The Big Gift -- The Impossible Dream, or Is It?

Posted by admin on Aug 9, 2018 4:20:26 PM

Non-profit organizations spend most of their time responding to immediate pressures and crises, focusing a great deal on the short term. It seems as though time spent dreaming about huge contributions is a luxury many development professionals cannot afford. Nonetheless, focusing on the day-to-day needs of the organization should not prevent you from planning for the jackpot. As Don Quixote taught us, we must “dream the impossible dream.”

There are two key considerations here: what does the organization consider a big gift; and, what does the prospect consider a big gift. Your organization’s definition of a big gift should be codified (i.e., greater than $5,000 in one year). Based on the scale of your development efforts, your organization’s big gift could range from $5,000 to $1,000,000. In some circles, this could even be higher. Whatever the absolute value, it’s that level at which a gift stands out from the norm.

In my work as a professional fundraiser, I often ponder what should the number be for a prospective donor’s request. Do not be shy; whatever is determined to be a stretch gift should be sought. Make sure you do your homework before making the request. There are many ways to develop an appropriate dollar amount to be solicited. The most obvious method is to consult with friends and acquaintances and then utilize any resource that is available to you. Past giving patterns (if you have any information) also give some indications of a potential gift’s size.

I have had disappointments in the past, as I am sure we all have. I can recall when we solicited someone for a $10,000 gift, which we thought was an appropriate ask. The donor was very gracious and transferred stock the following week for over $11,000. We were grateful. The results were positive, but, little did we know, this person had much greater resources. Two years later, this same person gave a gift of $5,000,000 to an Ivy League college. We obviously did not do our homework. This same person had a love for the institution we represented and in retrospect should have been asked for a seven-figure gift. The moral of the story: do your homework and do not leave anything on the table.

In another situation, a woman was a perennial $1,000 donor to a hospital with which I was working, and was personally active in the organization as well. Sometimes the gift of $1,000 seemed to be a stretch for her. Because she was such a consistent donor with both her time and money, we honored her for her volunteering efforts. Six months after she was honored, she passed away. To our pleasant surprise, the hospital was named as a beneficiary in her will. Apparently she had an inheritance from a relative in the previous year. The bottom line resulted in a $1,800,000 legacy to the hospital. My point is, you can never predict when people will surprise you with their true capability. People have a variety of resources on which they can draw, and will do so when they are properly motivated and appreciated. The moral of the story: do not pigeonhole your donors based on historical performance; their circumstances may change.

On another occasion, an individual’s name kept surfacing but reports were that this person was unapproachable. They were clearly capable of a seven-figure gift but there had to be a valid reason for approaching hem and multiple connections that could be used to nudge them toward a gift of this magnitude. As professional fundraisers, we must always pursue the “why:” Why would a person be so generous? There might be a historical connection to the mission of your organization or a family member that could provide the spark or introduction to this person. The moral of the story: never say “no” on behalf of a prospect; never assume someone is out of reach simply because of wealth or stature.

We have nothing to lose by spending time in pursuing these large gifts if our case for support and appeal is strong enough. Six-figure and seven-figure gifts should always be your top priority, but you must be realistic in seeking these high level gifts. Sometimes you may wish to negotiate a number for a particular giving opportunity in memory or recognition of the donor or a family member.

Be Don Quixote! Do not be afraid to pursue the impossible dream! Sometimes you will amaze even yourself when you ask for extraordinary gifts. Believe me, they are out there. Do not be afraid to shoot for the stars. The impossible dream is possible as long as you have the passion, desire and belief that you can succeed. I don’t mean to be a cheerleader, but in this business you can be successful in raising major gifts if you follow sound measures in pursuit of these BIG gifts. Set your standards high and you’ll attain the “Impossible Dream.”

Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is among the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada.  If you have a fundraising question, please call  CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to

Topics: asking for money, Capital Campaigns, Fundraising Principles, General Articles, major gift fundraising, Major Gifts

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