New school to teach major-gift fundraising

Chris McLeod
Chris McLeod

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the past 18 months, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and The Choir School at St. Peter’s each received a $50,000 gift, and the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas received a $100,000 challenge gift – all from individuals and unsolicited.

Yet individual givers account for only 7 percent to 23 percent of all giving among Charlotte’s eight largest cultural organizations, compared to nearly 90 percent of all giving throughout the United States to all nonprofits.

“Charlotte nonprofits rely disproportionately on corporate funding,” says Chris McLeod, executive director of The Greater Charlotte Cultural Trust at Foundation for the Carolinas. “There are donors who want to make significant gifts and our nonprofits need to be better prepared on how to engage them, to thank them and to steward them.”

Teaching nonprofit professionals how to secure large gifts – known as “leadership” gifts and representing a significant commitment from a donor that typically is much bigger than an annual gift to a nonprofit — will be the focus of a new initiative that a group of professional fundraisers are launching in Charlotte.

With the first class of 25 students to begin in September and operate as a program of an informal collaborative known as The Institute for Philanthropic Leadership, the new Leadership Gift School will focus on nonprofit leaders in the Charlotte area for at least its first two years but eventually will expand to serve a larger region and then the entire state, says McLeod, founder of the effort.

The school, which aims to raise $100,000 by July 1 and already has raised $82,500 from local companies, family foundations and individuals, will operate for its first three years as a client of Foundation for the Carolinas and then would like to become a program of an area university.

The idea for the school grew out of a series of luncheon conversations in July 2008 between McLeod and Michael Rose, president and CEO of Carolinas HealthCare Foundation.

Prompting the talks, she says, was a recognition that nonprofits in Charlotte depend disproportionately on corporate support, which accounts for only 5 percent of all charitable giving in the United States.

The financial collapse that began in September 2008 and hammered big banks and other local companies simply heightened the urgency to help local nonprofit leaders better understand how to work with donors on big gifts, she says.

Rose, who co-founded the new school with McLeod, says Charlotte nonprofits looking for major-gift fundraising officers have a tough time finding them locally because of a lack of professionals with major-gift expertise.

“What you learn in Charlotte today are events or opportunities to be involved in annual giving,” Rose says

Major-gift fundraising requires “people skills,” he says. “You’ve got to be a people person, a good listener, have good knowledge of your organization, and put the interests of the donor together with the opportunities at the organization.”

The first class of 25 students at the Leadership Gift School, which will be directed by Charlotte-based fundraising consultant Karla Williams, will be selected from 100 nonprofit leaders who were invited to two information sessions May 6 and 19 at the Duke Mansion.

“If we can tap donors’ passions for supporting nonprofits in Charlotte,” says McLeod, “we can significantly increase their capacity to serve the broader community.”

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