A Galvanizing Vision: The Key to Principal Gifts

Issues matter more than ever. That’s the takeaway from a recent study of affluent households’ giving behaviors. The survey found that 44% of affluent donors last year said their giving was driven by the issues that organizations address. That was a marked 13 percentage point jump from 2017. The increase was even more pronounced among younger donors.

Those results make clear the need for institutional leaders to find ways to develop and share a clear, galvanizing vision that can convince donors why they should give to their cause given all the other needs that are out there. That starts with developing messaging that takes a “big picture” perspective that maps out how and why the project can make a clear difference in the world.

While all institutions should pay heed to these trends, the need to develop compelling issue-based messaging and proposals is particularly important for institutions such as R2 universities that may not have a long history of big picture projects or principal gifts. That was evident in a recent survey of R2 universities conducted by GG+A that found 57% of respondents cited “attracting principal gifts” as one of their primary challenges. Those gifts are critically important to their overall success given that 60% to 65% of contemporary campaign totals stem from gifts of $1 million or more.

That’s why I regularly put the institutions I work with to the test by telling them to imagine that a donor could give a $10 million gift tomorrow—if they are convinced that their money will be used well. Then I ask, “How do you explain where, and how, that money could produce a pronounced impact that’s also realistic?” That second part is important because every big picture project needs to make sense for their organization, in both scale and focus.

The importance of storytelling

Storytelling has always been an important part of a fundraiser’s work as it is an important way of helping donors understand the impact of their gifts.

My colleagues and I know that principal gift donors want to fund “big ideas” centered on a compelling vision that arises from institutional and academic leaders working together to solve or address challenges. After all, the ultra-wealthy are regularly solicited for gifts so institutions must develop a strong narrative to stand out.

Let’s say you were given two proposals. The first maps out plans to build a building at the corner of 5th and Green Street with various details about the building and its amenities. The second details how a donor’s funds could provide the means to develop a facility that will foster cross-disciplinary collaborations between the school of social work, psychology department, and education departments to energize and inspire the next generation of learners. The proposals highlight the same project but there’s little question that the donor would be far more likely to find the latter proposal appealing given the impact that the project will make in the lives of children.

You’re competing with every other important cause, so it is critical to develop a persuasive reason your institution’s mission/project/initiative is important. At the same time, institutions have to be sure that their big idea or galvanizing vision is grounded in reality and reflects or expresses institutional vision, mission, and values to ensure it can realize success.

Selling the galvanizing vision

While institutional leaders should be the ones to develop a “big picture” vision, fundraisers need to pressure-test those ideas. That begins with developing a quick pitch for the project.

We often work with institutional leaders and fundraisers to help them convey the importance of a project in a quick soundbite. I might ask, “What would you say if you have 30 seconds to get a 30-minute meeting about the project?” Their response enables us to assess whether they’re speaking in plain, easy-to-understand language and avoiding getting bogged down in the details. It also helps us understand how to distinguish what makes this project—and this institution—uniquely able to address the challenge.

Once fundraisers feel comfortable with their 30-second pitch, we suggest they take it out into the world and see how it plays. That can be as simple as asking their family and friends to listen to their pitch and provide feedback. By evaluating how the pitch is perceived, fundraisers can fine-tune their messaging to ensure it hits the right notes.

Painting a compelling vision is challenging. But it is more important than ever for institutions looking to attract principal gifts.


If you need help developing principal gift proposals for your institution, contact Eric Snoek at esnoek@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Eric Snoek

Senior Vice President

Eric Snoek, Senior Vice President, brings to the firm more than 30 years of development and advancement experience within higher education and independent educational institutions. He has extensive experience in individual giving, advancement planning and management, capital campaigns and campaign planning, training development staff and board members, engagement programs, stewardship…