Great Migrations

Three great migrations.  No, not the wildebeests or the Monarch butterflies.  Three migrations that have everything to do with our work.

I get asked all the time how to know if a major gifts officer is “measuring up.”  We can’t put the pen in the donor’s hand, but we can be mindful of the progress that ought to occur in major gift work.

It starts, of course, with visits.  Are we making visits?  Every week?  Are we disciplined about this priority of ours?  Steadfast in the effort it takes to get visits? 

In the beginning it doesn’t matter where in the Donor Cycle the visit occurs; identification of a prospect, rating the gift capacity, cultivation, solicitation, or stewardship.  We could be thanking, asking, or shooting the breeze.  All that matters is, we’re making visits. 

After a reasonable period of time we need to see that our visits include a growing percentage of asks.  This will happen because the people we’re visiting have gotten to know us and the exciting projects we’re sharing with them. A relationship is present between the gift officer and the donor.

We might see one visit a month include an ask early on.  Then 10% of our visits include an ask.  Then possibly 50% of them. 

As we ask more often, we’ll see that our visits come to include “closes” on those asks.  It doesn’t always happen on the same visit as the ask.  We may need to schedule another visit to close the gift.  But if we pay attention to the migration of visits, asks, and closes, we will inevitably see “gifts.”

That’s the first migration.  Visits, asks, closes, gifts.

The second has to do with the way people will connect with our organizations in the future.  We won’t know their address; heck, no one will be mailing anything!  So how can that connection happen?

It will begin on Social Media.  Potential friends and potential donors will learn about our organizations on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, or even platforms that haven’t been created yet. 

They’ll be curious about us and want to learn more.  So they’ll find our Website.  Finally, we’ll stay connected to them by Email – and in Person!

A year or two from now, who knows!  But today, focusing on donor migration from Social Media to Website to Email and in Person is a good bet.

Finally, what about the emotional link that drives philanthropy?  What is the migration there?

It begins with Awareness.  Someone learns about your organization and what you do.  They become aware of something you do that is meaningful to them. (Reference how two-thirds of the 322,000 donors to the $6 billion USC Campaign were not alumni, they just saw something happening there that mattered to them.)

From Awareness grows Understanding.  That donor “gets” you.  They dive in more deeply to the program at your organization that is emotionally compelling to them.  Now, their connection to you is not superficial.  They are beginning to understand your mission. 

Next is Engagement.  Whether it is an event, a proposal, or a conversation, the prospective donor is feeling more and more a part of who you are at your organization.  The pronoun changes from “They” to “We.”  This is the moment when your donor decides that she or he believes in you.

The last step in this migration is, of course, Commitment.  The donor follows their heart and invests in your organization.  We know that most  donors need to be invited to make that investment.  We also know that most all donors WANT to be invited.

Awareness to Understanding to Engagement to Commitment: the Great Migration in the mind of the donor.

Major Gifts in Ten Minutes a Day

We were having coffee and my friend looked panicky.

“What’s the matter?”

“Rob, it’s nearly November and I’m not getting out. I haven’t made a visit in a month. My plate is so full right now, I can’t imagine even finding the time to try to get a visit. I need a day, a week, but it’s not going to happen.”

“Do you have ten minutes?”

“What do you mean.”

“Do you have ten minutes for major gifts?”

“Seriously? You can’t do major gifts fundraising in ten minutes!”

As gently as I could, I looked my friend in the eye and said, “Of course you can.”

When our moms and dads taught us how to save by telling us “Pay yourself first” they didn’t tell us how much we had to sock away each month. Their point was, just do something. It’s the effort that matters.

For fundraisers that means making the time or, if need be, fighting for the time to get out on a visit.

Without making visits, consistent major gifts do not happen.

If you can give yourself the gift of ten minutes every day, it will happen.

Think about major gift work as a series of moments. The last ask you made? The elapsed time between when you asked and when the donor responded was less than 20 seconds. Meeting a potential donor at an event? Five minutes. A phone conversation just to say hello, but for sure we need to connect soon? Ten minutes.

Is putting yourself in position to get a visit and make an ask worth ten minutes a day to you? Yes? Good.

First thing, do what happens when you don’t want to be distracted.


Mail a handwritten note to someone.

Email three different people. Say something like: “Mary, I was thinking about you this morning and wondering how you are doing. I haven’t seen you for the longest time. May I stop by just to say hello?”

Who did you meet recently? At a board meeting or an event. Reach out! If no one, you need to put yourself in the position next time to do so.

Make a phone call to thank someone for their gift.

Schedule your next trip, even if it’s to the other side of town, so you can tell the next person you call, “I’ll be in your neck of the woods soon, would you have time for coffee?”

Who’s sick or homebound? Send a card. Whose birthday is coming up? Ditto.

Look at last fiscal year’s list of $1,000-plus donors. Who needs some TLC? Commit to the next three people you’re going to try to visit.

Go find some news about your organization you can send to a donor.

Have a conversation with a “service provider” at your organization; a teacher, a social worker, a doctor. You’d be amazed who they know.

The point is, do something. Anything. One little thing. Today.

If you commit to ten minutes a day, you’ll see results, your confidence will grow and you’ll think, “well, maybe I should give this 20 minutes…”

The journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step.

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