5 Characteristics of Closing Unprecedented Gifts

5 Things to Keep In Mind When Pursuing a Transformational Donation

by Karen Lieberman-Daly, and Allen Peckham

Posted January 25, 2024

In 2022, giving from the 50 biggest donors in the US totaled $16 billion. Often, these donations went to large, well-established titans of the nonprofit world: leading hospitals, cancer research facilities, and, of course, myriad eponymous foundations. However, one Boston-area billionaire couple – Rob and Karen Hale – decided to “try funding the minnows of the nonprofit world rather than its whales.

The Hales ultimately gave a total of $52 million to 75 smaller nonprofits for whom a gift of around $1 million would be truly transformative.

While receiving an unexpected windfall from major gifts donors like the Hales who decide to switch up their philanthropic giving isn’t a reliable method for nonprofits hoping to secure their futures, every nonprofit can take steps to formalize and grow their capabilities for pursuing and securing transformational gifts.

Each 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.

Below are the five factors that characterized the majority of these donations:

1.   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 since 1989, which ranged from the low six-figures to the high seven-figures.

2. These gifts have gestation periods that are difficult to predict

The many twists and turns steering these gifts to fruition make them very difficult to include in fundraising projections. Diligence, regular and high-quality communication, and patience are key.

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; and over 12 months of complex negotiations.

3. Gifts of this type take big, visionary ideas

Expansion of the organization’s infrastructure. A brand-new program that dovetails well with other programming. Building capacity to double the number of people currently being served.

These are the ideas that can intrigue potential donors to make large, transformative gifts. Instead of a general, non-specific ask, fundraisers should present specific plans backed up by existing data and planning.

Occasionally, major gift donors themselves may initiate a big idea. While this can be a win-win situation for both parties, nonprofit organizations need to be careful that gifts – however well-intended – do not contribute to 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. Remember: don’t chase the money.

4. These gifts almost always involve co-branding

A lead donor needs to believe that linking their name and gift to an organization will be viewed positively by their colleagues and 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. Additionally, the Museum recognized his distinctive contributions to STEM education with the Washburn Award (the Museum’s highest honor), which was simultaneously 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 globally-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.” 

5. 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. Lead donors only give if/when they are confident in an organization’s leadership. This is why consistent, quality stewardship is critical for any nonprofit’s long-term fundraising goals.

Looking for ways to further personalize donor outreach? Consider utilizing videos to communicate your organization’s mission and impact. See here for our top tips.

With time and experience, donors come to share in the vision of the organization’s leadership; they become equity partners in achieving mission.

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