How Small Schools Can Approach a Major Gifts Program

Vol. 16 No. 3

advancement eletter Vol16 No3 funds

Small schools face an unique set of challenges when it comes to major gifts. With a modest staff and possibly smaller network within the community, it can seem like a daunting task to run a major gifts program. However, we’ve found that many of the challenges small schools believe they face are based in perception, not reality.

When it comes to major gifts, there are a few universal motivations that apply to schools of all sizes.

A donor makes a major gift when he or she:

  • perceives that the gift significantly enhances your school’s ability to provide what the donor values most; and
  • sees that his or her gift advances an already successful institution.

Both of these reasons for making major gifts reflect the deep connection made between the donor’s values and the interests and mission of the school. Additionally, donors:

  • want to share in the school’s success;
  • wish to have a direct impact on children’s education;
  • respond to people and causes they like and respect; and
  • form greater emotional ties and increase support when they see the positive difference made by their gift.

No matter your school size, these motivations can help boost your major gifts program. And, contrary to popular opinion, an effective major gifts program won’t distract from the annual fund. There’s no concrete number that makes a gift "major," and asking for major gifts does not initially require any additional staff, even in a small school. To help accomplish this, we recommend that small schools use available resources to secure major gifts that meet today’s needs.

Many schools believe that a major gift needs to be a certain dollar amount—a number they’ve determined on their own or one that their competitor uses. Instead, we encourage schools to focus on major gifts in addition to your annual fundraising efforts. Major gifts should be “transformational,” allowing your school to do things that would’ve been previously outside the scope of financial possibility.

There are a few ways to identify major gifts prospects. Use existing donor research from your annual giving campaign. Look to your annual fund performance. Also refer to volunteer service records and the organic relationships that your school has developed with top-level donors.

Don’t go out of your way to create new avenues when beginning your major gifts program. Start with your current resources and donors with whom you’re already familiar.

Finally, when you look at the major gift opportunities you create, don’t subscribe to the idea that there is a formula for what constitutes the “right” type of gift. Get creative and construct major giving opportunities that align with your school’s culture and the mission you’re working to deliver.

For example, you might consider creating a major gifts program in a challenge format, where the top donor has the distinction of having a new playground or auditorium in his or her name. This enables you to talk to donors about both a specific interest in the project as well as their ability as a top donor to inspire others to give.

The time frame for this challenge is up to you. How you communicate it—with a written appeal, at an event, or through one-on-one conversations—is less important than providing a personalized experience for each donor.

Have you instituted a successful major gifts program in a small school. Will you share your results with fellow private-independent school Development Directors? Feel free to comment with your story below.

Additional ISM Resources:
The Source for Advancement Vol. 14 No. 1 Advice for New Development Directors
The Source for Advancement Vol. 14 No. 3 What Defines a Major Gift?
The Source for Advancement Vol. 15 No. 4 Guidelines for Maintaining Your Gift Documentation Records

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 35 No. 6 Influencing Upward: Skills for the Development Director
I&P Vol. 42 No. 6 The Donor Cycle


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