Is Your Organization Ready for a Game-Changing Major Gift?

major gift

About 10 years ago, at a retreat I was facilitating, I asked a question.

Imagine for a moment that you received this gift, out of the blue. Like manna from heaven (or a big delicious pancake on your roof). A one time gift of multiple million dollars – maybe 10x the size of your current budget in one check. What choices would you make about your organization and why?

Because boards are financial stewards and risk averse, I qualify and say that the 10x gift is a net gift after all outstanding debts are paid and a reserve to be proud of is built and secured.

A fantastical question, to be sure, designed to elicit some deep generative thinking. A level of thinking that engages a board like almost nothing else.

It’s a question I pose all the time to move organizations from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance.

I need to digress for a minute about manna from heaven. I just did some research and I learned something new. The biblical verse references some kind of sustenance that the Israelites turned into cakes. I always thought it came from the sky but I believe the Bible shows it on the ground. I’ll admit to a certain disappointment about this – one of my favorite kids books that I read to our kids all the time was Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. I always found deep religious significance when the gigantic pancake fell from the sky and landed on the boy’s roof.

You know who has a helluva manna recipe? MacKenzie Scott does. $12 billion dollars across 1,257 organizations. And that was over a month ago, so maybe even more by now.

And I’ve been asking myself. Are these organizations ready for gifts of several hundred million dollars? What does “ready” even look like?

This is not a blog post about getting ready for MacKenzie to come a-callin’. That said, she does appear to be on a roll.

This is about the conversation I want every single organization to have centered around this question:

What would a game changing gift to our organization make possible?

And I have a guide for how to have that very conversation. Read on friends.

WHAT’S THE POINT? IT’S NOT LIKE THIS WILL EVER HAPPEN TO US…

I can see thought balloons (it’s a special talent of mine). Here’s what I see above your head:

“We don’t even have a major gift program and we have like 23 followers on Instagram. We just need to keep our head down, invest in the programs we can afford and have the most impact we can. Thinking about this is just folly.”

NOOOOOOOOOO. There is no folly ever in thinking with your aspirational hat on. In fact, I argue that it is key to having a robust major gift program and more than 23 Instagram followers. People who care about your cause want and need aspiration. They want a clear picture of a bold destination and they want to be asked to be a part of the journey to get there.

INTERESTING IDEA, BUT WHY NOT SAVE THAT FOR A BOARD RETREAT?

Many of you know that there are three levels (altitudes) of governance for a nonprofit board:

  1. Fiduciary (on the tarmac, making sure nothing goes wrong)
  2. Strategic (10,000 foot view, problem solving)
  3. Generative (cruising altitude – imagining what is possible)

Most boards live in fiduciary land. They take the word ‘oversight’ literally and think the role is to make sure that nothing goes wrong. That work seems to take so much time.

But here’s something you should know. Living on the tarmac is the root cause of disengaged boards.

Well-recruited board members bring a diversity of skills, attributes, life experiences and expertise. You don’t get to use ‘em on the tarmac. You have to be at cruising altitude.

So not only is the manna conversation critical externally, it also fuels your team – board and staff. And a fueled board member, excited about what is possible, is your very best ambassador.

STRATEGIC PLANNING FOR MAJOR GIFTS

I promised a guide to having the conversation and here we are …

STOP: You must stop and make time for this conversation. It is critical to an engaged board and a thriving nonprofit.

DROP: Enough already with board meetings chock full of financial statements and event planning. If a board meeting keeps the organization on the tarmac, it will never take flight. (Check out this post to learn more about how to have better board meetings.)

ROLL: Now let’s really get some great conversation going using some provocative questions.

Tell your board and staff that over the next few months you are going to engage in generative discussions at every board meeting with prompts designed to get a reaction.

These prompts will lead to questions, info you need to gather about your community, your sector, how your organization is perceived. People will be excited to do this learning and you can then create a working group led by board members with staff (not the other way around).

Some organizations hear “strategic planning” and they think “necessity” and they think “time suck.” But this my friends is strategy work – the best kind.

So if the phrase connotes something that does not generate excitement, call it Project MacKenzie or better yet, “The Manna Project”.

Here are some prompts I like for this “Roll” phase.

  • You had no idea you were in Yolanda’s will. You just heard that you will get a 10X gift (as described above). You can expect the check in 9 months. What will this gift make possible? (Remember, Yolanda’s gift is net of paying off all your bills and building a reserve.)
  • As we consider that first question, let’s also ask ourselves about our core identity to make sure we are on the mark. If our org was eliminated from the hard drive of society what gap would there be and who would fill it?
  • Push the group beyond, “Let’s do more of the same.” Ask folks to dig deep and consider the organization’s super powers (strengths) – what do you do really really well? Answer that question broadly – not just impact but maybe you are a fantastic collaborator for example. Think broadly about what you do well. Don’t be satisfied with, “Let’s just do a ton more of that.”
  • Do not be constrained by current reality. Maybe you are an animal rescue organization and someone says, “I learned that the #1 reason women don’t leave violent relationships is that they don’t want to leave their pets. Could we do a joint venture and build a campus with a domestic violence shelter where women can bring their pets?” No idea is too bold to at least explore. There will be plenty of time to shoot holes in the ideas. But this process of generating ideas will be invigorating and no buckets of cold water can be anywhere near the conversation.

I can make no guarantees that Ms. Scott will come a-callin’. But even if she never does, her game changing philanthropy presents each and every nonprofit with such an opportunity – the gift to imagine what is possible and to engage your organization in a process to explore that and plan for a very bold future.

And that in and of itself can be game changing for your organization and all those you serve.

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