It was budget time, and the manager was asked by finance to provide a major gifts forecast for the coming year. The manager and the CFO discussed how they should arrive at the right number and the CFO said: “Look, just take what they (the MGOs) did last year and add 10%. It’s what we do every year.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what success looked like in major gifts for that CFO and hundreds of other non-profit managers. It was a trend line heading up in yearly increments of 10, 15 and even 20%. That was success.
This captures what most folks think major gifts is all about. It just gets better and better every year – just accept it and get with it!
I’ve personally never experienced success like that, in any area of my life.
Take an investment. You may start at one place, it will go up, then it will go down, then up and, if you watch it carefully, you might make a little money.
Or a product idea. Last I checked, it takes 1,200 new product ideas to come up with one successful launch. That sounds like a lot of downward stuff happening before you go up.
Or a relationship. I’m always amazed at the answers I get, when I talk to a couple that has been together for many years, about how things have been going.
I ask them: “So, how has it been all those years?” And one of them says, while the other one nods approvingly: “You know, it just gets better and better.” So then I ask the follow up question: “So has it always been good? Has everything always been peachy?” And then it comes out: “Well, we’ve been through some difficult times, you bet. It wasn’t pretty there for a while…” I am reminded that even in relationships, while the trend might be positive over time, there are quite a few ups and downs along the way.
Even nature goes through a cycle of life and death and life. Up and down. Recycle. Renew.
So this notion that an individual relationship with a major donor is always going to be an upward-trending cakewalk is just not true – it’s not going to be like that at all. It will have its ebbs and flows like everything else in life.
In other words, success in major gifts will look more like this:
It will start in one place and wander. That is what you should expect, and that is how you should manage it. The path toward fully cultivating a donor in major gifts will not just be a matter of 1-2-3 and BAM, it’s done! It will be a journey with many paths.
Jeff recently wrote about major gift work being hard. You should read his post – it will give you a look into the reality of your work in major gifts. But I want you to know what to expect as you take the major gift journey. Here are the most important realities we have discovered:

  1. A “no” can turn into a “yes.” We have a number of MGOs with whom we have worked over the years, who tell stories of how a very strong “no” from a donor changed over time to a “yes.” There is even one story where the MGO was talking to the donor on the phone and the conversation was filled with “no’s” and negativity, where the MGO thought all was lost and then, as the conversation continued and more facts were shared, the donor turned right around and said “yes.”
  2. A “yes” can turn into a “no.” There are other times when a donor has made a decision to pledge or give and even fulfills some of that pledge, then changes her mind and decides not to. That happens as well.
  3. Giving will stop for a season. This will happen either because there has been a business downturn or some other life circumstance, or the donor is angry at the non-profit for how they have handled something, or the donor’s interest has been captured by some other idea. It happens. And the donor has the right to stop. Sometimes you will know why – other times you won’t.
  4. A regular giver will suddenly give more, then less, or the giving amounts will become erratic. This is often explained by some change in the financial position of the donor, but we have also seen that they change just because the donor “felt like doing it that way.”
  5. A donor will go away entirely and then come back. Sometimes they never come back. But often they do, especially if you can figure out what wasn’t satisfying about your relationship with them.
  6. A donor’s interest will change. Have you ever thought you would never be interested in a certain thing, then you experience it and suddenly you realize “goodness, that was something” and now you are interested? We all can be that way. While Jeff and I are constantly advising MGOs to look for a specific interest and passion in a major donor, meaning there IS one, we know that donors do become interested in other things. You should be alert for that.

These are some of the up-and-down kind of things we have observed in this work. Do you notice one theme that runs through all of them? They are NOT a straight line going up. It is a bit of wandering, like all of life.
So, I believe the path toward success in major gifts is a bit of trial and error, of yin and yang, of back and forth, of yes and no. It is not a straight line going up. Therefore, there are certain principles you must internalize to keep yourself grounded:

  • Take the “defeats” in major gifts as simply passing events, rather than conclusions. I know that when something “bad” happens in your day, it makes that day awfully bad. But that event is neither the end of your professional life, nor is it the final chapter in the relationship with the donor. Stand up, dust off, and keep going.
  • Value the long-term in every relationship you have with each donor on your caseload. If you value the person more than their money, you will be able to ebb and flow with them more naturally and wisely. And that will be good for you, and for them.
  • Don’t think that the final word is actually the final word. I have trained myself to think positively about every “no” that comes my way. That is not to say that it doesn’t affect me in the moment. Of course it does. But after that initial whack on the head I say to myself: “Try again.” And I do. If your donor has not done what you expected, that’s OK. There is likely a very good reason. So treat the donor with respect (as you deal with him, and also in your head) and try again. That trying again should not be an immediate action: Think it through. Analyze what happened. Try to discern the reason. If you can, ask the donor. But do it without pressure and wanting. You may very well be looking at the final word, and that means you need to move on. But often it isn’t, and that is why you need to figure out your next step.
  • Lastly, remember that YOU are OK. This may sound trivial, but it isn’t. Just because something hasn’t gone as you expected, it doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure in some way. While the situation you face could have something to do with you, it likely doesn’t – so don’t start there.

So think of your success in major gifts as a journey, with paths that go up and down. If you can travel in this manner, the “downs” will not get to you as they do now. And your journey will be a lot more pleasant.