This is an essay about the evolution of major gift fundraising. I offer no tips, no lessons learned or takeaways (if you are looking for advice about growing and optimizing your fundraising program, look here).
Major Gifts 1999-2024: The Golden Age?
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 “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—perhaps even the Golden Age of Major Gifts. Inevitably, they turned the question forward and speculated that the Golden Age may be characterized in the following ways:
Stabilize: Equilibrium is here to stay–think Law of Inertia.
Upwards 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 builds on this trajectory and continues 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 decline or end of major gifts as we know it now. But it seems to me that any historical phase could decline—think Roman empire—and major gifts are no exception. Economic collapse or global war could signal the end of major gifts as we know it now.
So, I thought I would use LinkedIn to poll my network:
Here are the results:
I was surprised about the optimistic responses!
Let me know your thoughts by reaching out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.