The Money in the Middle
Building a Sustainable Organization

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What’s Your Problem?

  • Too much pressure to raise big dollars now?
  • Not enough staff resources?
  • Lack of understanding from organizational leadership about the importance of pipeline programs?
  • Poor programs, process and systems in place to attract new donors and move them to higher level?
  • Lack of the data requirements to identify future major / principal gift prospects?
  • Can’t decide on the right metrics to show success?

In the age of perpetual multi-billion and million-dollar fundraising campaigns, it’s hard to consider or even allow time to pause to think about a first-time donor who just gave you $100, $500 or $1,000 to your annual fund, grateful patient program or event.  Really, who cares? You have millions to raise this year for your campaign and that gift won’t get you any closer to your goal.  Even if you did pay some attention, the chances of that donor making another gift this year, doubling it or even adding a few zeros on the end is slim.

The pressure to raise big dollars now is undeniable.  Our jobs, bonuses and to some extent egos are tied to landing the big fish.  We read on trade websites and local news announcements about organizations across the country securing their “largest gift ever in the history of our organization” — $1 million, $100 million or $500 million.  The headline never reads “Mr. & Mrs. Smith gave $60 to the local medical center,” nor should it really.  We know, the largest gifts have greater impact and should command more attention.  Larger gifts also get the attention of the Chancellor, Dean, CEO or Board and most organizations have too many $100 or $1,000 donors to even consider involving organizational executives.

As leaders, why is it that one of our biggest challenges is major or principal gift staff burnout and retention issues, or once a campaign is complete, that we have a donor base that is fatigued?  Does your prospect or donor base look more like a martini glass then a pyramid?  If it seems like your starting over every year with building back a pipeline, you probably are.

The famous 1950’s criminal Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks.  His reply: “Because that’s where the money is.” So, I’m not suggesting we abandon major gift prospects and high-level portfolios.  I’m suggesting we explore looking at the opportunity to build a sustainable organization by managing our pipelines and not missing the opportunity of the money in the middle.  The goal is to create a balanced program that identifies new prospects, qualifies their interests and capacity and fosters a smooth transition into a major gift staff portfolio, not when we are desperate for prospects, but every day.

I understand the organizational challenges in trying to achieve these goals; not enough staff resources, lack of best practice programs, not sure how to measure success, lack of infrastructure or data requirements to use information effectively, lack of a system to communicate, not enough buy-in from University or hospital administration.  One of the best indicators of an organization’s health is a look at its pipeline.

We are not “sales” organizations, we build mutually beneficial relationships that connect organizational need to personal passion or interest.  It’s not transactional but an emotional appeal.  But, nonprofit organizations that have the internal framework to model the infrastructure of “corporate sales” organizations have greater success and limit the challenges already mentioned in this paper.  Building a pipeline is the first step to success.  Knowing how to manage it, is the second.

Here are some Solutions:

  • Cross train annual giving, event and research staff by inviting them to your major gift meetings to learn and contribute to the discussion regarding prospect identification and qualification.
  • Establish a system to ensure new donors are regularly wealth screened and “handed-off” to qualification or major gift staff.
  • Identify new markets that have been under prospected. This could be developing a strategy for specific high-net worth zip codes or working with high-end real-estate agents to identify new home buyers coming into the community.
  • Through data, build rationale for the CEO or Board to invest in programs and staff to grow pipeline.
  • Implement a stewardship plan for new “lower-tier” donors who have greater capacity.

By the way, the largest gift I participated in securing was $75 million.  The individual’s first gift was through a direct mail appeal for $60.  If you looked back at your largest donors, I’m sure you will find a similar pattern.

These are just a few thoughts and I’m sure you have some of your own to add.  Feel free to let me know what your organization is doing to focus on the money in the middle.