I went to see my doctor recently, and she gave me quite a lecture on all the unhealthy habits I need to work on. We covered eating, vitamins and supplements, exercise, working too much, and a host of other items.

It was a wake-up call to mind my health.

The same thing happens in major gifts. Most non-profits need to have the doctor come in and give them a lecture on the unhealthy major gift practices they engage in.

One of the big ones is wrong thinking. We all have wrong thinking about many things. Sometimes it’s just ignorance – we just don’t know what we don’t know. Other times, it’s bias, false assumptions, or distorted perceptions. We have formed an opinion somewhere along the way and we carry that opinion forward into everything we do.

Wrong thinking about major gifts falls into the following five areas:

  1. Lack of understanding about the biggest problem in major gifts (and the opportunity that problem presents). We have talked about this quite a bit. Most donors who give regularly are giving 40-60% less, year over year, because they are not told their giving made a difference and/or they are treated poorly by the non-profit. This is a major problem which is evidenced by a tremendous loss of revenue. Most managers and leaders do not understand this, especially if the old money going away is covered up by donations from new donors, and everything seems fine. It’s not. And because there’s no awareness of this problem, there’s not any effort made to change the approach – so the organization continues to miss hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, in revenue.
  2. The focus is on revenue, not relationships. – This one is really sad to me. The non-profit cares more about the money than they do the person giving it. This is one of the major causes for value attrition because this kind of attitude oozes out of the pores of the organization and creates a stench that the donor can smell. There’s nothing worse than feeling used by someone. And this is exactly how these donors feel.
  3. The insiders think they own the organization. It’s always so interesting to watch how leaders and board members of a non-profit actually think they own the organization they lead when, in fact, a non-profit is nothing more than a legal structure that represents the combined interests of its donors (the outsiders) who fund it. Without those individual and institutional donors, the organization would not exist. But you would not know it by the way the inside leaders behave as they manage events and internal structure to retain control and power.
  4. Leaders ignore major givers. In the commercial sector, when a company has a major investor, you’d better believe that the CEO of that company pays attention to that investor. In the non-profit sector, there are many CEOs and Executive Directors who don’t believe that major gift donors are part of their management and leadership responsibility. This doesn’t make sense to me – but it’s true.
  5. There’s no culture of philanthropy. This point includes some of the points above where I suggest that the donor needs to be more at the center of the organization’s thinking, becoming a real part of the everyday practice of running the place. If the leaders and management of an organization are following best practices and correcting any wrong thinking about major gifts, they place the donor at the center of everyday life, which results in a culture of philanthropy.

When an organization is on the right track, with a sound understanding of major gifts, there is:

  1. A clear understanding of the problem of donor value attrition. Concrete steps are taken to value and care for donors.
  2. A strong focus on the individual donor and serving their interests and passions. The organization understands that donors give as a result of a good relationship, meaning that money is not the primary objective.
  3. A belief that the opinions of donors count in the management and direction of the organization.
  4. An environment where leaders love and care for their major donors.
  5. An active effort to develop and maintain a culture of philanthropy.

Take an inventory of your organization right now. Do you spot any of these “wrong thinking” pitfalls in your major gifts program? And what can you do about it?