Newsletter Archives

The One Thing Everybody Forgets...
In Creating a Major Gifts Program

by Henry D. Lewis, CFRE, courtesy of

Stay connected with the largest online non-profit network in the world! Make sure to check out the CharityChannel Conference that Never Sleeps, in Palm Springs, California, March 9-12, 2003.

Henry D. Lewis asked members of the Major Gifts Review panel at Charity Channel, what they thought was the one thing everybody forgets when creating a major gifts program. Here are the answers he received.

Surprisingly enough, or maybe not, there seems to be a common theme running through them. See what you think! (Keep in mind that there was no collaboration in generating these responses -- no one knew what anyone else was writing, before they wrote their own.)

People too often forget to consider the wishes/needs of their prospective donors. - James A. Keenan, Jr., President, Keenan and Associates, Lowell, MA

Too often, a major gift is solicited to satisfy a specific organizational need, with very little consideration being given to the interests of the prospective donor. I believe it is essential to try to match the needs of the organization with the interests of the donor - and I don't think this is done often enough.

I'm reminded of an old (c. 1985) Doonesbury cartoon strip in which the character "President King" was meeting with a prospective donor who kept saying, "I want to build a gym, I want to build a gym," to which President King responded by saying, "Fine, we'll put you down for the new Black Student Union."

In real life, I think that type of scenario happens too often, with the result being either no gift or a smaller gift.

One thing that we often fail at is paying attention to "markers," those empirical referents of the reality of our situation.

Often, we get carried away by the "textbook" aspect of our discipline. We allow ourselves to be controlled by our tools, by what "should" be, instead of what "is."

There is, for example, the tyranny of the gift table, that famous pyramid with steep slopes, that runs itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than as a guide to the development- or campaign-committee.

Yes, it helps to have the pyramid when our lead volunteer says something like, "Well, we need $5 million and we have ten major donors, so let's ask each for $500,000." And you say, guided by experience and the gift table, "If you ask each for $500,000, you'll wind up with $2,345,672.31!!"

I would submit that we don't do enough research, enough reality checks to actually determine the true shape of the pyramid -- the reality of the context.

This calls for more than doing feasibility studies -- sometimes a charade, and actually looking at history, the actual gifts received in previous campaigns and annual funds, the shapes of THOSE pyramids. One must get out into the reality of any situation and size it up systematically, using as much qualitative and quantitative measurement as is possible.

Gift campaigns need to be governed more by empiricism, by better research, by more sociometrics, by asking the donors more often about their opinions and satisfaction levels (if you don't get a five out of five on a Likert scale, you're in trouble), in addition to the cock-eyed optimism that makes our careers and sanity possible.

The "one thing" people often forget when creating a major gifts program is that, "it's all about people." All giving, in fact, is about people -- those who give generously and those who benefit.

So often, in designing any kind of development/fundraising program, we get all the detail, process and procedure down, but we forget that all of the reasons for developing a major gifts program revolve around the needs of people.

I once heard a wonderful story about major giving that I often re-tell when I speak to groups and train Boards.

A major donor visited a hospital to meet with a group of physicians to hear about the latest priority project -- new operating theaters for the hospital's cardiology program. The director of development and the physician who was chairing the major gifts committee were the major speakers for the group. They showed the donor architectural plans, renderings and drawings of the proposed project.

Mid-way through the presentation, the donor stopped the major gifts chairman, who also happened to be the donor's personal cardiologist. "George," he said, "Do you remember when you did my open heart surgery a couple of years ago?"

"Sure, I do," replied the physician.

"You know," continued the donor, "I recall some things prior to the surgery. I remember being wheeled down the hallway. I remember telling my wife 'I love you.' I remember talking to you. And I recall being wheeled into the OR. After that, I don't remember very much. But, you talked with me a day or two later and told me what had happened.

"You said that there was one point during the surgery, after you had retracted my chest muscles and rib cage, where you actually lifted my damaged heart partway out of my chest and held it in your hands. Do you remember telling me that?"

"Yes, I do," said the physician, wondering where this was all going.

"Well, George," said the donor, with a smile upon his face, "Had I been awake at that moment, do you think I would have cared what color the O.R. was or what the actual space looked like or how many pieces of equipment were in the room?

All I would have wanted to know -- and all I need to know, now -- is that the best damned team of physicians had everything they needed to help me, restore me to good health, and ensure that I would have many more years to enjoy!"

That is what we must always remember about major gifts. They have the potential to make a person's great ideas come alive. They have the potential to make a significant difference - perhaps even the difference between life and death - in the lives of many people.

They forget to get everyone INVOLVED - senior staff as well as volunteer leadership - and only think of the effort as a development effort.

They forget to really think through and document what they want the money for. They leave it vague and figure that they can put the details together later when they have the money.

They forget they have to focus on the donors and their interests - or they forget to tell the donors about the organization's interests, dreams and wishes. As a result, no one is having their interests served and frustration abounds.

My "one" thing (how can we limit it to one thing?) is that you need a board that understands the board/staff partnership and has received training in how to carry out their role.

The first part of the role of the board is to acquire information regarding those current donors who might become major donors - do they have the ability to be major donors, and are they interested in the work we do? Then work with the staff to begin a cultivation/education/involvement process before asking for a major gift.

The reason the board must be involved here is that you need access to these folks, and board members are most often the ones who can get their calls taken. The board members' actions with these prospects are guided and coordinated by the staff. Board members are also the best to do the ultimate "ask" and need lots of training and support if they are new at asking.

Major Gifts are the most productive way for board members to help assure the resources to carry out an organization's mission. Not all board members will be able to assist here, but if you don't have a few who can help, then maybe the most important "one" thing for your organization is to add those individuals to your board.

A major gifts program must be volunteer-led - usually.

Not that it can't be staff designed/initiated/driven/supported, but for it to be a "program," there has to be more happening than what staff has the time or ability to do.

Staff may make some initial contacts with volunteer leaders. Staff can educate them, help them see how they can have a major impact on the benefits provided to constituents, and show them how they'll really "feel good" about doing what they know they should do; but, without the volunteer leaders to identify/connect to/cultivate/involve/solicit the broad range of prospects needed, there can't be a "program."

What do you think? What is the one thing everybody forgets in creating a major gifts program?

Send your thoughts/answers to [email protected]. The CharityChannel editorial panel will gratefully acknowledge and review all submissions, and include as many of them as appropriate/possible in a follow up issue. 

In cases of similar responses, CharityChannel will either print the most representative or synthesize them into a response that reflects the general thought. They will also note the names and affiliations of all who gave similar answers. Please keep your responses concise and to the point - all items will be subject to editing. 

Make sure to include your professional title and affiliation and an e-mail address.

*This article appears courtesy of CharityChannel and author Henry D. Lewis. It originally appeared in their CharityChannel Major Gifts Review newsletter, of which Mr. Lewis is the Editor in Chief.

About CharityChannel

CharityChannel was established in 1992 as a volunteer-driven on-line community of voluntary-sector professionals just like you. Today their on-line community consists of more than 100,000 participants, with nearly 35,000 direct subscriptions to their forums and eNewsletters. Operations at CharityChannel are sustained by forum and eNewsletter sponsorship, as well as fees generated by their Resource Guide, which includes a career search, classified ad section and a consultants registry. There is no cost to subscribe to any of the CharityChannel forums and eNewsletters.

Major Gifts Review™ is a domestic and international trademark of CharityChannel LLC. Copyright © and Trademark ™ 2002 CharityChannel LLC. All rights reserved. The article in this issue, "The One Thing Everybody Forgets ... In Creating a Major Gifts Program" is Copyright © 2002 Henry D. Lewis.

For more information

For specific project examples and demonstrations, or more information on interactive displays, digital messaging systems and integrated donor wall projects, please contact Planned Legacy.


We are very sorry for the inconvenience, but you are using an older version of Internet Explorer which is not supported on this Web site. To update to a more current version of Internet Explorer, please Click Here. Thank You.