Myths Busted: The Top 4 Myths About Major Gifts

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As a 30-year veteran development officer and lecturer, Armando Zumaya has heard it all. Setting up an effective major gifts program in your institution may be a challenge, but there’s no reason for it to seem impossible. Here are a few myths that Armando dispelled with ample humor at Foundation Center San Francisco’s Open House last month.

1. It’s just a matter of finding rich people. 

Prospect research isn’t about finding the rich people; it’s about finding the RIGHT people. What's the #1 thing that small nonprofits don't do? Prospect research. Yet that is the key to successful major giving.

Different people have different passions, interests, and connections, and the major gift prospect researcher’s job is to find the right fit. Armando stresses, “Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!” The research is crucial, and once you’ve found the fit, persistence is essential. Just don’t go barking up the wrong tree.

How do the pros do it? A small major gifts team includes at least three major gifts officers, a prospect researcher, a prospect manager, and an administrative assistant. An investment in your team is an investment in your future gifts. If you can't afford permanent staff, use freelance researchers. See #14 of Armando's slides for tips on where to find them.

Also get a good database. It will pay for itself, but ONLY if you’re planning on putting your time and effort into keeping it accurate and updated. They don’t manage themselves.

2. Connecting with wealthy philanthropists is a simple phone call.  

Rich people do not follow fundraisers around, waiting to give money to their organizations. Cultivation is key. In fact, you might spend weeks if not months talking with a wealthy person's assistant(s), whom you should cultivate and treat just as you'd treat the prospect. They could become your trusted allies in getting time with the donor.

That said, you must be willing to call major donors: "Major giving work takes guts. Have a plan; have a story. If you're afraid to call, get another job." And when you do get a major gift, tell everyone in your org about how much time and effort it took so they can appreciate how much work major giving requires.

3. We can’t afford to “wine and dine”. 

You gotta spend money to make money. Armando makes the point that 75-80 percent of giving comes from individual donors. Why wouldn’t you invest in your largest donor base?

Design powerful, dynamic, unforgettable cultivation experiences to “get their hands in the mud...and knock them out." Armando gave an example of an opera company that invited donors to do a backstage tour where they got up close to the sets and costumes and talked with the designers and lead performers. It ended with an elegant dinner on stage among the current production's sets.

Armando’s advice: If you’re not going to spend the money, don’t bother wasting your time. Once you’ve invested, stay patient. Track the cycle of the donation, not the money itself. Armando suggests thinking about it like an assembly line, where each piece must be painstakingly layered in the correct order. Landing a major gift is a slow process with potentially big payoff, and it doesn’t pay to cut corners.

4. Major gifts are “dirty” money. 

Sometimes the most difficult questions to answer are the unspoken ones. Underlying attitudes in your organization towards major donor fundraising can be negative to the point of hostility. Directly address these attitudes, bring in representatives from a successful fundraising team, and have them explain their strategies and payoffs to your board. Real-life success stories could turn the tide of your organization’s major gifts attitudes.

Click on the YouTube window below to watch Armando's full presentation. Here are his slides. If you want to jump to specific timepoints, see this page.

Can you bust any more myths related to major giving? Tell us in the Comments area below.

-- Aida Buderi
Program Assistant
Foundation Center-San Francisco