Fundraising Published Date, 2022

3 Necessities To Attract “Mega” Gifts

Created By: Craig Shelley, CFRE
October 21, 2020

To call the last six months unprecedented has become the obvious cliché, but from a philanthropic standpoint we have truly been operating in an environment that we’ve never seen before.  Both the pandemic and a unique and wildly uneven economic downturn left even the most experienced fundraising prognosticators scratching their collective heads.  One of the most interesting trends has been the increase in “mega” gifts – which in this context, is defined as $10 million or more.

MacKenzie Scott made headlines this summer by distributing nearly $2 billion seemingly out of nowhere.  Jack Dorsey casually adds gifts to a Google spreadsheet that are so sizable they can change the trajectory of organizations for years to come.  More so than in any previous economic crisis, nonprofits are not trimming their ambitions.  Many organizations are answering society’s call to meet a moment created by a systemic break down of multiple systems and a reckoning on generations of racial inequality.  As ambitions and gifts grow, so do the campaigns being launched leaving nonprofits of every size asking, “how can we attract these investments and increase our impact?”

In our experience working with nonprofits of a variety of missions who have received 8-figure philanthropic gifts, common threads have started to emerge.  Almost universally, these organizations have,

  • A Big Idea
  • A Dynamic “Salesforce”
  • Access to Prospects with Capacity

By understanding what is required to attract these gifts, organizations can begin to prepare to do so.

A BIG IDEA

Small ideas attract small money.  To receive 8-figure contributions you must have a case for support that warrants that size investment.  A $10 million donor is not interested in incrementally improving your organization but in dramatically improving the world.  The “idea” must be matched with a track record or the expertise to prove you can achieve the goals articulated.

One example of an organization that has received multiple 7- and 8-figure gifts through the years, and which appeared on MacKenzie Scott’s distribution list, is Grameen America.  Their theory of change, that small micro-loans to women entrepreneurs organized in supportive cohorts can lift families and communities out of poverty, resonates with mega donors, who are often entrepreneurs and/or active in the financial markets and inherently “get” the idea.  Coupled with a track record of success in the developing world and 10 years of data and progress in communities in the United States, Grameen America makes for an attractive prospect for big gifts.  Currently organized in a campaign that will double their impact, they can make the case that they have an idea big enough for 8-figure gifts and the track record to put it to use.

Blue Meridian, an idea spun out of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, was launched and built on the idea of deploying big gifts.  The essential idea is that large donors, working collectively, can have greater good in pooling their resources and directing that support to the highest potential nonprofits.  Supported by a knowledgeable team, the big idea is that philanthropy can be done better if done collectively.  The organization was founded by a series of 8-figure gifts and continues to attract more and more gifts of this scale, including a recent one from MacKenzie Scott, as their track record grows.

Big ideas, and proof you can carry them out, attract big gifts.

A DYNAMIC “SALESFORCE”

No, not the CRM.  A good CRM never hurts but my experience is that the way you use it can be more important than which product you use.  By “salesforce” I mean your actual salespeople.  The message matters but the messenger is equally as important.  Philanthropists making the largest gifts will generally want to be “wowed” by someone.  They don’t necessarily have to be the CEO though that would be best.  A charismatic leader who can explain the vision in a digestible way and build a relationship with donors and their advisers is required.  If not, it can be the board chair, another senior board leader, and on rare instances I’ve seen it be a “celebrity.” It is typically not a chief development officer or major gift officer, though professionalism, experience, and charisma in those positions is equally but differently important.

While there is not one “type” of dynamic leader that can be the conduit for these mega gifts, common traits include an ability to explain complicated ideas simply, connect with the prospects in a meaningful way that is friendly but professional, and portray and instill confidence while welcoming input.  Once you look beyond the traditional recipients of large gifts such as hospitals, universities, and museums, a picture starts to emerge by examining leaders like Cheryl Dorsey at Echoing Green, a recipient of a MacKenzie Scott gift, Vanessa Kirsch at New Profit, which has received a number of gifts of this magnitude through the years, and Andrea Jung at Grameen America.  Each individual has extensive experience beyond their current roles, with Cheryl having founded and led another nonprofit and served in the White House, Vanessa having been a lifelong social entrepreneur who founded multiple successful organizations, and Andrea having served as the CEO of Avon, which at the time was one of the country’s largest publicly traded corporations.  All three women have a dependable track record and comfort as a leader that instantly creates credibility.

Fundamentally, investors and the ultra-high-net-worth individuals who make gifts at this level are in some ways, investing in people.  A capable and proven leader who can connect with these donors is an important ingredient to success.

ACCESS TO PROSPECTS WITH CAPACITY

The best idea with the most dynamic salesperson will not go very far if they cannot get in front of the prospects who can make the gift.  Earlier in my career the suggestion was always, “If we could just get Oprah to learn about this, I know she’d want to support it.”  Over the years, Oprah has been Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, etc.  In almost every instance, that could have very well been true if “XYZ Billionaire” knew about the organization, however the ability to capture the attention of prospects like these is fleeting at best.  It’s the key component of these three necessities and often the hardest to orchestrate.  In many ways, the world is full of ideas and dynamic vessels to explain them; it’s getting the right people to hear about it that often precludes funding.

Historically, large gifts have most often stemmed from donors who have made numerous smaller, though significant, gifts to an organization.  Moving a donor up the proverbial giving pyramid remains the best way to secure larger gifts.  However, that is becoming less of an absolute necessity.  While MacKenzie Scott’s gifts are a dramatic example, as almost all of the organizations were first time recipients of her generosity, we can point to numerous other donors who have quickly or, in many instances, made first time gifts of $10 million+.  That said, access to these prospects is still an absolute necessity.  Even in today’s “fail fast and move faster” culture, donors are very unlikely to just stumble onto your nonprofit and shower it with largesse.  For example, that access can be via a strong reputation among philanthropic leaders for doing good work in your field, as donors will often “ask around” once they want to start making large gifts.  The best historic way to access these donors has been via playing the “six degrees of separation” game with your board of directors.  While this is listed as the third component, actually thinking about it last on this list is often the most critical error.  I’ve seen many organizations fine tune their case endlessly and boards that constantly search for the savior-CEO while not giving enough thought to who the appeal is going to be presented to in the first place.

An organization pursuing big philanthropy really must build their capacity across all three of these dimensions simultaneously to secure gifts of this magnitude.  It’s truly a three-legged stool.

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