MegaMillion Dollar Donors

I read the Chronicle of Philanthropy and get depressed. A gift of $20 million here, a $10 million gift there, three at $5 million over nearby. Rarely during my career have I worked at organizations that commanded such largesse.

To be honest, there have been times when getting a $500 check seemed like a major victory. No wonder I often felt like Sisyphus, pushing that crummy rock uphill only to have it crash on my head. It was all too easy to give up.

I have no resources, no support, and I’m spending all my time diddling with these really small gifts..

So much easier to focus on less frustrating things: Friend-raising, administrative chores,, meetings of one sort of another. What can I say except: RESIST THAT TEMPTATION!!!!!

Your job, or at least some part of it, is to raise funds for your organization. And unless you are working at an organization whose operating budget is in the mid to high 9 figures, forget about mega million dollar gifts. It is not very likely that you will get a gift that is larger than your operating budget.

Focus, instead, on what is a reasonable major gift for your organization. Which segues nicely into the question of what, exactly, is a major gift?

When I first started in development, the institution where I worked defined a major gift as one that was not less than $25,000 and paid out over not more than 5 years. I always wondered what that made a gift of $5,000-$24,000 paid out in one year. Chopped Liver?

All right. I know there needs to be markers, a line which, when you cross it, changes the landscape. But rather than numbers or percentages, I’ve always been fond of Tony Poderis’ definition of a major gift: Any gift currently making a significant and positive impact on our organization, or any gift with the potential to do so, is truly a Major Gift.

In short, a gift is major because there is a commitment that says your mission is a priority and helping to move it forward is important. It is a commitment that needs to be on both sides. The donor’s commitment shows itself via financial support. Your commitment is in ensuring the donor gets something for his or her gift.

This something is not the perks or presents often given to major donors, though those can be very good things to provide. Nor is it only the additional attention these donors receive from staff and volunteers (and, depending on your organization, your clients), though this attention is crucial if you are to develop repeat major donors.

It is a heightened relationship, a partnership really, that ensures your major is involved (as well as invested) in what you do. It means more than simply thanking your donor to making sure that they know how their gift made a difference and why that matters. Beyond telling, you need to show them. Above all, you need to turn these major donors into insiders who have more than a passing interest in what you do.

Next time, we’ll talk about how you do that.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at