If there is one concept that is always essential, it is the importance of quality leadership. There are many different expressions of leadership, all of which are necessary. Leadership of time, leadership of talent, leadership from staff as well as from volunteers. And, of course, there are leadership gifts, the foundation of a successful campaign.
Leadership gifts are very large gifts made at the outset of the campaign. Depending on the goal of the campaign, they often start at a level of $50,000 and go up from there. The old adage that “20 percent of the people contribute 80 percent of the money” relates directly to leadership gifts. Yet, I see many organizations that try to raise $2 million by asking everyone to give $5,000. Or organizations that approach their prospects in a seemingly random order, with leadership prospects mixed in with lower-level prospects. Both of these strategies downplay the importance of leadership gifts and jeopardize the success of the campaign.
Ideally, a campaign begins with a few enormous leadership gifts, raising sights and building momentum. It follows a path through more moderate major gifts to a place where you get an enormous number of smaller gifts. By the time you get to the end, everyone wants to be involved.
It is possible, however, to begin on the right track and fall prey to incorrect assumptions later on. This is best illustrated when people try to “make up” lost leadership gifts with more gifts at a lower level. This does not work, and it is a trap to be vigorously avoided.
I have seen it happen. An organization is trying to raise $4 million. They are seeking a donation of $1 million as the lead gift to the campaign. Unexpectedly, that gift comes in at $500,000 instead. Somebody says, “We’ll just have to find ten more gifts of $50,000 to make up the difference.” Unfortunately, for many reasons, that logic is flawed.
First of all, glibly declaring your intent to get “ten more gifts at $50,000” is overly optimistic, albeit gutsy, behavior. Fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money. Lowering the scale doesn't help much, either. Trying to make it up with 100 gifts of $5,000 will cost you more in shoe leather than you will collect. The momentum of a campaign rests on getting to the goal as quickly as possible. The more prospects you have to solicit to accomplish that goal, the less momentum you build.
There is an even more flawed aspect to this “make up” strategy. Suggesting that you can get the half-million from ten other donors assumes that you have some reserve pool of prospects you have been saving for just such an eventuality, like a bullpen of relief donors. If you truly have ten people capable of giving $50,000 each, I would hope you had planned to ask them all along.
Successful campaigns are not plateaus; they are mountains. They have a peak where only a few people can stand. Those are your lead donors. If you don’t get those hardy souls who can survive at that altitude, then you will never climb the mountain. Or, you will have to set your sights on some smaller hill. The trick is to know how good your best “climbers” are and how far they can take you. Use that knowledge at the outset to decide how high a mountain you can climb. Can you reach the top of Mt. Everest (29,035 feet), or is Mt. McKinley (20,320 feet) your best hope? Decide now, as it is much better to reach the summit on McKinley than come up 9,000 feet short on Everest. Or, as I love to tell people, a home run in Fenway Park is worth more than a long fly ball in Yankee Stadium.
Every successful campaign is won with a relatively small number of very large gifts. In the campaign I am presently directing, we have a goal of $2.5 million. We have successfully raised $2 million from just 19 donors. Based on that handful of gifts, I can predict with a lot of confidence that the campaign will succeed. Now we can focus on generating a broad base of community support without having to lean on the general public for the bulk of our funds. This strategy can work for any organization and is certainly one of the secrets to fundraising success.
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