Tag Archives: philanthropy

Before You Approach a Major Donor

By David A. Mersky

Before You Approach a Major Donor

I had coffee yesterday with a long-time client. His nonprofit organization is beginning to plan for the construction of a substantial new facility, and they have begun engaging with architects, contractors, and such.

Naturally, thoughts of fundraising for this endeavor are already on the table. With that in mind, he shared with me his plans to fly to Los Angeles next week and talk to a major donor about providing a very substantial naming gift for the project.

I implored him not to take this step. After asking several questions, it was clear to me that this action at this time would be premature.

Why? Several reasons, which I explain in more depth below. But in short, effective fundraising is about much more than just “ask and they will give.”

Well Begun is Half Done

Nonprofit fundraisers are often in a rush to gain commitments for anticipated projects. That’s understandable. After all, without those funds, the projects will not get underway.

However, to achieve maximum effectiveness, a great deal of preparation is required. Critical questions must be answered prior to arriving at the door of a major donor. Some of these include…

What will be the outcome to the organization if a major gift is secured?

Sophisticated, thoughtful donors want to know what the vision is for the project at hand. What will the organization be able to do that it cannot do without their philanthropic support?

Are you trying to reinvigorate a youth development center replacing an old building in disrepair with a modern facility, providing children who deserve more with a safe, comfortable, and welcoming structure?

Are you planning to build an inner-city charter schoolto address the dearth of quality educational facilities in communities that don’t have the wherewithal to invest on their own?

Whatever the specifics, you need to help the prospective donor envision how the world will be a better place once you have completed the project for which this gift is the foundation.

How much money do you need?

In the eyes of many donors, this is an investment. It’s a business deal, not a blank check. Regardless of the degree to which they are in support of your organization, or the size of their bank account, they want to know that you have got your ducks in a row.

This means that you need to be much further down the planning road than just, “We want to build X.” How much will the project cost? How much money can you raise in the aggregate? What portion of the overall cost are you asking them to contribute?

You wouldn’t approach a bank for a loan without knowing how much you need and how the funds will be used. The same preparation is required when approaching a donor.

How will you leverage this gift to raise more money?

With rare exception, no single donor wants to fund a multimillion-dollar project on their own. Typically, they are attracted to the idea of collaborating with others of similar philanthropic interests and financial capacity. They want partnership and alliance.

Often, donors want to offer their money as a challenge: “I will contribute X if you can secure an equal amount from others.” They want you to succeed and this can help you to leverage their offer as a way to bring others on board.

Keep in mind as well that it can be risky to be overly dependent on one donor for a given project, should the donor have a change of heart or circumstance. That’s why we recommend a “pyramid approach,” with a few major donors atop a foundation of many other contributors at varying levels beneath.

Relationship First, Money Second

Above all, always remember that fundraising is about people.

Our first responsibility is to serve the donor well – to make sure the request is within the realm of possibility given their wealth, that it reflects their personal vision and the impact they wish to have in the world, and that it strengthens the bond between organization and individual.

Only through preparation and due diligence will you be equipped to take that cross-country flight, knock on that door, and come away with a commitment that improves the lives of all involved.

Fundraising during the Pandemic – Looking at 6+ Recent Reports

Fundraising During the Pandemic Image

Recently, I have seen an uptick in studies and data about fundraising during the pandemic. In general, there is consistency to the data. But the details tell the real story.

Nonprofits that were strong fundraisers continued to do well when fundraising during the pandemic. Nonprofits who were afraid of fundraising before the pandemic, often opted not to ask donors and funders during the the first part of the year. And what were tiny cracks in their development program and fundraising processes opened in to huge gaps.

These public studies about fundraising during the pandemic (all written within the past few months) highlight the highs and lows of events, arts organizations, hybrid fundraising, higher education, individual giving, and religious organizations. And while this is much longer than our usual blog post, I hope you will settle in and take a look at where we stand, a year into the pandemic.

If you know of others, please pass them along. I will add them to the list.

Pivot to Virtual Events Helps Nonprofits Sustain 2020 Fundraising Goals  (The Giving Institute)


  • Overall, 56% of nonprofits report that they raised less than budgeted, one-third are raised what they had projected, and 11% raised more than their original goal.
  • This year 48% of nonprofits had to cancel and 40% postponed at least one event.
  • Those that converted to a virtual or hybrid event were 10% more likely to raise more than those that cancelled events.

The Future Is Hybrid: Preparing for the Next Evolution of Fundraising (NonProfit Pro)


  • As the importance of online fundraising has grown particularly during the past year, many organizations struggled to optimize the digital giving experience when fundraising during the pandemic. Half of those organizations surveyed felt they could be doing better with online giving.  Only 16% said they were very successful in 2020.
  • The giving experience should connect donors to your mission and build affinity through a frictionless process — much in the same way that online consumer experiences enhance our connection to brands.
  • Overall, the pivot to peer-to-peer endurance events was successful for many nonprofits. 64% reported their virtual run/walk/ride in 2020 as either very or somewhat successful.
  • Challenge your organization to reexamine donor experiences, identifying opportunities to simplify and infuse new engagement touchpoints. Pandemic fundraising is not the same.

Pandemic deals a blow to college fundraising: report (Higher Ed Dive)


  • Fundraising revenue at one in four colleges fell by more than 30% during the first half of fiscal 2021 from the same period the year before.
  • Just over half of the 104 advancement teams surveyed said the value of new gifts and pledges at their institution fell, a trend largely driven by a decrease in the number of major gifts.
  • Smaller gifts and fewer donors during the first half of fiscal 2021 underscored concerns about the pandemic’s long-term impact on colleges’ financials.
  • In a completely separate but related article there was record fundraising and more individual donors to two-year Community Colleges which many attribute to the drive to support less-expensive and more accessible education options.

A Year Into the Pandemic, Long-Term Financial Impact Weighs Heavily on Many Americans (Pew Research Center)

While this is not directly related to fundraising during the pandemic, there is no doubt that decreases in income and fear of financial security will impact fundraising. We can also hope that those that have fared better will increase giving.


  • Roughly half of non-retired adults say the economic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak will make it harder for them to achieve their financial goals.
  • Lower-income adults, as well as Hispanic and Asian-Americans and adults younger than 30, are among the most likely to say they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a pay cut since the outbreak began in February 2020.1
  • Adults with upper incomes have fared better. About four-in-ten (39%) say their family’s financial situation has improved compared with a year ago.

Philanthropy and COVID-19 – Measuring one year of giving (Jewish Funders Network*)

*In addition this report there is an incredibly deep “Reports from the Field” section about fundraising during the pandemic that relates to many sectors.


  • There has been more than $20 billion awarded for COVID-19 globally in 2020.
  • Corporations accounted for 44 percent of the funding during the pandemic.
  • Community foundations awarded more grants—mostly from Donor-Advised Funds—towards pandemic fundraising than any other type (54 percent of total awards).
  • Of U.S. COVID-19 philanthropy to specified recipients, 35 percent of dollars was explicitly designated for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color)
  • communities.

What Keeps U.S. Art Museums Running—and How Might the Pandemic Change That? (ArtNews)


  • Those museums that had free admission may be faring better than other models. In a recent report by the American Alliance of Museums, it was suggested that as many as one-third of the country’s museums could close permanently because of the pandemic.
  • This is a time of self-reflection for museums. Institutions are struggling with the loss of revenue from having to close, the canceling of memberships, the losses from canceled fundraising galas, and fewer donor gifts overall…. Add to that a cultural reckoning over long-standing systemic racism and inequity, and museum leaders are caught in a perfect storm of cultural and financial crisis.
  • For most museums, one legacy of the pandemic will be a growing focus on digital experiences.

As with much of the pandemic, the flood of information is overwhelming. In future weeks, we use this blog to help consider next steps for your nonprofit. No matter what nonprofit sector you are in.

And, if you know of additional resources, or want specific questions answered, email me.

How Were You Helped by Another’s Generosity?

Last week there was an article in the New York Times titled, Six Ways to Give the Gift of Generosity to Children and Teenagers.”  While the six ways were helpful suggestions or reminders, I found myself focusing on The Family History section of the piece. How Were You Helped by Another’s Generosity?

“Why be generous?” the writer asked.  “It’s a perfectly reasonable question for an innocent kindergartner or oppositional teenager to ask.

“One of the best reasons is to honor your own family’s history of having been helped, as… Every family has one, if you stop to think about it.”

The author, Ron Lieber, listed the ways in which he was helped: financial aid for his education, his mother’s breast cancer care and his wife’s grandparents who were welcomed to America after surviving the Holocaust.

How could I not think about my own family history and ask myself, how were you helped by another’s generosity?  The financial aid at overnight camp which helped form my identity, values and beliefs.  My best friend’s father who taught me about giving time by including me in their volunteerism year after year. The education foundation that has helped provide my children with experiences above and beyond the public school budget.

By now, I’m sure you are wondering about your own list, and I am thinking about how to expand mine. What would my parents say helped them?  What about their parents?

This is the new perspective I hope to give my daughters, and you, readers of this blog, during this holiday season.  Why be generous?  Because you are affecting generations.  Sometimes that generosity is in the form of a monetary gift, and other times it is a random act of kindness with no expectations. Charity, philanthropy, and donations come in many different forms, which is important, because not everyone needs the same kind of help.

If you want to share how you were helped, tweet us @merskjaffe #howwereyouhelped?