Big gifts – the kind of transformative philanthropic commitments that can positively redirect the trajectory of a program, project, or even an entire organization – are the types of gifts that many development professionals don’t just dream about but strategize for months or years to secure. Enormous amounts of discovery, cultivation, and solicitation go into inviting and – if everything goes right – ultimately formalizing these major gifts. While the time, human capital, and other resources needed to arrive at the pivotal point of receiving a transformative gift are of course necessary, what happens after the gift is in the door is just as, or even more critical to ensuring continued fundraising success and meaningful donor partnerships.
Game-changing gifts mean something different for every organization and vary depending on a nonprofit’s annual budget and fundraising goals. Regardless of whether an organization considers a cornerstone commitment $25,000 or $25 million, the core fundamentals of properly stewarding the gift and leveraging its impact remain the same. When leadership fully realizes and embraces the extraordinary opportunity that significant philanthropic commitments yield, they can then use the momentum from the gift to heighten their overall fundraising performance while simultaneously deepening their partnership with the donor. Failure to maximize this opportunity can result in a poorly executed stewardship plan and a missed shot to take the organization’s culture of philanthropy to an entirely new level.
If your organization is privileged to be the recipient of a significant philanthropic investment, consider keeping the following tips top of mind for effectively managing transformative gifts.
Build a Comprehensive and Timely Stewardship Plan
Too often, stewardship is an afterthought – something that is only given attention after a donor has signed a check. Waiting until the last minute to develop a stewardship plan runs the risk of lacking meaning, customization, and alignment to your donor’s investment as well as his/her preferences for engagement and receiving information post-commitment.
It is worth noting here that while development staff should not delay the crafting of a stewardship plan, it is also important to not jump the gun either, especially if the latter leans on false assumptions that a donor’s gift is a given before a request for support has been extended. In addition to the potentially inaccurate presumptions that a premature stewardship plan might depend on, it is a mistake to rush into a solicitation and hurriedly move into the stewardship stage without sound strategy, adequate timing and, most critical, a robust understanding of what is important to your donor. Moving ahead without these elements goes against a key principle of the donor engagement process – developing a tailored stewardship plan that is equally thoughtful and effective.
Instead, throughout the Moves Management process, development staff should continuously gather information from early discovery and cultivation stages to inform customized stewardship touchpoints when appropriate. Relying on this information underscores the importance of maintaining detailed contact reports that can be easily referenced as needed. As the prospective donor continues to grow his/her affinity for and connection to your organization, and a gift decision appears to be on the horizon, outlining a proposed stewardship roadmap that can be adjusted as applicable will help you and your team stay one step ahead.
When developing a stewardship plan, keep in mind basic elements, including how your donor prefers to receive impact updates and reports, and how frequently. Is your donor’s gift helping to launch a new initiative that will require an advisory council or some other leadership body? If so, know how to properly engage your donor in that manner. Recognize that personalized stewardship opportunities can also double as cultivation toward continued and/or increased future support from the donor. With that said, it is imperative to adequately thank your donor and show substantive impact before asking for another gift too soon.
While these stewardship tips have applications to gifts of all sizes, they carry significant weight when a transformative gift is at play. Donors of transformative gifts are becoming increasingly savvy and sophisticated, and failing to effectively engage them in how their gift is being put to work severely diminishes their gift experience. At its core, sound stewardship is the hallmark of a high-performing, donor-centered fundraising operation.
Consider Your Donor a Partner
Expanding on the importance of tailored and purposeful stewardship, it is critical to acknowledge and celebrate the donor-organization relationship for what it is – a partnership. High-level donors are not merely check signatories nor should their connection to a nonprofit be viewed as transactional; rather, it should be considered nothing less than relational.
There are numerous ways to keep your donor close post-gift that can lead to an enhanced experience for them to enjoy as well as greater opportunities to amplify the gift’s ripple effect throughout your organization. As you report impact to your donor, ask questions, invite feedback, and do so with sincerity, rather than asking for input to simply check a box on your stewardship to-do list. Your donor has good ideas and a valuable perspective to offer; lean into these opportunities to meaningfully engage your donor and amplify the gift’s impact on a specific project or program.
Asking for feedback can be as simple as getting their thoughts on the color scheme for a new program brochure or the cover page of your quarterly newsletter. In addition, your donor’s feedback does not need to be asked for in a vacuum. For example, although they directed their gift toward your new after-school creative arts program, think about whether they have also demonstrated interest in other programs that might have overlap. With respect to their expressed interest areas and the amount of time you are asking of them, think about whether there is a reasonable opportunity to engage them in feedback sessions related to complimentary initiatives. Could their participation in this type of conversation generate impact beyond where their gift was originally allocated?
Further, take stock of how you can leverage your relationship with your donor to create new ones. Inviting your donor to open doors to his/her network can inspire new philanthropy from peers who otherwise may not have been connected to your organization’s important work. Sharing stories of personal giving is a surefire way to, at the very least, get other prospective high-level donors thinking about how they can be a part of your organization’s legacy. Tactfully tapping into your donor’s network can yield many additional returns, including a more robust roster of leadership candidates who can offer sound advice, a deeper prospective donor pipeline, and increased meaningful contact activity for your development staff.
Think of your big donors as insiders, keep them close, and maximize all opportunities to expand their impact beyond the dollar signs.
Explore Opportunities for Organization-Wide Impact
Big gifts have big impact, and oftentimes that impact is confined to a specific initiative within an organization – naming a new wellness center or endowing a scholarship fund for first-generation students, for example. But the impact of a big gift does not need to be limited in scope. If leveraged effectively, the impact of a big gift can reverberate beyond its designation while keeping the donor’s intentions front and center.
Maybe there is a smaller-scale program that has been sustaining thanks to annual operational support but would have the opportunity to thrive if wrapped into the larger initiative your donor is helping to fund. Brainstorm how other programs not directly supported by the gift can indirectly benefit from the momentum the philanthropic investment creates.
Particularly in situations where the big gift is truly a transformational catalyst, it is wise to inventory how the organization on a broad scale can be leveraged as a result. Perhaps this once-in-a-generation commitment can serve as the anchor gift to a larger fundraising endeavor such as a campaign where other organizational initiatives would also stand to benefit. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently pointed out, single big gifts tend to not only inspire others to raise their own philanthropic sights, but can also result in positive trends related to long-term increased annual and major gift support overall.
In summary, big gifts are called transformative for a reason. They ignite the opportunity for significant impact and change that can only be achieved through the power of philanthropy. The transformative gift is the seat of the stool, but without an effective stewardship plan, thoughtful follow-up strategies, and smart program design serving as the legs, the gift’s potential for impact is minimized. As fundraisers, we must remember to adequately and thoughtfully facilitate the positive influence that transformative gifts can have for our emerging program initiatives, our organization’s operations, and our overall culture of philanthropy.
CCS is a strategic fundraising consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.
About the Author
Lindsay Walker is a former Assistant Vice President at CCS Fundraising. She currently serves as Director of Development for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.