bills-corner The Evolution of Major Gifts


by William Weber


Posted April 30, 2024

This is an essay about the evolution of major gift fundraising. (if you are looking for advice about growing and optimizing your fundraising program, look here).

Major Gifts 1999-2024:  Big Step Forward

Today’s AI enthusiasts remind me of pioneer major gift advocates from 25 years ago. Both had a vision of a transformed future despite little supporting evidence, and both shared a relentless evangelical drive met with all kinds of resistance from their target audiences.

Just think back to the US in 1999:

  • Google had just been created the year before.
  • Barack Obama was an Illinois State Senator.
  • SpongeBob premiered.
  • The US Women’s National Soccer Team won the World Cup.
  • Y2K loomed on the near horizon.

And in 1999, major gift fundraising was in its infancy (or, at best, its adolescence):

  • If in an email you wrote “AI”, “data mining,” “crowd funding,” or “DEI,” many would have thought it was a typo.
  • Nine-figure digital gifts were unheard of.
  • Major gift training was essentially “sink or swim.”
  • Recruitment relied on newspaper advertising.
  • Good luck recruiting a major gift fundraiser with 5-10 years of experience (“few and far between” only begins to describe how shallow the experienced talent pool was).

In this context, I asked several Chief Development Officers about the changes in major gifts from 1999 – 2024. As a starting point, they all agreed that the unprecedented concentration of wealth in this time period fueled the growth of major gifts.

Moreover, they generally agreed that, today, there are now:

  • Better tools for research and communication
  • Better data and knowledge about how to use it effectively
  • Better and more widely available training
  • Better CEO and board involvement at every step of the process
  • Better “full court press” recruitment (research, social media, conferences etc.)
  • Better leadership appreciation of the value of investing in major gifts.
  • Better talent pools of experienced major gift fundraisers…and much higher salaries
  • And while major gifts programs pretty much became established in higher education and healthcare, they note that much smaller nonprofits in every sector have caught the bug.

But while so much is different and better, current CDOs emphasized that the fundamentals of major gifts have not changed. In sum, the keys remain: building relationships and customizing donor segmentation, cultivation, engagement, solicitation, negotiation and stewardship.

Major Gifts 2024+ – ?: Looking Forward

When I asked fundraising leaders to reflect on the last 10 – 25 years, they agreed that 1999-2024 has been a remarkable era—Inevitably, they turned the question forward and speculated that the next stage  may be characterized in the following ways:

Stabilize:  Equilibrium is here to stay–think Law of Inertia.

Upward and onward: Just look at recent years, where fewer total gifts (in the U.S.) yield more revenue. So, it could be that Major Gifts build on this trajectory and continue to gain traction and grow.

Metamorphosis: New innovations, technology, and thinking will redefine and transform every aspect of what we now think makes up a major gift program. Think Mega Gifts.

Decline: I haven’t heard anyone expecting the unlikely decline or end of major gifts but logically it could happen. Especially if criticism increases about major gifts undue influence.

So, I thought I would use LinkedIn to poll my network:

Next Phase of Major Gifts Poll Results

Next Phase of Major Gifts Poll Results: 6% stabilize, 17% decline, 34% upwards and onward, 43% metamorphosis

Respondents were clearly positive about the evolution of major gifts. And similar to the professionals in the field I spoke to, respondents seemed inclined to view the future of major gifts as not only growing but also innovating and changing with new technologies. Having been working in fundraising for many years, it is exciting to see the field evolve and maintain relevancy. I look forward to what else is to come in fundraising.

Your thoughts? Let me know by emailing me at


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