What it Takes to Close an Unprecedented Gift

5 Things to Keep In Mind When Pursuing a Transformational Donation

by Karen Lieberman-Daly, Victoria Jones, and Allen Peckham

Posted March 8, 2022

From 2020 to 2021, giving from the 50 biggest donors in the US increased by 12.1% from $24.7 billion to $27.7 billion. The increase in size and frequency of major gifts is transforming nonprofits across the country. These outsized major gifts can not only strengthen an organization’s ability to deliver on mission in unprecedented ways – they can also inspire other donors to give at new levels as they are often seen as public endorsements of an organization’s long-term strategy for big impact.  

Each transformational gift is unique, requiring cultivation strategies and communications tailored to the prospect and organizational vision. That said, there are certain principles that frequently ring true. Having partnered with nonprofits of every size and sector, we have witnessed a number of transformational gifts come to fruition over the years. Here, we outline the factors that have characterized the majority of these donations… 

current donors are the best prospects

Lead gifts rarely come from first-time or relatively new donors (although, it does happen!). They are most often the result of years of relationship-building, deep education and involvement with multiple players and multiple solicitations at various levels.  

Case in point: One of our human service clients recently received the largest gift in its history from a family foundation. Prior to the eight-figure gift, the foundation had made over 25 donations to the organization, ranging from low six-figures to high seven-figures, and dating back to 1989.  

that said gifts have gestation periods that are difficult to predict

Lots of twists and turns navigating these gifts to fruition make them very difficult to include in fundraising projections. 

The foundation’s gift to the human service organization was a result of a 30-year relationship between organizational leadership, board members, fundraising staff, and key foundation trustees; over 20 site visits over the past few decades; and over 12 months of complex negotiations. Diligence and patience are key.  

gifts of this types take big visionary ideas

The ideas are best if they are presented by the charitable organization, but sometimes they come from the donor. When the donor initiates a big idea, organizations need to be careful with mission creep. An organization’s big idea can be altered by a lead donor to such an extent that it is no longer within the scope of the organization’s mission. Keep in mind: don’t chase the money. 

these gifts almost always involve cobranding

A lead donor needs to believe that by linking their name and gift to an organization’s it will be seen as positive among their peers. The founder of public relations, Edward L. Bernays, coined the phrase “gilt by association” when trying to associate his clients with organizations that would elevate their status.  

As part of their stewardship strategy, the Museum of Science in Boston asked Michael Bloomberg to deliver the keynote address for its newly renovated Charles Hayden Planetarium in 2014, and recognized his distinctive contributions to STEM education with the Washburn Award (the Museum’s highest honor), which at the same time was bestowed upon Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, the founder of the internet, and Richard Saul Wurman, the creator of TED Talks. The award aligned Mr. Bloomberg’s philanthropic accomplishments and passions with the Museum’s mission and positioned him with other world-recognized leaders in science and education. Learn more about how Mr. Bloomberg’s $50M gift came to be in our blog, “Michael Bloomberg and the Rise of Mega-Gifts.”  

people give to people

Organizations that build partnerships with key donors – donors capable of making lead gifts when the time is right, whether individuals, foundations, or corporations – usually do so through many years of partnership with the organizations’ leaders. With time and experience, donors come to share in the vision of the organization’s leadership; they become equity partners in achieving mission. Lead donors only give if/when they are confident in an organization’s leadership. 

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