It’s Time to Focus on Individual Giving

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Community college fundraising, however, has tended to rely on institutional giving, primarily from business and foundations, for as much as two-thirds of philanthropic revenue.

This means that opportunity abounds when it comes to donor cultivation of individuals. The sector would do well to refocus much of its attention and investment in advancement to target individual major gift prospects. This means that the major gift officer position needs to become the norm in two-year college advancement shops.

Many shops are too small to succeed in this regard. And these two- or three-professional shops often have several thorny issues that tend to be endemic. They are:

  • The chief development officer (CDO) is too wrapped up in administrative duties and meetings to meet with prospects.
  • The program has a special events focus that occupies most of the staff for most of the year.
  • Foundation staff is preoccupied with a portfolio of activities that are relatively ineffective from an ROI perspective.

Classic donor pyramid logic informs us that we need to expand the base and move ‘em up. That means we need to focus primarily on individuals. We need to test the commitment level of loyal Annual Fund donors by cultivating them to make special gifts—that giving category one step up from their baseline Annual Fund gift amounts. This often means gifts of $1,000 to $5,000. They are not quite major gifts. Nor are they gifts for which you just send out a personalized letter if indeed they are a stretch commitment for the donor.

We need to remember that stretch capacity and stretch commitment are two different things. It is hardly rocket science to observe that donors who have the capacity to give at a higher level but don’t simply don’t have the commitment, the donative intent. We foster the commitment by cultivating special gifts as if they were major gifts. And, with time, and attention, and properly qualified prospects, they will.

So if I was setting up a major gifts program in a college that is still testing its individual giving prospects, I would have my major gifts officer take a portfolio of some special gift prospects in addition to his or her bona fide major gifts prospects.

The takeaway? People step up to the plate when they are asked to do so, in the context of mutually informed conversations, (not necessarily pitches) where the donor’s wide world of philanthropic opportunities is acknowledged and respected. Very often, the key to a donor’s interest is not what you say, but in how you listen and respond in such a manner that shows that you really did listen.

It’s an advancement perspective that is refined by constant practice. If the advancement staff is only making, in the aggregate, two or three face-to-face donor contacts a week, it will be mighty hard to build the necessary momentum for an institutional major gifts emphasis.

But the time for such a focus has arrived throughout the sector, and you can’t argue with the reality that the real money is in the hands of individual donors.

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