Big Is Not Necessarily Better

The Chronicle of Philanthropy started the New Year off with an article about the biggest gifts in 2013 and how they signal a rebound.  I wonder. Over the year, the Chronicle (and others who report on the nonprofit sector) spend a lot of ink on these very large gifts.  Gift so large, in fact, that they dwarf the operating budgets of most of my clients.  Most of the sector, in fact.

Three-quarters of public charities (which account for much of the nonprofit sectors’ finances) report less than $100,000 in gross receipts.  For most of us, these mega gifts are about as relevant  as the LA Times insistence on reporting about celebrity’s real estate.  My clients are about as likely to get a 7-figure gift as I am to buy a house for $35 million. And while there may be some titillation in reading this stuff, it doesn’t do much to help me live my life, or nonprofits raise money.

Relevance aside, I think this kind of reporting does a great disservice to the vast majority of charitable donors.

The sector makes a lot of mouth music saying that gifts of all sizes matter.  But for most donors, their gifts of anywhere from $1-$10,000 tend to get them a perfunctory thank you letter, and another appeal letter in a few months or the following year.

It’s no wonder they leave us in droves.

Just as bad is the way many nonprofits treat their medium-size donors.  A $10,000 gift seems to have become ho-hum.  The thank you may be a little more heartfelt and personal.  There may even be more than one of them—but it is rare to see a nonprofit reach out and say, “Let us show you how your generosity made a difference.”  And it is this making a difference that compels most of us to make a charitable gift of any size.

Much of this lack of donor appreciation comes, I fear, from the emphasis that is put on amount.  It’s not just who reports on what.  Though come to think of it, when was the last time a national periodical announced a $5,000 gift?  It’s also the way nonprofits measure their fundraising programs.

Most development professionals are measured (if they are measured at all) by the amount of money they brought in.  I have seen development directors feted for a million dollar bequest.  That seems odd to me. For one, oftentimes, the development director never even knew the donor; he or she just happened to die on this person’s watch.  And if there is one thing I do know, that donor is never making another gift.  The kudos should have gone to the donor during his or her lifetime.  But we don’t measure development officers on how well they say thank you or connect the dots between gifts and outcomes.

Development directors should get pats on the back for the new prospects they have identified; the cultivation steps they’ve taken; the way they have made a donor feel that the gift made a difference and—even more importantly—that the donor matters.

As a big believer in the value of metrics, I get irritated when my clients only consider dollar goals.  Yes, it is important—critical even—to know how much money you need to raise in a year. But it is even more important to consider how you are going to raise that money this year—and all the years that follow.  And that is more dependent on creating a real bond between donor and the organization than on anything else.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity by building stronger cultivation and stewardship programs, understanding prospecting, and energizing and engaging their boards.  Learn how she can help your nonprofit at http://janetlevineconsulting. com or email her at