closely to the way we think, act, and believe it is often at the heart of who we want to be. Check out What Motivates Giving and a collection of experts answering the same question at the Giving Carnival: Motivation. In non-profit we have a unique opportunity to partner with people and connect to the passions of their heart. This kind of connection doesn’t have a distinction between annual fund and major donor. This kind of fundraising is all about one on one relationship.

I am really interested in your input here. Please comment below if you like/dislike, agree or adamantly disagree. And I’ll highlight some of this conversation in a follow up article.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie Doty March 12, 2008 at 8:37 am

I am deeply moved by what you have posted this morning. Although I “found my niche” rather late in my professional life, I find that I have a passion and commitment for development that is exceeded only by my ability to “think outside the box.” This phrase has become used to the point of losing its original intent, but it is exactly the thinking that you pose this morning that makes all the difference to me in how I think and/or act as a development officer. What makes me sad is that the focus is on the “bottom line” rather than how we reach that magical, mystical number.

The reason I have gravitated toward development in the nonprofit sector is precisely for the reasons you articulate. If we treat each individual with the care and concern that you suggest, I suspect it would astonish us to realize what a genuine difference that makes. In a recent meeting, I spoke of “community engagement” as opposed to the more traditional term of “marketing.” I set off a veritable explosion which was not my intent. The charge behind the response I received was that the individual had been working in this area for a very long while and she intimated there was nothing I could offer that she did not already know.

If that was factual, our organization would have a much stronger presence in this community than it does. There are different ways to engage people and I believe you have hit the nail on the head when you pose the question that you do. If we truly take the time that relationship-building entails, we will learn far more about people who step forward to champion our cause with their financial support and will discover that people would like to become far more engaged than simply writing a check. Yes, the money is critical. However, to my way of thinking what is far more important is what motivates the individual to support the organization and learn how they might become more involved.

Again, process is the key — building and deepening relationships takes time. All too many nonprofit “leaders” do not connect the two. When we fully engage people at the most meaningful level, we will truly be surprised what results. Of course, this will not surprise me because this is how I think. Unfortunately, I inhabit a rather solitary world in thinking this way. Since finding this blog, I realize there are others out there who perceive “giving and receiving” as I. When the two become undifferentiated, then we are making progress.

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Med Relief March 12, 2008 at 9:18 am

Makes perfect sense. I believe that companies should adopt a similar strategy and I am sure it would solicit repeat business from “small” customers that could eventually add up to greater than that of large customers.

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Jason March 12, 2008 at 9:48 am

Here are a couple of great responses from individuals on LinkedIn:
Arthur Fullerton:
As someone who has spent the last 8 years as a development professional in social services I can assure you that your insight is both correct and deeply at odds with the current prevailing wisdom. The key is that you looked at your personal giving to your church and developed a donor-centric definition of major donor. Almost all organizations claim to be donor-centric, but the very definitions they choose belie that claim. How do you define a major donor? Is it from the perspective of the organization or of the donor. Is it every donor who gives over x is automatically a major donor, or is it every donor who gives in a sacrificial way is a major donor. The second definition requires much more knowledge of the donor’s circumstances, but is ultimately the more powerful.

Gary Broussard:
I just finished reading the blog that you referenced. My considerations are as follows;

I subscribe to the view that major gift fundraising is all about building relationships. My 30 years in the business has shown me that developing relationships develops large gifts. Yes, there is the occasional “over the transom” gift from heaven – but they are the exception.

Reflecting on the gift as percentage of capacity; I have often marveled at and been surprised by the “stretch or sacrificial gift” that some people make. My hat goes off to them for their sacrifice. However, the fact remains that it takes a ton of sacrificial gifts from those with modest means to replace a less sacrificial gift from just one person of greater means. In my experience there are not that many willing to sacrifice.

Placing time, effort and precious resources in the position to have the most potential for success seems like the best use. Ya gotta play the numbers.

It boils down to the Willie Banks approach and I subscribe to that completely.

Good luck and I will be looking forward to other replies to this post.

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Joanne Fritz March 12, 2008 at 9:56 am

That is a wonderful idea and I’m wondering how it could be implemented by a nonprofit. Perhaps it would make sense to have a couple of people who manage smaller gifts and their donors. Small gift officers who could use their imaginations about ways to cultivate these donors and reward them that are still cost efficient. I also wonder about setting up events (not lavish ones but smaller and more personable ones) that would bring donors of smaller gifts together as peers. Many people are intimidated by the wealthy people who give largely yet we stage our events really for them. The new concept of giving circles might work well with donors of smaller gifts.

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Cal March 12, 2008 at 10:03 am

As a Development professional for many years now, I have seen a lot of discussions along the lines of your piece here. I have become very good at what I do, and to be honest, what I will say will sound mean, cold and crass, but deep inside I truly believe that we have lost a lot of what deToqueville first noticed about America. Some of these things are things we talk about every day.

Giving to one organization or another has become terribly shallow. With auctions, luncheons, breakfasts, all these types of fundraisers have become a contest to see who can tug on people’s heartstrings the most. It’s no longer about the reality of what any given agency does as much as what can they show me at this moment to tug on my heart? I don’t buy your assessment. Your comments about “fully engaging at the most meaningful level”, well that to me is a load of hooey, yet I use that type of talk all the time in my job as Development Director. To be honest, I want so much to believe in this stuff, but I see the real world for what it is. I agree with your premise, but would ask what is REAL generosity? What changed it for me is seeing three small boys on the streets of Bucharest Romania. One boy ran up with a meager piece of bread, and the boys were obviously starving, thin and gaunt. They were elated with the older boy’s find. The oldest carefully broke up the piece into 3 equal pieces, gave one to each. The smallest, who was about 4 years old took one bite, then dropped his piece that landed in a large puddle of mud. He began to cry. The oldest boy then took his piece and broke it in half and gave it to his brother. That my friends is real generosity.

I don’t want this to devolve into a discussion of politics, but it seems to me that something is wrong here. We have so many wealthy people not giving their share. If you ask Americans which country gives the most to charity, they will proudly say America. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case. Year after year the U.S. finishes towards the bottom of the list in per capita giving, specifically in international aid.

For me personally, I give nearly 15% of my income to charity every year. That means no nice car for me, we sometimes struggle to make our mortgage, but inside I still feel it is not enough. I never ask for a tax receipt, never ask to be listed in an annual report. I study the charities I give to well and make sure they not only provide valued services, but also are effecient and effective. I find it important to walk the talk.

So, as a professional, I write articles like this one above, but knowing inside that fundraising means “entertainment” (think auctions, events etc) and “recognition” (think annual report list of givers, names on a wall etc) and “tax deduction” — not exactly what giving was supposed to be back in deToqueville days.

I think about neighborhoods in poor parts of China, or Africa, where in the little villages, people who have nothing themselves share what little food they might have for their neighbors that have less. Then I remember, that I can do more, I can do better. I just wish others felt that way too.

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Christopher Logan March 12, 2008 at 10:13 am

I agree with much of your premise here, but you have not mentioned any of the “intangibles” for major donors. One reason that I spend so much time cultivating and working with those wealthy folks is not only because they give, but because they add clout to our organization, they tend to bring corporate support, and equally important, they bring their colleagues and friends with them as well. If the 90-10 rule applies here, we just need to identify 1 or two of thsoe wealthy individuals that can carry that true “major” moniker and make a substantial gift.

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Roger Carr March 12, 2008 at 11:01 am

I agree that anything that can be done to enhance the relationship between the donor and organization is a great thing to do. However, there are two realities I want to mention:

1. The nonprofit organization would need to be creative about how to build the relationship if all donors are treated as major donors. Traditional techniques would probably take more time from the CEO and staff to be warranted. However, I do think with better use of time and technology the relationship with donors usually could be improved tremendously.

2. This article could imply that if the donor (regardless of wealth) is not giving a substantial percentage of his or her wealth to your nonprofit organization, there is an attitude problem. Just because your organization is not getting what you think is a substantial amount from that person, does not mean donations aren’t being made to organizations where that person’s passions align more closely with. There are other worthy organizations that need donations as well.

I do agree with your concept. Enhancing the relationship will give the donor more reason to give to your organization. Anything that can be done to raise the level of trust will help. The organization just needs to be creative in the methods it uses to raise this trust.

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Michael Gibbons March 12, 2008 at 2:13 pm

Jason, you inspired a blog post @ Behind the Button…..Make their story part of your cause!

Jason Dick has asked for input about how the nonprofit world treats donors small versus major. [My answer at bottom.] First a caveat — for the most part I think fundraisers and donors get treated pretty well by the major charities….
http://makehope.typepad.com/behind_the_button/2008/03/make-their-stor.html

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Jason March 12, 2008 at 2:31 pm

Wow!!! So many amazing comments…
A few more Linkedin users have written in.
Kenny Smith:
It’s a great principle to aspire to–donors who give $25 are rightly disappointed if they are not appreciated by their organization.

On the other hand, how do you pull it off with a regional or larger organization? If you have several thousand donors, they can’t all know your ED personally. Deep personal connections between upper-level members of the organization are the most important service you can provide to a major donor. How can we do that for thousands of people?

Hillel Korin:
You pose an interesting question about donor centered development and how we treat donors.

All donors are special and one never knows if one will leave a bequest or pledged gift — however we also know experientially that all donors are not created equal and not every donor gives for purely charitable purposes! We also know that we can influence the thinking of donors based upon the personal and institutional relationships that we build.

Successful fund raising is dependent on a combination of donor centered activity and relationship management and understanding the goals and aspirations of the donor. Our practice is also enhanced by our ability to utilize data about donors and to be engaged with them so one knows when to ask and what to ask for.

In my judgment a good development officer has identified those with capacity and those that can best assist their cause and allocates time accordingly.

This does not demean less major donors it means that as development professionals we need to set priorities and we need to develop strategies to make all donors feel special but as long as development officers and our organizations are reliant on major gifts then different approaches will continue to be the norm.

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Richard J. Krasney, CFP® March 12, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Jason,

Have you read the book “Who Really Cares?” by Arthur Brooks? It’s a great study on who gives and who doesn’t in America. If you are a fund raising professional it’s a must read. I have a review of the book on my blog:

http://richiericher.wordpress.com/2008/02/01/arthur-brooks-who-really-cares-the-surprising-truth-about-compassionate-conservatism/

Richard

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J. Erik Potter March 13, 2008 at 5:34 am

Jason,

Excellent post. You got me thinking – here’s my take:

http://tinyurl.com/2x2xb8

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Aubrey March 13, 2008 at 11:05 am

I think the overarching premise here is not rocket science: If you have an opportunity to enhance a relationship with a donor (of any level) and make a more personal connection to your organization, do it. Regarding this principal, I have three points to make.

First, I completely agree that for organizations with larger donor bases, having a personal connection with every donor is simply not possible. However, cultivation does not necessarily mean that you seek to have every donor meet the ED (as some comments have alluded to); it can be as simple as heightened customer service. For example, if a $25 donor who you’ve never heard of calls with a question (about anything – the nature of the question is irrelevant), seize that opportunity to not just answer the question, but to briefly talk with them. Take a minute or two – surely, you can devote a minute of your time before hanging up the phone – and personally thank them for their contribution. At this donation level, this will likely be the first in-person thank you they have received, and that alone might go a long way when it comes time to renew their support. Take this a step further: What if the timing of this phone call was within a few weeks of your organization’s next planned solicitation? Even though at this level, the solicitation is likely a direct mail piece, is it worth an extra five minutes to pull that donor’s non-personal form letter and supplement it with a one to two sentence hand-written note to make the letter personal (i.e. “Wonderful meeting you over the phone last week. Thank you for your continued support!”)? Perhaps these few minutes of your time (we’re up to six minutes now) and attention will result in an upgrade to say, $100. Not only have you increased their initial donation by four times, you have potentially increased the lifetime value of the donation exponentially (assuming a normal pattern of upgrades that we aim to obtain from all donors) – all for a grand six minutes of your time. Can you do this for everyone? No way. Can you do it for some people? Absolutely.

Another way to work toward enhancing the relationship is to strategically use your stewardship/benefit events. Often is the case that lower level donors receive something tangible for their donations such as a mug, plaque, or decal. Instead, could you plan a cocktail reception or some other meet-and-greet type event for the same cost incurred to produce the aforementioned swag? Some organizations even go this far, but then fail to take advantage of the face-time they’ve garnered at the event. I once worked for an organization that kept stewardship very separate from cultivation in this way, and I think the result was many lost opportunities. Cannot stewarding your current donors really be used as cultivation for the future – especially when speaking about lower level donors when such opportunities are rare?

Finally – this revisits the idea that several comments have mentioned regarding knowing a donor’s giving capacity – I think the idea of cultivating non-major donors like major donors is essential when they have a large giving capacity. I don’t want to sound heartless, because I definitely appreciate and deeply value (personally) the heart of a donor who gives sacrificially even if their capacity to give is small, but when looking at the organization holistically, the budget does not hinge on the percentage of income someone gave, rather, it hinges on concrete dollar amounts, and as fundraisers, that’s our job to harness in the most efficient way possible. As such, when examining a donor who has an untapped large capacity, you must not only cultivate them as if a major donor, but approach them with a very focused marketing mindset as well. What I mean is that you must convey that you have what that person needs (the job of all marketing efforts). In other words, find their niche interests and match that with something in your organization. For example, I recently heard a story from a development staff person at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC (the largest opera company in the world). They had a long-time donor who had incredible capacity yet for some reason never gave more than $1,000, which for The Met is a drop in the pool. Finally, after years, someone on staff discovered that this donor didn’t necessarily like opera, but liked a certain composer (and therefore liked that composer’s symphonies and ballets equally as much as she liked his operas). The development department continued their cultivation of this donor, and eventually pitched the idea that the donor sponsor their next opera production by this composer (easily a $2 million undertaking). The donor agreed. And not just that, was so excited to support the company via their own specific interest that they continued that support on an annual basis.

Maybe none of this is new to anyone, but at least it has us thinking about how we can better cultivate our donors – non-major and major. Thank you, Jason!

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Allena Gabosch March 13, 2008 at 12:06 pm

Thank you! I think that you are on to something. We can never underestimate or overlook the contributions of all of our donors, big or small.

One type of donor that seems to get overlooked even more than the small donor is the time donor…our volunteers. There is a tendency in some circles to discount their contributions and I think that’s a mistake.

Thanks again for the thoughtful article.

Allena

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Dave Stoker March 14, 2008 at 8:37 am

Your comparison to a church community caught my eye because it is the example I use every day in explaining the concept of a Citizen Base. (I’m currently an intern at Ashoka with their Citizen Base Initiative). Ashoka has collected examples from around the world of innovative ways nonprofits have engaged their community to create that level of commitment, loyalty and two-way benefits.

One example I like is Men by the Side of the Road in South Africa. (http://www.citizenbase.org/Charles_Maisel) Instead of getting a large grant from a foundation to set up a job training program to address unemployment, they creatively engaged individual community members and the end beneficiaries and have ongoing sustainability.

A very hot example right now is that of Kiva.org. The internet has allowed them to engage with individual donors of donations as small as $25 and created a community in which everyone feels a bit of ownership. The net effect… $25 million raised in less than two years.

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Jeane Goforth April 8, 2008 at 2:07 am

Yes, a major donor would be great right now as we wait for our 501(c)3 determination. But we feel that we need the community to ‘buy in’ to what we are doing and that means small donors, tiny donors: parents at the inner city school bringing snacks, local rock bands performing at a benefit with a $5 cover. We take the time to make every connection because we’ve discovered it pays unimagined dividends. The connections, the small donors are part of the change we are trying to bring about.
Some of our supporters scour the symphony program for potential donors, but we write down the names of the small businesses near our teaching locations in the inner city. The plumbers, mechanics, truckers have never been asked to give to the symphony and probably would never go. But they can understand the benefits of music education and might value our efforts enough to donate. If it takes many more of them to equal one donation from a traditional arts patron, that’s that many more people having a stake in changing their community.
We’re probably crazy. We have little experience, just a vision. But we’re determined to make this happen, whatever it takes. It tickles me that by cashing in my (pitiful) life savings to get us started, I’m now a major donor–one of the biggest individual donors in our city this year!

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BethP August 8, 2008 at 6:23 am

this IS untraditional and i think it’s a revolutionary way to think. thanks for challenging us to step outside our traditional paradigm of thinking.

i expecially like this because at the root, you are talking about valuing people equally, as people, authentically and not according to how much they give. the question is posed above–what is REAL generosity? real generosity is giving out of need, not out of excess, as in the story of the kids divying up the bread in the same comment.

treating all donors as “major donors” could have a huge impact, because it is an approach full of integrity. ultimately, i think people can and will sense that, and will respond.

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Morris August 8, 2008 at 7:59 am

This is a great point. I would say the same is true of volunteers as well. I think your approach is a fundamental point that is far to often overlooked, which is what a donors donation means to them.

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Mike N. September 21, 2008 at 2:07 pm

It seems like a lot of people are doing a lot of good things for a lot of good causes.

Singer/Songwriter Elyse Bruce has compiled an album called “Countdown to Midnight” which raises funds and awareness for autism. Word is songs like “The Mad Hatter”, “Somewhere in Detroit”, “Say you’ll wait for me,” and “Late Night in the Borough” have already made it to radio in some venues.

Everyone is equal when they download a song or buy an album, and everybody is family when they all sing the tunes together.

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Peder September 23, 2008 at 8:46 am

I think this goes to the value of people. If an organization only values large contributors, it affects the entire self-perception of the organization. At that point we are for sale. This can deeply affect the mission, to the point that we loose our reason for existence.

I do Communications Outreach for nonprofit communities and it is very powerful to see an organization reach out with a clear message of hope and gratitude for all people. It gives all of us a reason to donate to them.

I do also think there are many forms of donation: time, ideas, connections and encouragement are also gifts, priceless at times.

University Place, WA

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Thom Griffin September 24, 2008 at 6:26 am

I agree with your observations. A few years ago, my little town was raising funds to restore a covered bridge. I didn’t have much money at the time, but gave what I could. The next week, the fundraising committee announced that “major” donors would have their names listed on a brass plaque on the bridge. My reaction was that 1. Why spend money on a plaque? and 2. Why not put all the names on a wooden plaque that could fade with time, just like we, as humans, do?

I’m in the middle of a fundraising campaign, putting together a silent auction for an opera group. The chairman wanted $250 donations. I’m getting $25 donations. It’s all money. Of course it takes more time, but it also builds a great sense of community.

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PlanoPride February 25, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Probably one of the strangest things human beings do is to work really hard for their paycheck and then turn around and give it away.

What is Major to one is not to another. I found that recognition is a much more powerful tool than one would think. This is part of human nature. When we say “Your gift will be recognized as a Major Gift because it is $XX,XXX dollars”, most donors will say. “Thats not important to me.” but when you say “We are going to recognize all donors of $1,000 or more on an alphabetical plaque, and we wanted to recognize the generosity of your family. ” Chances are you will maximize the likelihood of getting a gift close to what is being asked.

I raised money for a rural hospital once and we had a prospect who was a widow of a farmer with no heirs. We asked for a gift of $25,000. She said, “The last campaign in 1956 we gave $500, I dont think I can do much more than $1,000″

The hospital had to either count it as a turndown or accept it graciously. We said “Thank you very much”… When she died three years later , she left the Hospital a gift for $2.5 million in her estate.

To her the $1,000 was significant and was a Major gift in her mind. This shows that it is the RELATIONSHIP that matters…the two are inseparable.

Other examples include Latino craftsmen making “gifts in kind” to a catholic church building campaign. The gift of stone carving and concretework would have been prohibitive to pay for, yet these “small” gifts made a tremendous difference in the final product.

There is no such thing as a small gift and all of them deserve recognition!

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Rene Bouchard September 7, 2010 at 2:17 pm

This is why I like to talk about giving a meaningful gift. If a donor gives my organization $25 and walks to work instead of taking the subway for a week in order to do so, that is a profoundly meaningful gift. Another donor may give us $2,500, and believe me, we appreciate it, but that gift is truly no greater than the smaller gift that was so deeply felt. I spent about 45 minutes this morning hand writing a letter to a donor who gives my organization about $40 a year, and included some materials I knew she would find interesting. This is the same level of attention I give to my major donors. I knew I was spending my time well, but this article really affirms that. It’s a good message.

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MissaMarie289 July 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Hoping for some advice. I am the web developer for a non-profit and I have been asked to list the sponsors and vendors that give large discounts, separately on our site. We have a current button titled sponsors and within are all of the business that have donated monetarily or donated items. I have been asked to add a button for “supporters”, that would include vendors that are giving us very gracious discounts on items we are renting or purchasing for our main event. I am having a hard time deciding on a title for this section/button. I think that the wording supporters is too close to sponsors and the sponsors appreciate the stand alone recognition. Thanks in advance for any advice!

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