Capacity and Need

”How big a gift can we ask for?” The volunteer looked at me and I wanted to say, “As much as we dare.” But that really wasn’t what he was asking and, as so often is the case, the answer was far more complex than my flippant would-be retort showed.

Judging capacity is not something that can be done by simple formulae in a white room. How much someone can give and how much that person will give are not always easily related. Ability to give, desire to give to your organization and yes, how the ask is made and for how much all play huge roles.

As always, large organizations with resources often have a better shot at getting it right. But they don’t necessarily have a better shot at getting the gift. Beyond research, more than data, sometimes just asking the prospect, “What kind of a gift do you see yourself making” will get you closer to capacity than anything.

And then there is always the issue of your organization’s needs at this time.

As I write, many organizations are facing serious shortfalls. Unless you are an ostrich, you know the economy is beyond bad. Organizations’ traditional fundraising methods are falling short. New techniques aren’t quite taking off. What to do?

If you are facing a shortfall, your immediate needs are short-term. Quick gifts that will help to bridge the gap. If you are lucky enough to have a pool of donors, you may want to look at your likely large donors and ask them for a not-so-large gift. What you want here is a quick yes and an equally quick check.

When I first got into fundraising, my boss told me that if a prospect reached into his or her pocket(book) and wrote out a check for the amount asked, I probably asked for too little. In recent years, that so-called wisdom has changed somewhat and now the idea is if that happens add “A year, for N years,” to your ask. It plays well in the telling, but not always in the asking. A bird in the hand and all that may be where you are now. In today’s market, take the gift and say thank you. And then use that gift as the starting point for the next gift.

In addition to your need is the very real need of the donor. With the economy in such a tailspin your donor may be leery of committing too much. And, just as you are wondering about the donor’s capacity, she may be wondering as well. Keeping the ask to a do-able gift now may not get a listing in the Chronicle’s fundraising pages, but it very well might beef up your bottom line.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at


About janetlevineconsulting

For over 20 years, Janet Levine has worked for and with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping to grow their advancement programs. Her consulting company, Janet Levine Consulting, serves a wide range of organizations from small, all-volunteer agencies to major national organizations. She regularly teaches courses in non-profit management, fundraising and grant development, both face-to-face and online at In addition to her nonprofit work, Janet brings years of experience as a business and sales manager in the for-profit sector. She has an MBA from the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University.
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1 Response to Capacity and Need

  1. Amy Kincaid says:

    I agree with your thinking here. Michael Kaiser in Art of the Turnaround makes similar, good points re “right-sized gifts.” My feeling has been that the donors making medium-sized gifts (say, the $500 to $4000 for many groups) are the most neglected donors. So herein lies opportunity for engagement.

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