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What's a major gift anyway?

April 22, 2013

People often ask me how big a gift needs to be to be considered a "major gift." They expect to hear a big number—at least $100,000. In fact, they expect the number to be so large and out of reach that it lets them off the hook of ever starting a major gifts program at all.

What I hear often:

  • "No one would ever give that kind of money to a mental health group."
  • "Our issue is too confidential, there’s still too much stigma attached to it."
  • "We can barely afford to hire a development director, let alone a major gifts officer. That’s just out of our league."
  • "We need short-term money now. Major gifts take time to develop."

Let me offer another approach that may put you back on the hook:

What is the largest single gift your organization has ever received from an individual donor? Is it $1,000, $5,000, $20,000? I recommend you establish your own definition of a "major gift" with no regard to some arbitrary amount you heard about or read about. No one knows your organization like you do. Start with a number that is attainable.

For many behavioral healthcare groups we work with, including those organizations with budgets exceeding $100 million, a gift of $1,000 from an individual donor would be a MAJOR gift. Just breaking into the world of individual donors is an enormous accomplishment for groups that have been nearly 100% dependent on government funding.

Set your own definition of a major gift and you can raise the bar slowly.

Most of the groups we work with start at an annual gift of $1,000 a year for five years. That would mean a total gift of $5,000 from one donor. Some choose to consider major gifts to be $5,000 a year for five years or $25,000 total. Others go higher still.

The question is moot. The answer should be: establish your "major gifts" threshold low enough to be attainable and high enough to be a stretch for your organization and a real win when you get there.

I once worked with a major national museum that set its major gifts threshold at $1,000 a year for five years. Most people would have assumed their minimum "major gift" to be $1 million or more. Many donors were happy to make a gift of $1,000 a year for five years to them. Over 1,000 donors, in fact! When you do the math on that, you can see it adds up quickly. Think about how great those donors felt to be recognized and treated as a "major donor" to that museum.

Of course, over time, many of those $1,000-a-year donors were so well cultivated that they made much larger gifts, including bequests.

Beware of using the fear of a "major gift" as an excuse for never getting started with individual donors at all. The donors are out there giving their money elsewhere. Many have more they could and would love to be giving to your organization.

How will you define a major gift?

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