Back to School: A Return to the ABCs of
Major Gift Fundraising

by Emily Espenshade

It's nearly one year since nonprofits began to feel the true impact of the recession on their balance sheets. Just as personal financial circumstances have changed, so have those of our institutions - the schools, universities, museums, and other nonprofit organizations for which we work. Endowment values have plummeted, annual giving has waned, and campaigns have been postponed or stalled.

While we cannot predict how long or winding the path to recovery is, we do know the way to a bright future for our organizations. For those of us who work in development, this crisis has brought a valuable lesson which has reminded us of the fundamentals, the best practices of our "art" to which we must recommit ourselves, our leaders, and institutions.

Despite the changing landscape, our work remains fundamentally the same: we identify, cultivate, solicit, and steward donors to our institutions. We have, however, adjusted our mindset, language, and habits to function in what I call "the new normal."

The activity of the major gift officer is centered less on solicitation and more on thoughtful cultivation and stewardship. In more prosperous times, too many of us hurried the cultivation process, eager to close our next big gift and check the box on the campaign priorities list. Now we spend more time talking with and listening to our prospects.

Donors may not be in the position to make a major financial commitment, but they still want to be a part of your organization. The cultivation process is designed to discover what interests and motivates your prospect as well as the nature of their resources and inclination to give to you. In this climate, these conversations are easier than ever before.

Sincerely eager to commit to your institution, but financially unable, donors are quick to reveal significant amounts of personal information regarding their lifestyle, employment, finances, family members, and other philanthropic priorities. The information you learn during these times is invaluable to your ability to secure a gift in the future and in establishing trust with your prospect. Knowing a gift is not under discussion, prospects and gift officers are free to focus on the organization's mission and positive news from your leaders. And when the economy changes, you'll have keen eye toward your prospect's readiness and a solicitation will unfold naturally.

It goes unsaid that the benefits reaped in cultivation mirror those in stewardship and should not be overlooked. Now is the time to thank your donors. It's the easiest work we do and donors notice! And while you're at it, thank your volunteers. They're often the backbone of our organizations and the ones doing the "heavy lifting." Make sure they know they're appreciated and have important contribution to make.

These are the basics; we all know them, but sometimes we get distracted and bogged down by the every day details of our jobs. If we re-commit ourselves to practicing the fundamentals, day in and day out, our work with prospects will thrive and so will our organizations.

The Bottom Line:  While the economic crisis may have given donors to nonprofits and their leaders a scare, major gift fundraisers have learned that the tried and true methods - personal and face-to-face cultivation and stewardship - still promise the best result for the donor and the institution.

Emily Espenshade is the Director of Major Gifts for the Centennial Campaign at St. Albans School in Washington, DC.

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