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12 July 2017

How the other half give: working with charity's biggest donorsHow do you get a mega-gift donor to give to your charity? It’s all about the personal touch, according to industry sources.

While all types of fundraising require certain skills and personal attributes, there is a certain art to major donor – or mega-gift – fundraising. And as the UK’s wealthiest people gave away a record £3.2bn to charitable causes in the past 12 months, according to the Sunday Times’ annual Giving List – an increase of 20% on last year, it’s an art that charities would do well to learn to do right.

When Amy Swart, now head of fundraising at Fight For Peace, was working as a fundraiser with the NSPCC, she began working with a donor who was already giving large amounts. Over a period of nearly four years, she built a strong relationship with him and her hard work came to fruition with a multi-million-pound mega-gift at the end of the process.

Swart met him regularly and over time, began to tease out his story and learn what made him tick. She says: “I started to realise what he really wanted to support and what really connected him most with the organisation, which we had never really uncovered before.”

“I found out more about his family and his background and discovered there was one particular project that was really going to tick a lot of boxes for him and make him really passionate as he felt he could make a real impact.”

The donor eventually told Swart that he wanted to donate £900,000 over five years. “I was a bit disappointed as I had thought it would be a bit more until I realised he meant £900,000 a year for five years, which ended up being £4.5m. It was one of those moments where you say: ‘Wait, what did you say?’”

Patience is crucial in building relationships like Swarts with her donor. There is also always the risk he would have pulled out and chosen not to donate at all. “For me what kept me motivated, was how important his philanthropy was to him. It was part of his personality and what made him feel positive about life … He was an amazing guy. He really cared and I wanted to help him realise his philanthropic ambitions. Fundraising isn’t just about getting money from people.”

This personalised approach is certainly backed up by evidence. Beth Breeze, director of the centre for philanthropy at the University of Kent, spent a year talking to rich donors about their philanthropy for her book Richer Lives: Why Rich People Give, co-authored with Theresa Lloyd. One of the crucial things she learned was that major donors told her that, first and foremost, they want to be engaged with as a person.

“Major donors need a tailored, personalised approach and they appreciate opportunities to get involved. Donors also change, at first, they might prefer to meet the charity’s chief executive but over time they might prefer to spend time with front-line staff or other donors who share their interests. So it’s a moving target as to what’s expected of fundraisers.”

So what makes a good major donor fundraiser? Finely tuned people skills, high emotional intelligence, and strong research skills, Breeze says.

Finally, it’s important to say a proper thank you. She says: “Fundraisers should be careful to present options that suit each donor – whether that’s seeing their name on a building or a handmade card from the charity’s beneficiaries.”

Mega-gifts in numbers

  • £1.83bn – total value of donations worth £1m+ in 2015
  • 355 – total number of donations of £1m+
  •  47% gave between £2m and £9.9m
  • £2.5m – the average mega-gift donation 
  • £60.75m – the largest single donation, made by Lord Sainsbury to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation
  • 71% of the total value of donations came from London
  • There were 267 distinct recipients of £1m+ gifts, up from 243 in 2014
  • Higher education received £639m; arts and cultural groups £135m, and environmental/animal groups £14m

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