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What Inspires Big Gifts? Big Ideas.

Major Donors Give to Major Visions

The Philanthropy 50 – the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s compilation of the donors who gave the most – was recently released for 2023. The headline? America’s biggest donors gave more than $11.9 billion. The full report is worth a read, featuring an analysis of the list, giving trends, and forward-looking predictions.

One highlight that struck us: the report, reflecting on how those who will dominate big philanthropy in the coming decades are giving and what they care about, emphasized the growing emphasis on causes over institutions. 

As further explored in Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Philanthropy’s biggest gifts, what we call ‘big bets’ […] have played a pivotal role in propelling major social advances, from eliminating age-old infectious diseases to securing civil rights for repressed populations.” 

In other words, today’s most significant philanthropists want to change the world. And they aspire to partner with smart, committed, and capable organizations – with big ideas for change – to do so.

So – how can your organization develop and share the big ideas that inspire big gifts? 

Transaction vs. Transformation

Major donors today are interested in more than a transaction. They aspire to achieve transformation. What does that look like?

Imagine that a donor approaches you. They’re interested in supporting your cause – healthcare. You recall your hospital’s leadership asked your team to raise funds for a new MRI machine. You describe the need to the donor and share the impact a new machine will have on patients. The donor’s family writes a generous check to the hospital for $100,000.

A need was met and patients will be better served. But this was a transaction – it did not inspire, deepen the relationship, or confer value and meaning.

Now, imagine that scenario playing out differently. The same donor approaches you. You know they are passionate about cancer research and – having recently sold a business – are looking to invest in their philanthropic goals. You partner with physicians and executives to describe the hospital’s larger vision for cancer care, and define how a philanthropic investment could accelerate progress. You imagine, with the donor, a future in which the most difficult cancers have new cures. The donor’s family makes a leading investment of $1,000,000 in the vision.

Big Ideas Are Complex. They Require a Village to Define and Execute. Bring in Your Experts Early.

Fundraisers alone cannot define an organization’s future path – a university’s plans for advancing the engineering department, a hospital’s vision for tackling diabetes, or a food bank’s strategy for reaching more people. At the same time, organizational leadership should not view the fundraising team as an ATM, generating funds to fulfill departmental needs.

A healthy culture of collaboration between the fundraising team and other institutional leaders is key to developing and implementing transformational ideas. Together, you can explore and develop initiatives that will propel the organization forward and excite donors.

To assess your organization’s readiness for collaboration, ask yourself:

  • Is the fundraising team viewed as an integral part of the institution? Or is development siloed from other departments?
  • Do fundraising leaders have a seat at the table when it comes to strategic planning and decision making?
  • Are donors valued and celebrated, and are their thoughts and perspectives welcomed?
  • What role do stakeholders across the organization play in advancing philanthropy? And do they understand this role?
  • Is fundraising seen as mission-critical, mission-central work?

If your culture of collaboration isn’t where it needs to be, education is the first step toward meaningful improvement. Senior leaders, in particular, must understand the value of philanthropy and buy into the need to establish partnerships between fundraisers and institutional stakeholders.

You may find it beneficial to engage an outside consultant to help make inroads with the executive team and other senior leaders. An objective third party lends credibility to your message.

It’s also important to share communications about philanthropy throughout your organization. This can be as simple as telling good stories about the impact of generosity on a regular basis. In the same way that stories inspire donors to invest in your mission, well-crafted narratives can also rally your internal audience around your philanthropic priorities.

When organizations cultivate a strong culture of collaboration, opening up “big-idea conversations” with institutional partners will feel like second nature.

Dream Big. Together.

Once you have established a strong culture of collaboration – and you have donors interested in investing in your cause – it’s time to dream big. Ideation sessions, with the right mix of stakeholders – fundraising leadership, executive leadership, and subject matter experts – can spark conversation and help your organization imagine what’s possible. Many organizations have found that the best way to foster candid, open dialogue is to have a consultant facilitate the process. This way, you and your internal team members are all on a level playing field responding to the same questions and scenarios together.

During these sessions…

Pose strategic, thought-provoking questions. Reflecting on scenarios, such as those listed below, can help to start generating big ideas and raising your organization’s sights on what philanthropy could achieve.

  • What is our vision for the future?
  • If a donor wanted to make a $10 million investment in our organization or program tomorrow, how would we use that gift?
  • If money were not an obstacle, what could we accomplish?
  • What needs are we best positioned to address?
  • Why is our organization best suited to tackle this challenge?
  • Is this the right time to pursue this big idea?
  • What will it take to reach our goal?
  • Are other organizations working on this goal and, if so, should we create strategic partnerships?
  • Is there internal groundwork we need to lay in order to prepare to tackle this challenge?

In addition to reaching alignment on the big-picture ideas that will become the basis for your campaign’s case for support, make sure you also lay out clear expectations regarding everyone’s role in achieving your desired result. For example, institutional leaders should:

  • Establish key priorities and define the specific investments needed to make them possible
  • Provide expert content (e.g., research, project specifications) that demonstrates the organization’s competence and skill
  • Quantify the impact that can be made through each big idea
  • Participate in donor cultivation opportunities when invited to do so

And for their part, the fundraising team should:

  • Develop and steward close relationships with subject matter experts (e.g., physicians, academic deans, researchers)
  • Translate each big idea into a compelling case for support
  • Obtain feedback from key donors early in the process to refine and strengthen the case
  • Present the institution’s priorities to major donors based on their interests and values
  • Collaborate in an ongoing manner with institutional partners to cultivate and steward donor interest

Engage Your Donors in the Journey.

After you have an initial idea of where your organization is headed, bring in your major donors as you refine your vision. Inviting your early investors to participate confers a sense of insider status; it demonstrates that you value your donors as true partners. Consider ways to strategically seek input, while still ensuring your organization’s experts remain “in the driver’s seat.” This could include…

  • Inviting donors to meet with the subject matter experts involved.
  • Encouraging donors to help build your “case for support.” Ask your closest supporters – what about this vision resonates? Are there reasons you believe this need is particularly urgent? Why do you think this organization is uniquely positioned to achieve this vision?
  • Asking donors to serve as informed champions for this vision, and to engage their peers as volunteers and supporters.
  • Inviting donors to share their stories. Were they a scholarship recipient for your university, and can speak to the power of doubling the program? Were they a patient family, and can share the impact that this vision would have on clinical care?

Involving donors in refining the ideas they’ll eventually fund can be an effective way to set your campaign up for success.

Big Ideas Inspire Donors’ “Big Bets.”

If you want your organization to effect significant societal change – the kind that inspires donors to make a transformational “big bet” – it’s essential that you do the foundational work now.

Raise your organization’s sights. Strengthen your culture of collaboration. And open up channels of communication between fundraisers and institutional leaders that will generate game-changing ideas for your next campaign.

You don’t have to do this important work alone. We’d love to guide you through the process and help create a compelling framework for your next campaign. If you’re ready to get started, just reach out.

Megan Simmons joined Benefactor Group in 2017 after graduating summa cum laude from The Ohio State University, where she studied both Economics and English.

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