Should you really have a major donor programme?

The annual publication of the Sunday Times Rich List is creating the usual flurry of interest in big gift fundraising in UK charities. How many fundraising directors this morning will be taking calls from their chairperson or CEO asking why so and so Russian oligarch/Indian minerals magnate or Colombian cocaine king is not giving money to their charity?

OK, so I was joking about the cocaine king (money laundering? what’s that?) but you get the point.

All fundraisers know that just because someone is rich it doesn’t automatically follow that you should be chasing them for a donation, some remote sense that they might have any interest in what your charity does might be helpful for a start. But there’s a bigger question for me which is about the role of major donor fundraising (from individuals) in charities today.

Every fundraising director role I’ve interviewed for over the past fifteen years (so we’re talking a lot) has contained within the job spec a piece about increasing major donor income at <insert name of> charity. Pretty much every major fundraising charity in the UK has now got a major donor function or department. There are at least several hundred dedicated major donor fundraisers operating in the UK market.

You wonder how well this is all going. All the evidence is that major giving in the UK is pretty modest. The Coutts Million Pound Donors report for 2012 reported 98 donors making gifts of £1 million of more that year, of whom only 22 were individuals (most of the rest were foundations). So there are at least ten times as many major donor fundraisers as donors giving seven figure gifts. We don’t know how many six figure gifts there were but, even so, you have to wonder how productive many of these fundraisers are being.

So why isn’t major giving more successful as a fundraising approach? Are the fundraisers rubbish? Or is there more to it than that?

There does seem to be a problem about very rich people giving in this country. One of the striking features of the Rich List is how modest is the reported philanthropy of the more than 100 billionaires resident in the UK. There are exceptions but it is interesting how little correlation there is between the wealth of the people on the Rich List and their reported philanthropy. There certainly don’t seem to be many potential Bill Gates or Warren Buffets on the list.

Perhaps this is down to charities not asking properly. But is the major donor pot of gold also not quite as large as we thought?

The question is pertinent because setting up a successful major donor programme is not as simple as many CEOs and boards might envisage. Like all fundraising, it’s actually pretty hard to do well. The key is organisational commitment. Most UK charity trustee boards are not willing, in my experience, to adopt a US approach to board leadership of major giving programmes, supported by “Give, get or get off” approach to board membership. The CEO who is also prepared to commit a significant part of their time to cultivating major donors is also in the minority. And there’s not an over-abundance of good major gift fundraising staff either. And without these three elements of board leadership, CEO commitment and staff expertise, major giving programmes rarely succeed.

These are all challenges that can be overcome of course but it’s a question of priority. I think there are often perfectly valid reasons why a charity might want to put its efforts into another direction than major giving.

Where organisations go wrong though is when they don’t do the difficult things that are needed to make major giving fly but then expect a staff team without significant board or senior executive support to succeed. Here’s the thing, they won’t. Much better in these cases not to have a major giving programme at all.

Just wait for the cocaine king to contact you.

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