The Philosophy of Major Gifts

The £10,000,000 donation from the Dorfman Family to the National Theatre is one of a number of major gifts associated with capital campaigns in recent years, which provide a useful framework for thinking about how to achieve success in major gift fundraising.

For many organisations, the natural response is “if only!” and often they are quite right in being realistic about the scale and scope of opportunity which is available to them. And it is true that major institutions are disproportionately fortunate in this regard; voluntary income generation for culture has grown and developed hugely over the last ten years, but the reach and influence of such major national institutions and their resulting ability to fundraise, has not to date been reflected in the way in which statutory funds are allocated in any meaningful way. This is certainly an issue, which the sector will need to consider, with particular regard to institutions outside of London where wealth is less clustered, but the essential need for voluntary income and within that, major gifts, remains the same.

Gifts, such as that made by the Dorfman family, are also useful examples of how major gifts are misunderstood.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard it referred to as, “buying the re-naming of the Cottesloe.” It’s absolutely correct of course that this is the association that the gift has been honoured with and it is certainly the hook that the NT used to facilitate the dialogue around a major gift, but to see it simply as that alone is to misunderstand a deep, family association with an institution that has developed over almost fifteen years. Introduced to the Theatre by a member of the Development Council; Lloyd donated and joined the group himself, before establishing the Travelex ticket scheme in 2002, which continues to run today. He joined the Board of the National Theatre in 2007 and his son; Charles Dorfman became Chair of the Young Patrons. This is evidence of an invested and nurtured relationship; a prospect recognised as being able to make an outstanding contribution from the outset and cultivated over many years. The renaming of the Cottesloe to the Dorfman wouldn’t have been worth £10,000,000 to the family if they hadn’t believed in the value of the arts and wanted to make a longstanding contribution to an organisation, which had become part of their identities.

So when I hear discussions around major gifts ‘shopping lists’ it makes me extremely nervous. If commercial value is the only frame of reference you are looking through, then don’t expect much value for money. And there are of course some philanthropists who act in this way, as if they are buying up assets; they do of course also tend to be the ones who barter and it’s difficult to maintain a relationship with after the event.  I would also add that the need for retaining a frame of reference beyond the financial not only makes sense in terms of the deep relationship you are establishing, one only has to look to the US to see the issues that the discussions around the taxable nature of the benefits of naming rights are raising to see that this is an avenue which we don’t wish to pursue.

So what if you are a small institution based outside of London, with a limited prospect base? One of my fundraising mantras is: always start with what you know. My colleague, Helen Gaffney, has written an excellent piece for CultureHive on mapping your sphere of influence; How to fund your creative project: network mapping and spheres of influence, so I won’t re-cover that same ground here and will assume that reading this means this is work you have already undertaken. What I will add is that this can mean biting some difficult bullets, getting your Board to embrace their role in fundraising and the entire organisation to understand what it means to be a charity, is also essential. I explore how to do this in more detail in the CultureHive article, Working with Boards; Towards a new Definition of Charity.

Assuming that your advocates are behind you and you have an understanding of their spheres of influence, the next step is to look at your database and ensure that you know who the people who are already engaging directly with you are. This can be done with even a limited resource, through an initial review of matches by a company, such as Prospecting for Gold. Once you understand what your assets are, the next thing is to look at your resources and opportunities. One of the challenges I get satisfaction from in working with non-NPO’s is in helping them to achieve, with less resources. I often find that as a result they are the most creative and forward looking as a result. But they are also required to be the most nimble; the tenants of successful fundraising have to be applied in a sophisticated way. With one charity for example, helping them to secure a particular individual as a Patron will potentially save them years of work in trying to establish relationships, because their advocacy will get them to the table. There is of course rarely any such thing as a real ‘quick win’ in fundraising and the quality of their work and their ability to fulfil and reciprocate partnerships will then be their own responsibility, but it offers a unique opportunity none the less. But what if not only your asset base is limited, but your resource and capacity for investment is as well? Trying to move huge numbers of major gift prospects through a multiple year relationship pipeline may just be unrealistic, if you simply don’t have the resources to invest. I’m always a fan of doing a few things well. It’s essential to weigh up the role of major gift fundraising in the context of your organisational needs and opportunities as a whole in both the short and medium term. If other income sources are at capacity and the need for growth is pressing then you will perhaps look at emphasising this area, but never overlook the fact that major gifts simply can’t be rushed. Managed, through a careful process of dialogue and deepening relationship with an organisation yes, but rush to an ask and the amount will be smaller, it’s as simple as that.

So even if you decide to focus on just a couple of individual prospects, the essential thing is to think carefully about what you can offer that will take them to a place where they are proud of and want to publicly celebrate their association with the organisation. Of course don’t forget, that even if your resources are limited, this is where your supportive Board and Advocates can help. The fundraiser will of course always have to facilitate and manage the process, but their support can make the journey more interesting, richer and deeper.

What others may consider fascinating about your institution may never have occurred to you, never assume that everyone is the same and that a party will cover it for everyone; I found Uri Geller with the meteorites and Damien Hirst with the Head of Fish at the Natural History Museum, individuals I wouldn’t have known to look for in places I wouldn’t have thought to look if the staff hadn’t shared their knowledge the team and I. Although it’s true that I developed the concept of and secured the support of Sir David Attenborough for the eponymously named centre in the Darwin Centre, because there are some things that unite us.

How culture is created, produced, staged, shared and accessed is endlessly fascinating to those who love and appreciate it, but make their living elsewhere. The rehearsal room may be sacred, but just simply standing on the stage can be transformative.  A simple backstage tour given by staff at a regional theatre recently ended up generating so much interest that it evolved into a series of workshops in lighting, sound and set design. The prospects weren’t spending time with glamorous actors, but their appreciation and understanding of the theatre they already loved was deepened by the experience and that fed back into their relationship with the institution. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Caroline McCormick  |  April 2015