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I'm Obsessed With Major Gifts

Why wouldn't someone who works in development want to be obsessed with major gifts? There is something so special about people who have the capacity to give a major gift and move ahead to do so.

I was very lucky in my career to work with many of these people. What makes a major gift is defined by the organization itself. In some non-profits, $5,000 is a major gift and in others $50,000 is the start of a major gift. Yet others define it as $100,000.

What I love is that major donors want to be part of the organization's success, so they make a donation. Before they do, they assess their own confidence in the organization and the initiatives underway, they look at management, impact of the organization and decide on the significance of the organization in their own lives or to their own community.

Once a major gift is made, the donor feels a real attachment. And that attachment is further cultivated by the major gift officer as well as leadership over time. I enjoyed this part of my work solidly. I worked hard to maintain relationships in the community and I truly value those who want to make an impact at any level.

Major donors are the backbone of the fundraising program. Often they give on an annual basis and many will increase their gift over time. Gifts at every level are important and they all strike a certain rhythm and harmony within the program. Major gifts will accelerate the impact of the program and fuel the accomplishments. Together all gifts work together and there is power in those partnerships. The kind of power that can move mountains.

In the early '90's major gifts from individuals were not quite as frequent as they are today. Doug Picha, President of Seattle Children's Hospital and Research Foundation and a group of colleagues from other children's hospitals around the country decided to change that for their own organizations. To collectively advance the missions of more than 20 of the largest children's hospitals in North America, they founded the Children's Circle of Care program, which honors individual and family foundations who give $10,000 or more to member hospitals. This brought a focus on the mission and special programs of these hospitals and the number of donors to each institution grew. Today that group has raised more than $5 billion toward pediatric clinical care, research, teaching and advocacy efforts. A remarkable impact.

Why did this group grow so successfully? The founders of the organization lived the mission of their institution every day, they thought about it so often, it was woven into their hearts and into their work-life DNA. For them each donor was critical to the success of their mission--and they imparted that sense to each donor. People like to be part of something and be made to feel special. In this case, they were. People were so complimented to be a part of something at this level, it also complimented their own leadership, their capacity and their collective impact.

What happened at each hospital when these groups were formed?

  • Each donor was valued, stewarded and cultivated individually and as a group. They were carefully informed about the progress that was being made within the fundraising efforts as well as the impact the funds were having on the mission.

  • They began to refer others to the group.

  • Major gift officers enjoyed working with individuals, couples and family was very reinforcing all the way around.

  • Donors felt very connected to the organization, they felt an important bond to the Children's Circle of Care and they felt a bond with one another.

  • In many cases, many of these people began to give more and some of them became donors of $1 million or more to their area children's hospital.

By anyone's definition Doug and his colleagues executed a wonderful plan, had an enormous success, created a model for others to use and, in the process, significantly advanced the mission of some of the most important non-profits anywhere in the world. And that's how I became obsessed with major gifts. I was working at one of those children's hospitals at the time. I could see the immediate impact on a first-hand basis.

Creating a society like this is well within the reach of many individual organizations. As a development leader I have always believed that we were not put on this earth just to fit in. We are on a once-in-a-lifetime journey and we have to act with urgency. We can't miss it. We have to be entrepreneurial. We have to be constructively discontent. We have to do things that have never been done before. We have to help people throughout the larger community and raise many gifts, both large and small. We have to plan to win. We have to get better and better in our craft. People are counting on us.

Obsessed with major gifts? You bet I am. Watching the impact they make creates a contagious atmosphere--may we all live in such a rarefied, exciting environment throughout our entire careers.

Now, that's a sustainable advantage for a development officer and his/her organization.


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