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Major giving: Adapting to tough times

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Ret Boney and Todd Cohen

The market volatility of the last few years has meant shrinking portfolios for wealthy donors, while ever-changing estate-tax laws have created a high degree of uncertainty about wealth.

So it is not surprising that the American Diabetes Association is focusing new energy on major giving this year.

“We’re seeing a lot of people putting decisions off,” says Vaneeda Bennett, executive vice president for development for the association. “They’re being more cautious. They’re saying ‘the answer’s not no, just not now.'”

Donor adjustment

The jolt donors have received during the recession is causing them to have to relearn how to give, and how much to give, Bennett says.

To make that transition easier, and to keep the Diabetes Association in the forefront of donors’ minds, the case statement is more important than ever, she says.

“Your case for support must be clear and tested so it resonates with your prospects,” she says.

The case statement this year is different, taking the organization’s broad mission and turning it into a succinct and focused pitch for major-gift donors, an approach Bennett says is testing well so far.

The primary pitfall to avoid is rolling out an underdeveloped, untested approach, she says.

“What doesn’t work well is to ask for a gift too soon if there hasn’t been enough of a relationship or cultivation,” says Bennett.

And for those large-gift requests, it’s also important to have involvement from volunteers who themselves have made a significant gift to the organization and who can speak to the particulars of the case statement.

“Where in the past you may have a donor give to several organizations, they now may give a larger gift to one organization,” says Bennett. “We want to be that organization.”

The Diabetes Association also is undertaking what it calls a “mid-level” strategy, with the goal of moving higher-than-average annual donors above the $10,000 major-gift threshold by shifting to more personalized forms of communication.

With that new approach, coupled with the revamped case statement, Bennett is projecting an increase in major-gift income for 2011.

Longevity counts

For the 95-year old Chicago Community Trust, its sheer longevity, bolstered by a positive reputation in the community, is an asset in soliciting major gifts.

“We talk about our history and some of the families who have used us as their vehicle for philanthropy,” says Jaime Phillippe, vice president of development and donor services for the Trust. “That credentials us. And then we talk about our grantmaking in the community and the impact gifts to the Trust have had.”

That strategy has worked well during the recession, landing a $20 million gift to a donor-advised fund at the foundation, plus a few gifts in the $1 million to $3 million range.

And the foundation currently is working with an anonymous donor who is considering a nine-figure gift.

For wealthy donors desiring that type of anonymity, donor-advised funds can be a better option than a family foundation because gifts to family foundations are public information, says Philllippe.

“Sometimes you run across someone who is interested in being philanthropic but they don’t want others to know how much money they have,” she says.

Stewarding major donors

At Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region in Charlotte, N.C., “major” gifts, which total $1,000 or more and are treated as part of the organization’s annual-giving effort, grew 12 percent in 2010 over the previous year.

Key factors in the growth, says Cindy Clark, vice president for development, were increased communication, more involvement by the board of directors, and efforts to build relationships with donors.

The organization, for example, has focused on stewardship in recent years, with the organization acknowledging all gifts within 72 hours, staff members phoning any donor who gives at least $250, and board members either phoning or writing personal notes to anyone who gives $1,000 or more.

And in addition to written and email communications, Hospice looks for opportunities to have “touch points” with donors, whether by phone or personal visits, to share information with them and keep them up to date on the organization.

Moving up donors

At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, each member of the leadership-gifts staff has a caseload of donors and prospects to visit each year.

The eventual goal is to secure larger gifts from “leadership” donors who already have given $5,000, or to secure first-time gifts at that level from prospective donors.

Still, in the face of the troubled economy and in the wake of a campaign that ended in 2009 and raised $293.57 million, staff members are prepared to ask existing leadership donors simply to maintain their level of annual giving.

But the visits are just as important, if not more so, because they provide a chance to cultivate relationships with donors.

“It’s an opportunity for them to talk to us and for us to tell them about our situation and what’s happening at the college,” says Randy Shaw, Bowdoin’s vice president for development and alumni relations. “That’s valuable input, so in the next campaign, we know what’s on people’s minds.”

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