The Reckoning

Do you hear the sound of engines revving in the distance? That’s the sound of hundreds – thousands – of development shops gearing up as the pandemic wanes. Fundraisers hitting the road. In-person visits. Special events being scheduled.

In a few months that distant sound will be a roar.

Organizations across the nonprofit landscape will look to recover from the havoc of the last year, and even those that have seen record gift income during the pandemic will challenge fundraisers to grow the Annual Fund.

The generosity of donors has been shocking. Time after time, Fiscal 2020 results exceeded goals that were set before the virus hit, and December 31 responses were been similarly robust. With renewed confidence in Washington, with widespread vaccinations and a stronger economy, all signs point to new heights of philanthropy ahead.

But beware. As we enjoy a return to normalcy and eye audacious goals, danger lurks.

There is a beast in our midst. A beast with an insatiable appetite. And the beast demands to be fed.

A reckoning is coming.

A friend and I were talking the other day.

“You know,” I said, “When we both started out in this business we met our Annual Fund goal with grants, events and mail.”

“You’re right,” my friend concurred. “That was it.”

“Then,” I continued, “Special annual gifts came along. The $1,000 donors. The President’s Club. We needed higher level annual gift to make our goals, to meet the organization’s income budget each year. We couldn’t depend on direct mail to bring in that level of gift. We needed to ask for them in person. Most major gift officers ‘cut their teeth’ asking for $1,000 gifts. It was great experience because you’d be out making lots of asks.”

We smiled. We both had asked for a lot of $1,000 gifts.

My friend nodded. “But thinking back, did anyone really notice that grants, events and mail weren’t enough for the Annual Fund anymore?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Making the goal was the important thing. The only thing. We just did it.

“Then a few years later, more annual gift income was needed. So we turned to major gifts. We started asking donors to make $10,000, $25,000 and even larger gifts every year to the Annual Fund. We needed those big gifts to make the goals we were given to raise.”

“And pretty much like the rise of the $1,000 donors,” my friend offered, “did we ever stop and think about the impact of needing major gifts every year just to balance the budget?”

The answer is, no. Not really. The vast majority of organizations build the expense side of the budget before building the income side. The Budget Beast grows and grows year after year. To feed the Beast, we’ve seen the increasing dependence on larger and larger gifts described above.

Problem is, for most donors, a major gift is not an annual gift. Fundraisers cannot depend on donors to repeat “major gifts for the Annual Fund” year after year. We need to leave those donors alone for a while. Do we have enough major gift prospects to take their place?

If we need to wait 2-3 years to ask that donor for another major gift, do we have 2-3 times that number of major gift donors?

Do you?

There is yet another trend beginning now. And it will be our reckoning.

I asked my friend, “Go back again to when we started out. What did campaigns raise money for?”

“Only two things. Capital and endowment.”

“Exactly. Those were the only two things campaigns did. Grow the endowment or build a building. Now, more and more, we see campaigns to support program operations wholly supported in the past by the Annual Fund.”

When the campaign ends and the goal is reached, when new or enhanced programs are funded, there are smiles all around.

When the campaign pledges are finished and campaign income dries up, do those programs go away? No, they don’t. Where will the money come from to sustain those programs? 

The Annual Fund.

As the pandemic wanes and normalcy returns there are hundreds of Campaigns in planning whose internal goal is to “take the Annual Fund to the next level.” Why?

Because the organization’s budget demands it.

A Campaign can be a very effective way of growing the Annual Fund. We raise donor’s sights, focus giving on projects not money, make more visits, shine the spotlight on generous giving.

What’s not to like?

Only one thing. A Campaign succeeds because of major gifts, which by definition do not occur each year from the same donor. When the Campaign is over, the organization needs a major gift donor pipeline wide enough for the number of major gifts needed each year for the programs they will support. Perhaps 5% of nonprofit organizations have a major gift pipeline that wide.

Yes, a Campaign raises the sights of our donors and yes, a Campaign raises up the Annual Fund. But for how long?

And to the level the Budget Beast demands?

What’s left when Campaigns aren’t enough to meet Annual Fund goals?

The Reckoning.

The Fundraisers’ Mission Statement

I am From

Elena Sanchez

I am from the big yellow house in the middle of the street

I am from the street where there’s no bike riding,

The street where the ice cream truck never slows down

I am from the porch you could hide under

I am from the house that had dirt where grass should be

I am from the stolen skateboard

I am from the school where asking for help was tattling

I am from the desk in the back corner

I am from the books read at recess

I am from the pictures drawn in gym

I am from the broken lunchbox

I am from a fight on the playground

I am from a weave in my eight year old hands

I am from ignoring rumors and laughing them off

I am from dismissing the past

I am from learning to trust and making friends

I am from the CD’s on repeat

I am from the notebook under my mattress

I am from 100 pairs of headphones blown out

I am from 1,000 mistakes huge mistakes and meager relationships

I am from dreams of being someone

I am from frustrated tears on a pillow

I am from the tissues that dried them away

I am from a mother who never gave up

I am from crawling through life but

I am from getting back up as well

I am from pain I thought would never end

I am from victory over my younger years

I am from saddle shoes and out of style clothes

And I am from making them work

I am from a mold of my own

I am from perseverance

I am from never staying down

I am from a fight that will never end

Elena Sanchez wrote this poem during her senior year at Saint Martin de Porres High School in Cleveland.  A work study program helped pay her tuition, and a scholarship helped.

Elena then attended Oberlin College – on a scholarship. She is now an Account Manager for a major company in the Midwest.

The development profession helped make her education possible. That is a humbling feeling, indeed.

Major Gifts Book Sneak Peek

We’re halfway through! Since last Fall, and continuing now for the next six months, subscribers to The Weekend Briefing Plus receive bi-weekly installments from our new book, “(Everything I’ve Learned in 44 Years About) Major and Planned Gifts.”

It’s not too late to sign up! Just click on the Subscribe link at

Here’s a recap, and a sneak peek, from the Table of Contents:

October 11, 2020: Chapter One, “Trust Yourself, You Know More than You Think You Do”

October 25: “Never Ask for Money”

November 8: “Getting the Visit”

November 22: “Fundraising in a Pandemic”

December 6: “Heartbreak”

December 20: “Listening”

January 17, 2021: “What Is a Relationship”

January 24: “Relationships (Part Two)”

January 31: “Relationships (Part Three)”

February 7: “Energy, Empathy, Enthusiasm and Integrity”

February 14: “The First Visit”

February 21: “The Gift Cycle: Prospect Identification and Rating”

February 28: “Prospective Donor Cultivation”

March 7: “How to Ask”

March 14: “How to Ask, Close, Follow Up, and When You Hear ‘No’”

April 11: “How to Say Thank You”

April 25: “The Three Biggest Mistakes a Gift Officer Can Make”

May 9: “Asking, A Case Study”

May 23: “Asking, A Case Study (Part Two)”

June 6: “The Best Major Gift Tips I Know”

June 20: “More Major Gifts Tips”

July 11: “Raising Major Gifts on the Road”

July 18: “Planned Giving: Bequests, and Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Program”

August 1: “Planned Giving: Beyond Bequests”

August 15: “Dicey Situations Gift Officers Face”

August 29: “Getting Your CEO and Board to Help (The 8 Magic Words)”

September 12: “Why Experience Counts So Much and How to Get It, Not Being Afraid to Make a Mistake, How Should Make the Ask, and More”

September 26: “What Makes a Great Major Gifts Officer”

Coming Up:

Sunday, October 3: Chapter One of “The Perfect Development Shop


Excerpted from Winning: The Five Truths of Fundraising, available in print, audiobook and eBook on

I was having coffee with a friend of mine. She’s the director of development for a wonderful nonprofit. Among other things we were talking about our year-end totals and all the thank-you letters those gifts precipitate.

My friend had a sad look on her face. I asked if anything was the matter.

“No, sorry. We had a really great year end. Very fortunate. A lot of hard work by our team. I just had a personal experience with a thank you that wasn’t so great.”

I asked, if it wasn’t prying, would she tell me?

“Sure. Actually, I’ve been wishing I could share it with someone, but my family and personal friends wouldn’t understand.

“You know where I went to college, right? It was a wonderful time of my life. When I started in development, I had grandiose ideas of being a big donor to my alma mater. I owe them a lot.

“But life got in the way.” She smiled. “Now I sound like one of my own donors!”

“My husband and I put our kids through private school, and you know where they went to college. It was really hard for us to make that work but we did. In the meantime, my giving to my own college was nowhere near where I wanted it to be. It was sporadic and not up to my intentions. I was embarrassed about it, but we had responsibilities.

“Anyway, last December I told my husband I wanted to get serious about giving to them on a regular basis. We talked about starting at a modest level and increasing our gift every year, then including my college in our estate plan later on. We talked about them a lot, and a couple other causes we wanted to ramp up our giving to.

“So I sent my school $250. I know it’s not a world-beater, but to be honest, I was really excited to write that check. I even called someone in their development office to watch out for my gift because I didn’t have  an envelope from them. I guess I was reliving what I had always wanted my giving to my college to be and now I was going to make it happen.

“It made me happy.”

I took a sip of coffee and told my friend, “Well, so far so good!”

“You’re right. Now, don’t laugh. I started watching the mail for my thank-you letter. I was like a little kid. It finally came one day.”

“By the look on your face, it wasn’t what you hoped for.”

“Oh, the letter was fine, I guess. It said all the correct things. But it was a form letter. The signer was the vice president. His signature was imprinted at the bottom.

“It was a lousy imprint.

“There’s no way that VP ever got within 25 feet of that letter, or my gift. It was so obvious it was prepared by someone in their development operations office.

“You know what? I really wish that person had signed my letter instead.”

I told my friend I felt badly for her experience. Was this going to affect her future giving to her college?

“To be honest, I don’t know. I’m still sorting out how I feel. It was probably my own fault for getting my hopes up. I don’t know what I expected. “It was only $250.

“Deep down, I don’t feel I was thanked for my gift.

“I feel like I was processed.”

Get Your Nose Out of Your Navel

“I resolve to stop using myself as a gauge for what will resonate with my donors. In other words, stop trying to raise money from yourself.

“No matter who you are or where you are in your fundraising career, you probably aren’t a proper representative for your target donor demographic.

“You’re likely younger and much more ingrained in the inner workings of the fundraising milieu in general and the work of your organization specifically. Your donors don’t eat, drink, sleep and breathe your organization’s messaging, so they aren’t as bored with it as you might be.

“They might not even remember that they get four mailings from you a year – much less the details of what any of them said. They’re not jaded to the specifics of your organization’s work, so you can’t speak to them as though you are.

“Your communications need to be personal, raw, real – and consistent.

“And the only way to sustain that is to get your nose out your navel and start looking at your work through your donors’ eyes.”

By Margaret Battistelli Gardner, reprinted with permission