Major gifts: Fundraising from the frontlines

Published by Rebecca Davies on

Years ago when I stepped on the tee box to play my first round of golf, I assumed success. My swing, short game and putting were decent after months of practice at the driving range. But that day my game never took off to even be able to fall apart. I knew the rules and had reliable shots – all the necessarytransactions to the game. I did not, however, know the etiquette of golf: the social behaviours that enhance the experience and sport, and expose a novice like I was then. I talked. A lot. I constantly walked in front of others’ lines on the green, and my club must still be at the bottom of that pond. Of course I was never invited out by that group again. In recreational golf, technique is necessary as a point of entry but is not enough.Values-based behaviour is as important to succeeding at the game as having a consistent fairway shot.

Similarly, major gift fundraisers both those in leadership positions and our noble officers in the trenches often veer either too much toward the bottom line (the transaction) or place too much emphasis on The Relationship (values) and no money gets raised.

For sure there are many external challenges under which major gift staff can quickly languish: poor management, a woeful economy. Perhaps the program team hasn’t done anything new lately, or the marketing department hasn’t come through. Or maybe you hate your boss/colleague/volunteer, or think your prospect list isn’t any good. At its most extreme, the net effect can be months of despair, wondering where the money is coming from, and which of a million things you should be doing to raise it. Lack of focus yields long days at the office surfing the web, and making no advancement on your organization’s mission. And then there’s that baseline anxiety and constant dread that you’re going to be found out.

The good news is that you can take control over the process by understanding, that like golfers,successful major gift fundraisers consciously incorporate both transactional and values-based behaviours in their work. This is not a blog on how to be a better human being, but a promise that if you drop into your professional practice a combination of values-based and transactional behaviours and strategies that play to your strengths and support your weaknesses, you will develop deeper relationships with your donors and close more significant gifts. The following is a list of qualities I’ve identified that have made me a stronger major gift fundraiser over the years (some are innate, some I’ve had to work hard at cultivating):

1)Fundraise from the frontlines

Fundraisers create the opportunity for donors to act on their values. While we’re always told to put the donor first, the starting point for every fundraiser must be to remember or rediscover your organization’s frontline and live on its edge every day. What is your imperative: a libretto that must be written and its story sung? A well that needs digging because your neighbour is from that country? A shelter that requires expansion because you love someone who you suspect one day will need its services? To be a credible major gifts fundraiser, everything about you must thrum with the possibility of what will or will not happen on your frontline if the prospect does or doesn’t give.

If your organization’s mandate does not regularly give you goosebumps or tears, or the prospect of it disappearing does not make your blood run cold, you’re at the wrong place. You’ll not be as successful as you could be elsewhere. And here’s a secret: contrary to what many think, the best major gift fundraisers I know are terrified during the moment of the ask. It’s because they know what’s at stake, and their importance in the process and to the outcome. If I have a solicitation when my mouth doesn’t get dry or my heart doesn’t pound, I know that it’s time to look for a new job.

2)Goal oriented (transactional)
Being goal-oriented is lusting for something concrete to accomplish and celebrate. The art of the relationship means little if there’s no money in the bank.

3)Good judgment (values-based)
Internally within your organization, good judgment shows the ability to assess a situation quickly, and make decisions on if and how a large gift can be raised or accepted without compromising your organization’s reputation, or your own. With donors, demonstrated good judgment will establish trust and credibility, and advance the relationship as quickly as possible toward a gift.

This is the benevolence dilemma: donors are inherently generous, charities need money, but there must be a fundamental agreement of principles especially at the major gift level where there is the possibility of some publicity. Good judgment allows a major gifts fundraiser to know when and how much time to invest in a prospect’s unique offering.

4)Strategic thinking and doing (transactional)
This quality keeps me organized, honest, always forward-gazing and accounts for the majority of my personal success. In major gift fundraising, strategic thinking and doing is about having a plan to build deep, long-term relationships one prospect and donor at a time.

This is where the quantitative comes in, the hard details: establishing achievable metrics. Overlay your major gifts revenue goal with a pipeline of qualified prospects and a schedule of rigorous and disciplined activity. Insist on a robust moves management system, and keep beautiful records. Make sure there is a call to action after every meeting, and that you’re controlling the next action.

5)Belief in people (values-based)
Look up the words philanthropist and humanitarian. They’re almost always identical: in the Oxford English Dictionary one of the definitions of a humanitarian is simply ‘philanthropist’. And so if donors believe in humanity, we as fundraisers certainly must believe in, have respect for, and be inspired by our donors.

6)Intelligence and curiosity (transactional)
Finally, have the courage to turn your belief in people and their values into something good for your organization. Dare to be yourself, a fully-formed human being. Speak up and out, and demonstrate that you can talk about things outside of your charity’s mission. Early-career fundraisers often dare not meet their donors or volunteers halfway in a conversation thinking their role is to be demure and mute. Entice your prospect with your intelligence, so that they want to seek your company and accept a second meeting. Learn how to actively listen and pick up on nonverbal cues. Familiarize yourself with one of the classic sales methods (SPIN Selling, my beloved) and ask ask ASK questions, probing to that nexus of your donor’s heart and head that is their philanthropic impulse.

Now transact those values into a major gift for your organization.

See you on the golf course.

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is incoming Chief Development Officer of Save the Children Canada. As past director of fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, from 2007-2014 she lead a team that in seven years increased private revenue from $19 million to over $50 million. Prior to joining MSF, she held senior fundraising positions in some of Canada’s top hospitals and the University of Toronto. Her current volunteer passion is the Ripple Refugee Project, where she and a group of concerned Torontonians are sponsoring and settling five Syrian families over the new few years. Rebecca’s an active musician (French horn), plays hockey and golf, and very proudly is on the executive for and was the inaugural blog post contributor to 101fundraising.org.


Clare · February 9, 2011 at 20:11

Hi Rebecca,

Thank you for the informative post, there are not too many people blogging with detail on the ins and outs of the art (or is it science?) of major gift fundraising, so this has been very informative for me as someone keen to learn about all sides of fundraising.

I think that in ANY fundraising role, from major gifts, to DM, if the organisation you are working for doesn’t give you goosebumps then you are doing them a disservice by being there.

I recently visited an Oxfam project in Armenia, and yesterday I gave an internal presentation to my colleagues where I couldn’t stop the tears when speaking about a lady I met who received vital breast cancer screening and treatment which saved her life. She told me that had the mobile screening unit, funded by Oxfam supporters not come to her remote village, she would be dead. Wow.

All donors need to hear these stories, and those in the privileged position to make a significant gift WANT to hear them! Sometimes fundraisers need to realise that people have an innate desire to help, to ‘do something’, and that WE are offering them a chance to fulfill that wish – It’s so much more than ‘asking for money’.

You mentioned that you have worked hard to learn some of these qualities…. which would you say is most difficult?

Thanks and I look forward to hearing more from you.


Kimberley MacKenzie · February 9, 2011 at 21:59

Rebecca, you know I was eagerly anticipating your major donor blog post and I must say you did not dissappoint. I think you are right on to focus on what might seem a conflict between deliver the budget and being donor centred. You have clearly laid out how we can do both, by seeing our activities as either transactional or values-based. I love this approach to major gift fundraising.
Thank you. There is a lot of good stuff here, I look forward to reading it again and thinking about it more on the weekend!


Marilyn Brown · February 9, 2011 at 22:14

Rebecca – so true. Donors are people, and people like engaging in meaningful discussions whether they be 10 minutes or an hour in length. As fundraisers, we need to know exactly what donors enable, and present them with the opportunity to make a difference in a way they never thought possible. I’ll stop surfing the web now and make a donor call.

Kevin Hill · February 9, 2011 at 22:47

Rebecca, at what point, in an attempt at long-term relationship building with a donor – who believes in your cause but doesn’t give at the level you want or might expect (who never puts their money where their mouth is) – would you walk away?

    Rebecca Davies

    Rebecca Davies · February 14, 2011 at 15:45

    Walk away? Brings to mind Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow! Although the fund development process should be about revolution, it is not war.

    In these cases, I would get the relationship to where it needs to be for you – the fundraiser – to have earned the right to ask, “Ms Donor, what will it take for our organization, that you so clearly care for, to become one of your very top charities and receive transformational gifts?.”

    Somewhere in the conversation it should be stated that you are grateful for your donor’s gifts (no matter the size) and that you will always value continued engagement with them. And mean it.

Margot Ende- van den Broek · February 10, 2011 at 19:58

Great blog! Very inspiring.

Thank you.

Rebecca Davies · February 14, 2011 at 15:50

Thank you, Margot. Look forward to soon seeing how your brain works.

Liliya · March 3, 2011 at 00:18

Thank you for your informative blog!!! Very useful …exactly what I was looking for a quite a while.

    Rebecca · March 3, 2011 at 16:21

    Liliya, what resonated with you?

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