Making Major Gifts Fundraising Transformational


“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”
— Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

visionIn major gifts fundraising, drafting small plans leads to small gifts. Donors give to the goal – not to an organization, person or what they think is needed – they give to the vision or the impact they see their gift will make toward that vision. If the vision is small, donors will behave accordingly. And if the vision is big, donors will step up in a big way.

The first few steps in encouraging large, or larger, gifts to your organization involve ensuring your vision is clear, relatable, big and fundable.

  • First, it starts with what’s outlined in your strategic plan, where you’ll find the biggest story you can tell about the impact you intend to have: what’s the vision for the future, how many will be impacted, what will change?
  • Second, out of that story in your strategic plan will come your case for support: what’s the cause, why should donors care, why this organization, why now?
  • Third, and finally, you have to define what it will take to get there: how much?

That third step is all important in raising the sights of your donors – identifying how much funding is needed and what type of gift would truly transform the effort to realize the vision.

For each organization the definition of a transformational gift will vary – there is no defined size. Transformational gifts are situational, depending on the organization’s circumstances including the existence of an actionable strategic plan. The one thing transformational gifts have in common, however, is that they significantly impact the organization’s constituents, its work and the outcomes the organization can achieve.

Transformational gifts can be compared to what we call lead gifts in capital campaigns. As we said before, donors give to the goal. In campaigns of any size – $1 million, $10 million, $350 million, $1 billion – lead gifts are typically sought in the range of 10% – 25% of the total goal. These gifts help to create momentum, set the pace for the rest of the campaign and give an initial indication to other donors that the campaign, and thus the vision, will be successfully completed/attained. For those campaigns that miss out on acquiring a lead gift, it can be tough to recover. It’s difficult to make up for a $1 million gift in $10,000 increments – that’s identification, cultivation and solicitation of an additional 100 donors! You can see that the $1 million gift really would make an impact in stretching toward the goal.

Transformational gifts are similar. You may define a number of transformational gifts aligned with various objectives in your strategic plan, or you may define a transformational gift as one that funds the entire plan! However you ultimately define your transformational gifts, start by looking to your strategic plan for inspiration. What, if it were fully funded, would make all the difference in your organization’s efforts? What more could you do if it were funded?

Defining your transformational gifts provides the opportunity for your organization to take a number of actions in the cultivation, solicitation and stewardship process that are difficult without a definition in place. Defining a transformational gift allows you to:

  • Tie the definition to what you would do with a transformational gift if it were to materialize, providing a clear understanding of the impact the gift would make
  • Identify those prospects capable of giving a transformational gift
  • Prepare your cultivation and solicitation strategies for each prospect based on alignment between their interests and the vision of the organization as well as between the size of your ask and the donor’s giving capacity
  • Determine unique recognition and stewardship opportunities for donors who give transformational gifts

All of this goes to say that you should: define the overarching goal of your major gifts program, what size gift would be transformational for your organization, and identify your prospects capable of giving at that level. Once you have this done, you’ll know a transformational gift when you see one – because you’ll have defined it in advance. And you’ll be prepared to utilize that gift effectively.

Create a big vision that stirs the blood of your donors and inspires them to transform the impact you, and they, are able to make.