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How Do You Pick Yourself Up After the Loss of a Major Gift?



Everyone defines a major gift differently and as the stakes go higher, so does the emotional investment.


A major gift could simply be the last $50,000 gift that you needed to make your annual goal and now it’s June 28 and June 30 is the closing date. And there’s not another gift in sight.


It could be someone who told you that he/she wanted to finalize a multimillion dollar planned gift and then never got back to you despite your repeated attempts to reach out.


Or someone who was entertaining a $10-12 million initiative but then “couldn’t stomach the idea” when the insurance market in the city changed dramatically and his company was disadvantaged.


Worse yet, it could be someone who asked for a $3,000,000 proposal that was later derailed by something senior management did.


Yes, these gifts got away.


Who hasn’t been there? Who hasn’t gone home very depressed? Who hasn’t laid awake thinking about it throughout the course of that evening and many others? Who hasn’t depended on such gifts to reach their revenue goals for the year?


Notes of Encouragement

Recently I was counseling a young student who was very disappointed when she didn’t get a $5,000 gift she was hoping would name a conference series—she “only” got $1,000. Unfortunately, the other students on the committee were not supportive of her efforts and were also disappointed in the result. Her boyfriend counseled her that it was easy to criticize someone else when you are sitting in your own home doing nothing to help. When your supervisors or leadership show their disappointment and may also be critical, it can be a blow to your professionalism. And to your ego.


That afternoon I was watching a documentary on the Roosevelts and at one point the documentary highlighted Theodore Roosevelt’s widely quoted 1910 speech known as the Man In The Arena. The student’s boyfriend had been so smart—his advice echoed these amazing thoughts from Mr. Roosevelt:


It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly…who errs, who comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end of triumph or high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so his place shall never be with those bold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.


It takes courage to be a successful development officer. Along the way things are going to happen and some of the best ideas may not work out. I do not consider these disappointments to be failures, incidentally. These losses are merely setbacks. You can recover from them and so can everyone else.


5 Steps to Work Your Way Back?

One gift does not demonstrate the worth of a development officer. It is simply a moment in time. Success always should be judged by a body of work, never what happened on one day.


So you learn about the loss of a gift. You feel vulnerable. What next?

  1. Take a look at your emotions. Are you embarrassed in front of your colleagues? Supervisors? Leadership? Are you disappointed? Do you feel a deep sense of loss? Are you questioning your own abilities? Do you think they are questioning your abilities? Allow yourself to feel all of these emotions—give yourself time to explore them and try to work them out. Flail around emotionally all that you need to flail, for as many days as you may need. (During this period a hot bath coupled with reading Time Magazine might make you feel better.)

  2. Also note that you have been brave. You showed up and are living your values. You dared greatly. You now have a new awareness that actually can be put to work on your own behalf. It can reignite your enthusiasm and “can do” spirit. Couple this phase with a little mindfulness practice and you will be on your own road to recovery.

  3. Review what happened so you can learn about what worked and what didn’t work. Remind yourself that you are being proactive. As you look back at the steps that were taken, is there anything that you wish you had done differently? Analyze it closely. Be honest. How could things have been accomplished differently so that the outcome could have been more positive? Would that have been possible? (Remember, you were not the only actor in this particular play.)

  4. Talk to a trusted, experienced colleague. Chances are that individual has had some of the same disappointments. Review the same steps and determine if he/she would have done anything differently. What did you learn? Reevaluate that approach until you are very comfortable. If you are not there yet, repeat this step. Sleep on it and re-review the next day.

  5. Now it is time to put the whole disappointment behind you. President Roosevelt was committed to action when he experienced disappointment. He thought that the best medicine was to get back on his horse. Taking a page from his thoughts, look at the next prospect, look at the next initiative, spend some time exploring a strategy by yourself. Then with the project leader, with your colleagues and perhaps with your supervisor. Do it again until you are ready to take next steps. Remain positive—tomorrow is another day.

By following these 5 steps, you will be one step up as you plan your next approach…you will sleep better every night. But the warm bath and good reading material are still very valuable techniques. Add ginger cookies when you need an additional boost.


Did you ever lose a major gift? How did you handle it?

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1643 Biltmore Lane, Pittsburgh, PA 15217

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