Calling Fundraising What It Is

It’s past time, I think, for a new fundraising language. We talk about annual and major gifts; gifts that are planned (as if all other gifts are randomly made), institutional giving—which usually isn’t a gift in any sense of the word as there are contracts, deliverables, all sorts of quid pro quo’s.Let’s start and spend a minute on annual gifts. These are the ones you can depend on year after year after year, to run your organization. But the ugly truth is that more than 60% of all annual donors who make a first time gift to your organization will never, ever make a second.  So annual becomes first and only annual gift.

Truth to tell, when people think annual, they think smaller gifts.  Gifts that are gotten transactionally.   You could call these sustaining gifts—though that term seems to have been snapped up to mean monthly donors—because in truth these are the gifts that sustain (support, maintain) your status quo.  These are the gifts you budget with.  The ones who maintain your operating costs.  They are also the gifts that are made from your donor’s income.

Major gifts are thought to be a gift that is larger than some magic number.  That number varies from organization to organization.  But that should just be a threshold, below which a gift is not considered major.  If, however, I am giving you a gift of that size or larger year after year after year, I am not giving you a major gift.  I am simply doing what I can easily do and to me, it is my yearly support.

A real major gift is something that is large—by organization’s standards and by your donor’s.  It is a gift that will make a difference all by itself. It is usually restricted—not meant to merely help maintain what you do.  And it is often given over a specific number of years.  These gifts are thoughtful.  They are significant.  They are one-time gifts (though a donor can be a serial giver of these large gifts).  These gifts often come from someone’s assets.

Planned gifts are those that come as a result of estate planning.  Though often the plan—especially if there is not much of an estate--is simply to make a bequest, name your organization as a beneficiary of an insurance or retirement policy.

We often call these gifts legacy gifts because they are what the donor leaves behind when he or she dies. That, however, often keeps an organization from asking for these gifts, or even acknowledging that these sort of gifts exist.

I like to talk about tomorrow gifts—the one that ensure the organization will be around for generations to come.

And while I have nothing against corporate giving—I started my career as a director of corporate relations—I think it would be more honest to call it something that acknowledges that by and large there is a return on the investment.

Fundraising, we also maintain, is all about relationships.  I agree. But it is also about clarity, and I think the place to start is by being very clear about the gifts that we are asking for.


Janet Levine helps nonprofits go from mired to inspired, with better fundraising results and more focused boards.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation.