Special Treatment: A Veteran Fundraiser's Advice on How to Raise the Largest Gifts



When you’ve been writing about fundraising for decades, as I have, it’s uncommonly rewarding to get a new insight into the development profession. That’s what happened when I read Raising Your Organization’s Largest Gifts: A Principal Gifts Handbook, by Ronald J. Schiller.

Donors who make the largest, or principal, gifts should not be treated like other major donors, according to Schiller. I always thought major donors are treated basically the same, and a few of them naturally emerge as an organization’s most-generous supporters. But that’s not how it works in Schiller’s world.

Instead, he recommends selecting 40 of an organization’s most-generous donors or most likely supporters, and creating an individually tailored plan of meaningful engagement for each one. Each plan should be, as he says, “specialized, customized, and resource-intensive.”

In an interview with Inside Philanthropy, Schiller says that he learned the 40-donor approach from mentor Dave Dunlop, a now-retired fundraising leader at Cornell University who, after many years on the job, selected a small group of donors to receive special attention. As a result, fundraising returns soared.

An experienced fundraiser who co-founded the Aspen Leadership Group, an executive recruiting company, Schiller explains that “40 is the number of potential principal donors—individuals, families, foundations, and corporations—that someone in a leadership role can keep top of mind. A higher number means the list probably won’t get the attention it deserves. Having a lower number means that less money will be raised than might otherwise be possible.”

The book, Schiller’s third about fundraising, also covers numerous common mistakes readers should strive to avoid. For example, he says wealth, the capacity to give, receives far too much importance in assessments of potential donors. Nonprofit leaders should focus most of their attention on two other more important signs of principal gift potential—the inclination to support a particular organization and whether that organization is a top priority in donors’ charitable plans.

Another mistake charity leaders make: assuming that the most-generous potential donors are, as Schiller writes, “unknown to the organization, that they must be discovered by better research,” or some other action. “My experience proves something different,” he writes. “Almost every donor who will make a top 10 gift in the next five to 10 years is already known to the organization.”

A third mistake is failing to see principal donors who make the largest gifts as “essential partners in creating the organization’s future,” Schiller warns. And that means giving these special supporters a real say in the organization’s work, something that some nonprofit leaders resist. Whether it’s a place on the board, participation in a time-limited project with real impact, or simply giving advice, donors who make the largest gifts need and deserve meaningful interactions and contacts as partners with multiple leaders in the organizations they support.

Because most of the largest gifts in America are made by people in their 70s or older, he says, nonprofit leaders must offer meaningful engagement strategies for older donors who may not want or be able to serve on boards.

“Principal gift programs must include robust engagement activity aimed at individuals in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and even early 100s,” Schiller writes. But “few organizations do a good job of sustaining engagement with older donors who are no longer interested in serving on a board or able to attend gatherings.”

When he worked for a school of music early in his career, Schiller recalls working with one donor in her 90s who loved opera but could no longer attend opera performances. One of the woman’s greatest regrets, he writes, was not seeing Renee Fleming, a graduate of the music school, perform at the Metropolitan Opera.

Since Fleming had been a student at the school, Schiller contacted her and she agreed to accompany him on a visit to the donor. “I listened to them talk for hours,” he writes. “It was one of the most magical afternoons of my life.”

There is a lot more good advice in this slender, easy-to-read book of less than 100 pages: how to form a principal gift steering committee and how fundraisers need to coordinate—rather than control—contacts between principal gift donors and an organization’s representatives. And then there’s the author’s guiding principle. Begin raising principal gifts, he writes, by first learning about donors’ charitable objectives and then helping donors achieve those objectives. Amen.

Raising Your Organization’s Largest Gifts: A Principal Gifts Handbook is available on June 15 from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.