Attracting major gifts: What can we learn from higher education?

Attracting major gifts: What can we learn from higher education?

Guest Bloggers | 22 February 2019

Gemma Peters, Chief Executive of Bloodwise, joined the charity after 13 years working at King’s College London and King’s Health Partners where she designed and led the World questions | KING’S answers campaign. The campaign raised over £610 million with most of the income coming through major gifts, with more than 37 donors giving over one million pounds. She looks at what fundraisers can learn from the higher education sector when attracting these types of donations.

In 2004 when I joined King’s fresh from the traditional charity sector, I was keen to learn about the mysterious donors who were giving millions of pounds to universities. My first surprise was that these donors were for the large part not new at all. They were names I was familiar with – people who had attended charity events, bid in auctions and made regular gifts to places I’d worked before. And yet their gifts to the organisation I’d just arrived in had many more noughts on the end.

This month Cambridge University announced that it had received a donation of £100 million - the biggest ever gift to a university from a British citizen. The news came just days after Imperial College London received a £10 million donation to create a new centre for research into myeloma – one of the UK’s largest donations to blood cancer research.

We know from the Coutts Million Pound Donor Report that the most popular causes (medical research, international development) align with the missions of many charities. But almost all those gifts bypass the charity sector altogether. So why is that? And what does it tell us about our major gift fundraising programmes?


You can’t ask for a £10 million gift without a £10 million idea

Could it be that the size of the projects we undertake are determined by how much money we think we can raise? The idea that it is “wasting time” to seriously contemplate what it will really take to fix a problem, if we have no confidence that resource will follow, is something I’ve encountered since being back in the charity sector.

Yet if we don’t have the idea, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Incremental rather than transformational thinking, compounded by short-term financial cycles, leads to incremental gifts. At Bloodwise we should be thinking about the roadmaps to cures for blood cancer, even when we know the cost is well beyond our current capability.

Big ideas often span boundaries and, despite some notable efforts, a history of competition for funds across our sector stops us seeking partners in our efforts. The biggest gifts go to 'big ideas' that cross geographic or traditional cause boundaries.

When was the last time you took a donor to another organisation doing something you thought they might be interested in? The best university teams do this regularly - positioning their fundraisers as trusted donor-advisers on giving to other organisations, as well as their own.

Fear of being donor led

We know the apocryphal stories of mission creep leading charities to follow money and lose sight of their purpose, but only permitting fundraisers to work with pre-ordained shopping lists makes equally little sense.

If we genuinely believe we know the only way to solve a problem (and few charity leaders I meet are so dogmatic), what is there to fear from engaging with other people who care about the issue too and have different ideas?

In every large gift negotiation I have worked on, the organisation and donor refined their proposition as they built a deeper understanding of each other’s perspective. In all cases, the result was better than if either had stuck to their original plan.

The time trap

When I spoke at a major gift fundraising event recently, the room was full of some of the best and brightest fundraisers from some amazing charities. What do you think they said was the number one thing holding them back? A lack of time from their CEO. I can’t think of one of my CEO peers who doesn’t want their major gift programme to fly, but perhaps there is a misalignment of expectation about what is ‘enough’ time.

University presidents in the US will proudly talk of spending 80% of their time on fundraising. This is enough to make most UK Vice Chancellors go pale, but those I worked for would spend at least five hours a week on all aspects of major gift fundraising – planning, meetings, cultivation events, stewardship - for what was about 3-6% of turnover. So what percentage of my time at Bloodwise should I spend when close to 100% of our income is philanthropic?

Other factors are harder to talk about - a lack of confidence from CEOs that it will ever work, that they’ve got the right major gift fundraisers to deliver it, or that those fundraisers will stick around.

A relationship of trust between the CEO and Major Gifts lead, where they can talk openly, is non-negotiable to building a successful major gifts programme

And the real secret…

Major gifts programmes are transformational, not because of the money they raise but because of what you do to secure the gifts.

Focusing on bold ideas, partnering with others, thinking on longer time horizons, understanding impact and dedicating leadership time to strategic relationships make organisations better – even if the money doesn’t follow. One of the most successful gift negotiations I’ve been involved in completely failed. We worked for months and didn’t secure a single penny, but the thinking we did and the partnerships we built sustained and we found a way to deliver the promise anyway.

The charity sector has a wonderful and perhaps unique role to play in bringing together collaborators to define and solve problems. My hope is that we can stop getting in our own way before we’ve even started.

Gemma Peters is Chief Executive of the blood cancer research charity Bloodwise. 

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