Almost forty years ago, I was just settling in to the position of Vice President for Resource Development and Public Affairs at the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, then parent to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the College of Art and Design and the Children’s Theatre Company.
An intercom from my secretary told me of my first visitor, whom she ushered politely into an office not quite furnished. As we stood among the packing cases, this older gentleman beamed as he handed me a check for $2.2 million, told me how happy he was to do so, and after an exchange of pleasantries, hurriedly left the office, with me wondering what to do next!
Overnight, I was the toast of the organization. The new development person in a $2.2 million maiden voyage! The president beamed with satisfaction, having made an extraordinary employment choice. I was a bit high myself after just a short time on the job. I did know one thing, however: I had nothing to do with the gift other than having received it. I was not responsible for the largesse; I wasn’t even sure if the donor knew my name!
But I knew his, and I rushed to the records to view his donor history. His first gift of $10 came in 1931, gradually rising to $500 by the end of the Second World War. Suddenly, in the Fifties, his donations went from $1000, a very generous gift in those days, to an astronomical $10,000 a year. A curator mused about this during my research that this was about the time he acquired an original work by an Old Master. By 1974, when he walked into my office, he had been on his way to that $2.2 million for many years, crowning a long and fruitful relationship.
This is a lesson worth remembering. Major gifts often have a tail. Many donors, even those capable of very large gifts, don’t often give them at first, preferring a gradual increase in their support.
Development is Not About Money
We must always remember that development is not about money. It is about shared values, shared experiences and shared successes. The work of a development officer is to know these truths, not to rush in, grab the large check and exit.
The work is to build the relationships among constituents that results in a lifetime of giving of increasing gifts, many of which will reach the definition of what the particular institution defines as “major”. It’s all about probabilities, research, hard work and cultivation on a win-win basis.
That learning had me involved in a controversial activity almost immediately. I decided to spend all membership fees we received on a comprehensive members program, a full return of benefit. An eventful and diverse program resulted, including free film series, parties, publications, and openings that were the talk of the town. When called on this by my curatorial colleagues, I had the evidence to win the day: for every thousand members, we could expect between 200 and 300 annual gifts of $100 or more (this was the Seventies; read $500 plus now), and two or three individuals would leave us at least a million dollars! We just didn’t know which individuals would do so 20-30 years hence, so we worked the probabilities, cultivated, and watched as the major donors emerged.
Only Major Donors?
I often cringe when I hear people these days tell me that they only work the current major donors, that going after small gifts is no longer worth anyone’s time, not even by mail. This seems rather shortsighted to me, given the need for constant replenishment of donors, large and small. Certainly, a development program should start with major donors, but it should not neglect the future. Ask everyone for support.
Development needs a long perspective, probably thirty years or so. Market segmentation allows us to work the leadership gift-givers, the planned gift prospects, and the major donors, while constituency building allows us to make provision for the future. Often, that last factor flies in the face of increasing pressure by our boards and executives to produce for this year’s bottom line, or this budget shortfall, or that income gap. By sacrificing or ignoring future major donors to the exigencies of current income need also dooms us to futures of increasing uncertainty.
There are clearly numerous people in our constituencies who have the potential to become our major donors in the future. We share values, we enter into exchanges with them, they are buoyed by our success and some gradually become our major supporters. We need to work the probabilities, take the time to do so, convince our boards and others of this necessity, and continuously reap the harvest of previous cultivation. We need buy-in over the long-term, and then the probability for future financial support will be overwhelming, leading to long-term success of our institutions and incomparable benefit to our communities.
Copyright 2011, The Good Counsel, division of Toscano Advisors, LLC. May be duplicated with citation.