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Nonprofit leaders study major gifts

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Chris McLeod

Chris McLeod

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte is taking a more targeted approach to fundraising than it has in the past.

The organization will be working with the members of its board of directors to help them get more involved in talking to individual donors about developing a deeper relationship with the organization.

For the first time, the board soon will include a member whose role will be to chair an effort to develop major gifts.

And Bruce LaRowe, the group’s executive director, will be working even more closely than he has in in the past with the nonprofit’s development director on fundraising planning and strategy, and will be more actively involved in talking to prospective donors.

“It’s a matter of an acknowledgement that an intentional focus of effort and time needs to be spent on this task as an executive director,” LaRowe says.

His new appreciation for the investment required in fundraising, he says, is the result of his participation in the inaugural class of the Leadership Gift School, a privately-funded effort to develop the philanthropic culture of nonprofits and the community.

The first class, which just graduated and included teams of executive directors and development directors from 12 nonprofits, plus the chief fundraiser at United Way of Central Carolinas, met for 8½ hours roughly once a month for eight months.

Led by Karla Williams, a national fundraising consultant based in Charlotte, the school’s faculty consisted of development directors at local nonprofits.

Local donors spoke at five of the eight sessions, and for part of one of the sessions, the executive directors and development directors broke into separate groups and talked with their peers.

The idea of teaming executive directors and their development directors for the class was the “secret sauce,” says Chris McLeod, co-founder of the school and executive director of the Greater Charlotte Cultural Trust.

“You get them on the same page, and the executive directors understand their role as a leader in development,” she says. “That was a huge epiphany for several executive directors.”

A second key element in the program, she says, was the opportunity for class participants to work over an eight-month period with Williams, who in addition to teaching the classes played a role akin to a consultant with the two-person team from each nonprofit.

At the first class, for example, Williams asked each team to identify its organization’s top 25 prospects for major gifts.

Then, over the eight-month course, she regularly checked in with each team about the progress it was making with those prospects, providing advice on how to move the prospect towards a gift and “troubleshooting” any snags, McLeod says.

Laurie Schwartz, development director at A Child’s Place, a nonprofit that works in the schools and with parents to boost the education of homeless children, says lessons and advice she and her executive director received from the class helped her organization raise $100,000 through several major gifts.

Particularly helpful, she says, were the ongoing support from Williams and McLeod, and the ability to connect with and learn from peers.

The Leadership Gift School now is accepting applications for its second class and plans over the next three to five years to try to recruit participants from throughout North Carolina and the Southeast.

A key to major-gift fundraising, McLeod says, is getting a nonprofit’s staff leaders and board involved in conversations with donors, and “enrolling our donors in the solution to social issues and social challenges and inspiring them to invest in our nonprofit’s approach to addressing those challenges.”

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