The Major Gift Conundrum

In fundraising, we tend to talk about “annual” and “major gifts” as if they are totally separate entities.  And sometimes they are.  Small gifts that people give year after year after year are clearly “annual” and no one confused them for anything else.  But sometimes—often in many cases—the gift that a donor gives every year is greater than the threshold of what the organization calls major.

A “conundrum” is a puzzle, a mystery, a problem.  And clearly, if for example, your organization considers $5,000 a major gift, what is the puzzle, mystery or problem with this major gift?

I submit that to this person—the one who can give you $5,000 (or whatever your major gift threshold is) or more every single year—does not consider this a major gift.  To them, it is an annual gift and while you should recognize their generosity, you should also be cultivating them for the occasional truly major gift.

A major gift should stand at the intersection of your donor’s philanthropic goals and your organization’s needs.  Figuring out where that intersection is takes time and it takes building a relationship with your donor.

Annual gifts tend to focus on what the organization needs.  Smart organizations match those needs to a larger community need—if we help the homeless get shelter, we also help the larger community by removing the need for tent cities; if we educate at risk students, we help employers by creating an educated workforce and we help to keep crime down.

Major gifts, however, starts with why the donor cares about what we do and from that, what the donor hopes will happen because of his or her gift.  Discovering what those are takes asking probing questions, listening to the answers, taking time to craft a gift that works for all involved.

Major gifts have a dollar amount threshold because while gifts under that amount are important, important, we typically don’t have the ability to spend the time needed (or, frankly, to pay the skilled development officers) to get to an appropriate and satisfying yes. Yes, sure, we’ll meet one on one or in very small groups with donors below that threshold—but only if they are above a lower bar.  We call these donors mid-level, and they are where development staff begin to get to know those potential truly major givers.

But even here, time matters, and what will be a “one and done” cultivation and solicitation cycle for a mid-level gift, would only account for the start of a major gift effort.

The major gift conundrum starts when you have loyal, big givers.  The puzzle you must work out is how and when to approach them to consider a truly major gift while continuing their annual support.


Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, moving them from mired to inspired.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for our newsletter and do contact us for a free, 30-minute consultation. 

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Getting It Right

Successful fundraising is a matter of getting a lot of things right.  Having the right person asking the right prospect for the right project at the right amount at the right time.

This is true regardless of what kind of fundraising you are doing.  What changes is the definition of what is right.

For example, to get a corporate gift, the right person is typically someone high up in that corporation, while the right person for a major gift is a peer of that right prospect. The right person for an appeal, on the other hand, could be a client, a program manager, a board member.  Usually—though this is often who signs the appeal—it is NOT the director of development.

The job of the development team—which should include board members—is to figure out what is right for every situation.

Right prospects are not just those who are wealthy.  They are the people who are passionate about what you do.  The right amount for that prospect just might be a great deal more than their last gift.  But for that to happen, you have to be clear what it is—the project—they want to support.

Timing, of course, is always critical in fundraising.  I once had a scheduled solicitation meeting with a couple who had given all kinds of positive signals about their intention to be a lead gift for our campaign two days AFTER the man was summarily fired from his high-paying job. Clearly, timing was not ideal, and indeed, though the meeting was kept and their interest still high, the consummation of the gift took 17 more months.

Too often, those involved in raising the funds don’t spend the right amount of their time ensuring that all these rights are aligned.  Joe and Selma have been making an annual gift of $1,000 for several years. This is good and a sign that they could be destined for bigger things.  However, deciding to get a meeting with them—which they happily accept because no one from the organization has been in contact with them before—and then asking them to support a pet project of yours (or your boss’s) to the tune of $100,000 may not be your smartest move.  Indeed, you need to make many moves before you get to that ask. And yet, I see this kind of fundraising (I call it “slash and burn”) all the time.

As you go forth to raise funds for your amazing organization, recognize that the right gift will come only after all those other rights are in place and you have taken the time to ensure they are and, even more importantly, that you know what is right for your donor.


Janet Levine Consulting works to move nonprofits from mired to inspired.  Get inspired at  Sign up for our newsletter and contact us for a free, 30-minute consultation. 

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So You Want to Be A Nonprofit Consultant

Every year, thousands of people lose their jobs, get bored with what they are doing, get passed over for a promotion, and decide that pfft, I’m going to hang out my shingle and become a nonprofit consultant.

And why not?  The barriers to doing so are very minor indeed.  Print up a few business cards, maybe create a website, get a business license and in some states, register with the Attorney General’s office.

The problem is that many people who take this route do so for all the wrong reasons:

  • They don’t want to have a boss
  • They want to be the boss
  • They are tired of looking for jobs
  • They want to have flexibility and—best of all—lots of free time
  • They want to tell others what to do
  • And some even want to help the nonprofit sector

But the reality of being a consultant is typically very different than one assumes.

For starters, you have many bosses, and the only person you end up being the boss for is yourself.  If you thought job search was hard before—well, as a consultant finding work is a huge percentage of what you do.

Personally, I love the flexibility, though it is not as flexible as I had hoped, and when I have free time, that means I have no or not enough work.  Neither is appealing.

I do like sharing the knowledge I have gained in over 30 years in the sector and 15 before that in sales and marketing positions.  I feel that I honestly have something to offer.  But too many consultants decide to become consultants before they have a knowledge base; before they have experienced the realities that their clients are living.

Too many consultants come into the field thinking they know what the organization needs before they know who the organization is.  And before they learn what resources would be available in order to do the work.

If you really want to help the nonprofit sector—and it is, alas, a sector that could use a lot of help—make sure you have the skills to provide that help.  The late Bob Zimmerman used to talk about “bad consulting experiences,” that poison the well for everyone.  Organizations that need assistance shy away because of people who were not ready for prime time stepping forward; consultants who do a really good job (I do, and so do most of the consultants I know) get a bad rap.

The 11 years that I have been consulting have been the most amazing and wonderful work years of my life.  I’ve had the opportunity to work with fantastic people and provide value to wonderful organizations.  But consulting isn’t for everyone.  Before you hang out that shingle, interview other consultants.  Be honest about the things that sound wonderful and the things that don’t sound so good.  And, most of all, be honest with yourself.  Do you truly have the ability to help organizations do what they do better.

And if you do—a really warm welcome to the club.

Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, taking them from mired to inspired.  Learn more about us and how we can help your organization at  Sign up for our newsletter and do contact us for a free, 30-minute consultation.

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Hiring the Right Fundraising Staff

Because so many of my clients are looking to hire fundraising staff, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reviewing job descriptions.  And it is no wonder that bad hires happen.

Fundraising is not monolithic, and it doesn’t proceed neatly from one step to another.  You don’t get an annual donor, then seamlessly move that person up the ladder to be a major giver.  Corporate gifts are gotten in totally different ways than foundation grants and both are unlike individual giving.  Which, of course, is very different depending on the size of the gift, the style of asking….in short, fundraising is multitudes and the ways you raise money diverse.

You’d never know that from job descriptions.  Fundraisers are expected raise funds from individuals, corporations, and foundations.  They need to know about annual, major and planned giving.  They must work with and manage the board.  And on top of that, they will have to have a clear knowledge of this or that database, donor research tools, budgeting, and a host of other skills.  Besides which, whether they actually have staff or not, they are expected to be a talented manager.

And yes, a good director of development should have working knowledge of many of these things.  But be real—if you want to set someone up for success (and why would you hire for failure?), you need to be more specific about what you need this person to accomplish.

In a one or two-person office, development staff often have to juggle a lot of hats.   But you must be clear which hats are most important.

Start by deciding what is needed.  If keeping the status quo is what you want, then look to what kinds of fundraising is happening and find someone who can and will continue doing what you’ve been doing.  But if you need to increase, then you need someone who has skills in different areas.

For example, most of my clients do some sort of arm’s length fundraising:  direct mail, social media, special events.  But if they want to increase their funding, they probably need to look for someone who has skill in building relations and asking for larger gifts.

If your grants are humming along nicely, you don’t really need someone whose main talent is identifying new (for you) foundations.  But if you want to grow foundation funding, that is a skill you should be looking for.

While there are many people—especially those of us who have worked in the field for many years—who have the ability to raise funds from many different sources, understand that doing so dilutes all efforts and will ensure you have less than a robust funding base.

Figure out what is most necessary and hire for that.  And consider what you can most easily outsource.  Grantwriting is often that area that doesn’t really need a full time staff person and there are many really good freelancers around.  But if you want to grow a mid-level or major gift program, you need to hire a staff member who understands relational fundraising, has the skill to identify and qualify appropriate prospects and then can go out and move those prospects toward larger gifts.

It’s a balancing act, and everyone must be on the same page so you can all get where you want to go.


Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, helping to increase fundraising capacity. Visit our website,, to see how we can move you from mired to inspired.

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It’s In the Stars

One of my guilty pleasures is reading the newspaper horoscope column, checking out what is in store for me, my husband and my (adult) children.  Today, my daughter’s said, ‘without a destination, you’ll do a lot of moving but feel as if you are getting nowhere.  Give yourself the satisfaction of arrival.”

YES!  It is what I tell my clients all the time.

Know where you are heading, otherwise, who knows where you will end up.

This is, I’ve discovered, really important in fundraising.  And where you are heading starts with how much money you must raise.  If you don’t know what that number is, how will you ever know if you have succeeded?

Often, I see nonprofits frantically engaged in deficit fundraising.  That is, doing what I call slash and burn fundraising in order to get as close to being in the black as possible.  And almost always, when I ask what their fundraising goal for the year was—in cash and pledges—and where they are now, the answer is “who knows.”  All they know is that they need to raise more money than they have.

Having a specific fundraising goal allows you to figure out the most effective ways to reach that goal.  It also helps you to benchmark and make sure you are on target.  Without that, you are, as my daughter’s horoscope said, “doing a lot of moving, but feel as if you are getting nowhere.”

To avoid getting nowhere, be very clear—what are your fundraising goals.  What new dollars do you need to bring in—cash that will come this year, and pledges that will come over the next few years.

Speaking of pledges, run a report and see what pledges are outstanding and what you need to make sure comes in as cash this year.  Looking at all those numbers, consider—what do you need to do to ensure you reach your goal?
If you are a small development office, you will quickly realize that you actually cannot spent four months totally focused on your gala.  Nor can you spend the remaining 8 months on annual giving.  You will have to—you really must—carve out enough time to raise major gifts.  That means you will have to have time to plan, to arrange meetings, to go to meetings and then to follow up on those meetings.

What will you have to stop doing to make that kind of time?  What will you have to do more efficiently.

When I was a one-person office, I recognized that while I had to do my gala it shouldn’t be the primary fundraiser that it was.  I knew that 80% of my money would come from 20% of my donors and I needed to find out who they were and to focus most of my time on them.  But the gala was beloved of my board and so I needed to ensure it was good.

But good did not mean that I had to stop everything else.  I had to employ volunteers, catering staff at the venue where our event was to be held, and anyone else I could corral to do the things that had to be done but honestly didn’t add much to my bottom line.  Like ticket sales.  That’s not where the money is.  Or decorations.  Menu.  Even to some degree, the program.

My focus had to be on getting sponsorships and in identifying prospects I might want to invite as our guests to our gala.  My focus also had to be on training my board to be great gala ambassadors—not only making guests feel warm and welcome, but reporting back to me after the event.

It starts, of course, with figuring out where you need to be at the end of the fiscal year.  And then simply work backward, figuring out how best to get there.


Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, taking them from mired to inspired.  From board development to raising more funds, Janet Levine Consulting can help!  Got to, and after you subscribe to our newsletter, contact us for a free, 30-minute consultation.

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