If It Were Easy To Do, We Wouldn’t Need You

Published by Karen Osborne on

Major gift fundraising at its best can transform an organization.  When an inspired potential donor says, “We have to make that happen,”  “It’s critical that we solve this societal problem,” “How can I help?” incredible philanthropic investments follow.  So why do some of us spend so little time getting this right?

One reason is because so many other things are easier to do.

Our first task can be hard. We need big, societal changing ideas that inspire joyful, generous investments.  A donor could love us and have the ability to make an extraordinary gift but we’ve not given her a reason to invest.

easyFor too many of us, we only have our mission and a laundry list of needs. A lab, or program, or building, or technology, or unrestricted gifts to keep the lights on.

A gifted Executive Director I knew enjoyed the friendship and support of a loyal and generous board member.  The ED counted on this donor for twenty years of having the ED’s back.  A budget shortfall? Bob stepped in. A new initiative? Bob made the lead gift.  Then one day, the ED learns that Bob made two transformational gifts to two other organizations in the community, gifts four and five times the size of the gifts he gave the ED’s organization.

The ED was devastated.   He went to visit Bob and after congratulating him, he asked, why them and not us.  Bob looked perplexed. “You never gave me a transformational idea.”

As Simon Sinek tells us, start with “Why.”

Then share the ideas that will help you achieve your vision and propel your work.  It takes effort to pull these ideas out of CEOs and mission staff.  If it were easy, we wouldn’t need you.

We know major gift fundraising takes time and focus. 

Now we have our big ideas and potential donors to inspire.  Our boards want the money NOW and not in the six to 18 months, it takes, on average, to close a major six or seven-figure gifts.  So we cave.  We rush it, asking too soon, receiving too little, which is so much easier than standing our ground.

Even when given the time to do our work, too many of us take easy shortcuts.  We know, for example, that strategic engagement is essential for major gift success.  In fact, the more one is engaged in meaningful and productive work, the larger the philanthropic investment.Curve of involvement

Most major gifts require four to seven such strategic steps that engage the donor with the mission, vision and work of the organization. Yet we shoehorn our donors into the next event we’re having or think of engagement as visiting and talking at them rather than listening to them.  We take no time or too little time thinking through the steps, making sure each one has a measurable goal that results in increased motivation to give the size gift you seek for the mission priority you need.

Nor do we create meaningful and productive engagement opportunities. Activities and experiences that utilize donors’ time, expertise, talents and wisdom.  Instead, we ask them to give us names, make introductions, while selling them giving and naming opportunities as if we were a shopping mall.

Why would we do this? It’s easier.

I proudly serve on a board and volunteer for my church and other organizations I love.  The work is gratifying but oh so time consuming.  It is much easier to sell tickets to the gala or secure supporters for the “walk” than to help engage HNWI in meaningful ways.  Just as it is easier for us to fill our board seats with people, we HOPE will be good, rather than with people we’ve already engaged in our work, solicited for a meaningful gift, and stewarded before inviting them on the board.  

We know stewardship (reporting to donors on the impact of past gifts, connecting donors directly to that impact through experiences, visuals, stories and mission-voices) is critical yet we give it short shrift. Thank you notes get out and invitations to our thank you lunch.  Inspired, personal stewardship.  That’s hard.

Easier is sometimes effective but most times not or not as effective as our work could be.

The RightsWe need to be ambitious for our missions.  Focus on the right things.  Build the right relationships.  Be strategic.  Take time to think. Measure.  We need to solicit when we have the Rights right starting with the right purpose or impact, the inspirational outcome the donor is seeking and the organization needs. A joyful and generous investment will follow.

If it were easy to do it right, we wouldn’t need someone as smart, committed, creative, persistent, empathetic, and courageous as you.

Karen Osborne

Internationally recognized as an expert consultant and excellent presenter, Karen receives invitations from all over the United States and the world to make presentations and consult with NGOs, universities, justice, social service, and health organizations. The Council for Support and Advancement of Education (CASE) awarded Karen the Crystal Apple for outstanding teaching and Ashmore Award for Outstanding Service to the Profession. Published and often quoted in industry books, newspapers and magazines, Karen serves on the board of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and teaches a graduate course on philanthropy for Johns Hopkins University.


Lori Slaughter · June 12, 2014 at 23:22

Thanks, Karen! This is sage advice for building and sustaining a major gifts program that delivers and delights donors!

Jenny · June 14, 2014 at 21:52

Time and timing, just two of the key elements of major donor fundraising. Thanks for a great article,

Rory · June 17, 2014 at 01:43

Great article Karen!

Major gifts takes commitment and follow through – ESPECIALLY after the gift comes in.

Too often I see charities not even spend the money as the donor intended, or try to use designated dollars for operating costs – we need to work with program staff and make sure they money gets used as directed – and ensure we communicate to the donor how that investment has made an impact.

    Karen Osborne · June 17, 2014 at 17:18

    Spot on, Rory. Stewardship (spending as agreed, managing money prudently, documenting facts and donor motivations and intent, thanking within 24 to 72 hours, and most important, three to 9 months later, sharing impact) raises more major gifts than almost anything.

    Thanks for sharing my post with your followers. I appreciate it.

Mena Gainpaulsingh · January 11, 2016 at 02:16

Excellent article! Thank you Karen!

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