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Major Gifts Fundraising With Jimmy LaRose

Major Gifts Fundraising With Jimmy LaRose is excerpted from his industry best-selling book RE-IMAGINING PHILANTHROPY.


Here’s what LaRose has to say about securing 5, 6 & 7 figure gifts:

Hands-down, the most effective form of cash acquisition for nonprofits is MAJOR GIFTS FUNDRAISING.

I’ll make my case by sharing with you a personal story about a friend and major donor Jerry Strickland. Jerry is the patriarch and founder of the Jerry & Linda Strickland Family Foundation. Jerry’s success in the energy business led to the creation of a family foundation directed by his wife, children, grandchildren, and nieces (over twenty family members to date), charged with investing their philanthropy in a manner that creates sustainability for nonprofits.

My first encounter with the Strickland Family began at a Major Gifts Ramp-Up Conference. Here were the players:

Carter Strickland (Philanthropist)
Strickland Family Foundation

Laura Whitaker (Executive Director)
Extra Special People

Aimee Vance (Consultant)
National Development Institute

Major Gifts Fundraising With Jimmy LaRose

During this two-event a young lady in her early twenties walked in,  sat down on the front row, took her “table-tent” out of her conference packet, revealing her name, title, and organization – Laura Whitaker, Executive Director, Extra Special People.

About an hour into the workshop series, she thoughtfully engaged Aimee Vance, one of our veteran faculty members, asking for clarification on some of the big ideas you’ve read about in this book. I was up next, and at the end of my first session (I always ask for comments, questions, and pushback from the audience) Laura inquired,

“So what you’re saying is that I need to prioritize supporting our donors as much as I do the children we serve?”

“Yep, you got it!” I replied.

She thought for a moment, and then said, “I think I’m already doing that.”

I wasn’t going to take her declaration lightly, so I, too, thought about it for a moment, and then asked, “Okay, so what does the phrase ‘prioritize supporting donors’ mean to you?”

She thought about it for a second, and then responded with,

“My name is Laura Whitaker, and I’m the executive director at Extra Special People. We call ourselves ESP for short!”

(I resisted asking how old she was. Executive director? She seemed entirely too young.)

She went on, “We serve our children once a month on ‘Flag Friday’ with a full day of programs for families tackling developmental disabilities. During the summer, we host six weeks of camp for these same families. Otherwise, I spend every week making new friends with community leaders, sharing with them the good news of Extra Special People. The most important part of my job is to ensure everyone knows what we do. What’s even more exciting is I have the privilege of providing new friends meaningful experiences with both our families and kids!”

She summed it up with, “I spend my days speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.”

I looked to the audience and reverentially declared, “Out of the mouths of babes and children…” (Psalms 8:2)

Extra Special People (ESP) was founded years earlier in Athens, GA by Martha Wyllie, who had a passion for children with special needs. She believed young people needed a safe place where their families could focus on their abilities, instead of their disabilities. Martha grew ESP’s program to 130 children, peaking right at $150,000 per year in revenue. She also acquired a small facility, where children could be served on-site. Martha died in 2004, and, of course, because of her passing, ESP was in danger of having to permanently shut its doors due to funding. Laura Whitaker, an eighteen year old ESP volunteer, rose to the occasion, inspiring both ESP families and the Athens community to save this program, raising $50,000 for immediate expenses. Soon after, in a bold move, Martha’s remaining family members appointed Laura to the position of executive director.

(I’ve trained over 10,000 charities in my 25 years. Laura still holds the record for youngest person ever installed to executive director at an established nonprofit.)

Upon Martha’s passing and Laura’s subsequent installation as executive director, the Strickland Family Foundation saw the opportunity to perform a “turnaround!”


Now, back to the Major Gifts Ramp-Up Conference.

Our training events generally last two to three days, so during that time, Laura became fast friends with Aimee Vance. Aimee is an accomplished practitioner, and was one of my first clients in the early 90s. We were both in our twenties back then, and have spent a quarter of a century growing up together in the world of nonprofit management. At some point, we joined forces, and now Aimee assists charities in major gifts fundraising across the U.S. and around the world.

Laura told Aimee, “We need to do Major Gifts Ramp-Up at ESP.” Aimee inquired, “Tell me about your board.”

She replied, “Aww…I love my board. It’s a small one, but each member knows exactly what they’re doing. They work hard, and make sure I have what I need to succeed.”

Aimee followed with, “What can you tell me about your donors?” Laura thought about it for a second, and said, “Well, my biggest donor is also a board member. His name is Carter Strickland.”

Jerry and Linda Strickland’s children, Chip, Carter, Patia, Whitney, and Steve, were all taught the joy of giving from a very young age (long before Jerry accumulated his wealth). Carter serves as a trustee on the Strickland Family Foundation Board, and upon learning about Laura and ESP, brought this project back to the family.

For the record, the Strickland Family Foundation invests in nonprofits…

…whose missions are clear
…whose outcomes are measurable
…who are led by strong administrators
…who are generally smaller in size
…who have great potential

Now, back to Laura.

After the conference, Laura went back to Carter and ESP’s board to overview her Major Gifts Ramp-Up experience. She summed it up by saying, “By the time the conference was over, fundraising finally made sense to me. I now have a plan that will raise the funds we need to make budget this year.”

Carter inquired, “So, what’s your fundraising goal?” She was prepared and shared, “I’ve been working on our “case for support,” and will be asking

the board for approval to increase ESP’s annual income from $190,000 per year to $600,000, while simultaneously launching a $3 million campaign for new facility acquisition and endowment.”

The board collectively gasped. Carter said, “Wow…ok…we’re with you…what kind of support do you need?” Again, Laura was ready, “I’d like to invite Jimmy LaRose and Aimee Vance from National Development Institute to meet with you. I think now’s the right time for all of us to figure out how we can make Major Gifts Ramp-Up work here in Athens.”

Two weeks later, Aimee, Laura, Carter, the ESP Board, and I gathered for an evening to explore ESP’s future and the Major Gifts Ramp-Up model.

I started with, “Here’s the good news. First, Laura is already spending a significant portion of her time building capacity. If she’s going to increase annual fund, underwrite facilities, and build endowment, she’ll have to remain in that mode. Second, Laura is a strong executive director, with a vision to grow ESP in a community that enjoys her. Simply put, people love Laura. Third, she feels supported by you, her board members, which has made her fearless as to what she thinks she can accomplish.”

One member commented with a smile, “Well, we already knew that.”

I replied, “Here’s the better news. Laura’s commitment to build capacity, combined with her relational skills plus your support, will ensure we reach goal!”

Another member queried, “What goal are you talking about?”

I replied, “Laura’s bold fundraising goal, that increases ESP’s annual fund by 220%, plus $3 million for one-time projects and endowment!”

He replied with a smile, “Oh yeah…that goal.”

He then said, “$3 million dollars is a lot of money for a nonprofit with an annual budget of $190,000. Shouldn’t we do a feasibility study first?”

I replied, “Well, we could, but all we’ll discover is that the community doesn’t know us well enough to offer any real opinions. We’ll end up spending a lot of money to find out what we already know…we’re not ready. That’s why we do Major Gifts Ramp-Up.”

To my relief, the group collectively murmured in agreement.

Carter then graciously shared, “The Strickland Family Foundation will underwrite the costs of National Development Institute’s Major Gift Ramp-Up Campaign Program. Let’s provide Laura the support she needs to tackle this thing.”

A few weeks later, Carter shared Laura’s progress with his family. Jerry considered Carter’s report, and began making plans to give ESP his largest gift ever. He believed what Laura really needed was a salary increase, additional administrative help, and health insurance for all ESP employees. He agreed to monitor Laura and Aimee’s progress with Major Gifts Ramp-Up, and if they met certain financial benchmarks, he would further insure their success by investing in ESP’s overhead.

Laura and Aimee went to work implementing Major Gifts Ramp-Up’s thirteen steps. Here’s a brief overview of the capacity building program Carter and the Strickland Foundation underwrote on behalf of ESP:

Major Gifts Fundraising – Cash For Nonprofits


Step #1 Management Philosophy (Planning)

They decided that Laura was a STRONG CEO, and would continue to set aside the majority of her time to BUILD CAPACITY. They re-purposed her workflow by creating multiple weekly “task maps,” based on the responsibilities outlined in the Major Gifts Ramp-Up Model.

Step #2 Major Gifts Fundraising (Planning)

They made a decision not to be distracted by low-yield fundraising events, direct mail, or phone campaigns. They established a DONOR-DRIVEN philosophy of fundraising, ensuring that supporters and volunteers became fully integrated into ESP’s mission. They determined that Major Gifts fundraising would provide the highest return, in the shortest period of time possible, at the lowest cost.

Step #3 Organizational Development (Planning)

They audited all aspects of ESP’s programs, including operations, leadership, environment, technology, and staff. Based on this information, a multi-year annual fund goal, a one-time project goal, and an endowment goal were determined. Goal amounts were based on actual needs and costs identified during the audit process.

Step #4 Case for Support (Planning)

They believed that money “chases after ideas,” and that there would always be generous people who would amply support ESP’s great dream, if it was backed by a sound plan. They expressed these “ideas” and the costs to implement them in a written Case for Support document. The financials in this collateral were backed by the data gathered during the organizational development process.

Step #5 Advancement Calendar (Planning)

They created step-by-step “task maps” containing hundreds of assignments which, when executed in order and on time, would ensure campaign success. The series of responsibilities spanned eighteen months, and were assigned to the executive director, consultant, and campaign cabinet members.

Step #6 Prospect Identification (Building)

Using the online prospect research tool, DonorScope, they downloaded complete contact information for major donors who lived within the service footprint of ESP and had a net worth of $1 million plus. They then appended publically held wealth and financial information to each family in the ESP database file. Finally, they compiled lists of known community champions who could join the campaign.

Step #7 Awareness Event (Building)

ESP then hosted a creative non-fundraising awareness event to introduce the Case for Support to newly identified campaign prospects. The purpose of this luncheon was two-fold. First, it creatively invited the “RIGHT PROSPECTS” to learn about ESP. Second, it encouraged “EXISTING SUPPORTERS” to become more involved. Over 200 of the right people attended and learned about ESP’s Case for Support for the very first time.

Step #8 Prospect Cultivation (Building)

Individual Plans of Care (IPOC) were written, consisting of multiple points of contact that intentionally moved each prospect into greater involvement with ESP. Customized “Ask” objectives were determined, and each prospect was invited to join ESP in a way that worked for them.

Step #9 Signature Ask Event (Building)

The “ask event” accomplished three objectives. First, it provided an opportunity to meet more major donor prospects using the “table host” banquet model. Second, it further raised the level of visibility of ESP in the community early in the campaign. Third, it raised smaller short-term monies, allowing major donors to make a first “token” gift in advance of their later greater major gift.

Step #10 Campaign Cabinet (Inviting)

They now had an adequate number of fully cultivated prospects they could approach to join the campaign cabinet. These veteran fundraisers each made a significant gift and committed to giving six months of their time to making multiple solicitations, inviting their peers to join ESP’s family of donors. They created a gift-range chart, and then agreed to perform five solicitations per cabinet member. The campaign cabinet determined that the top gift would be in the range of 20% of the goal. An additional ten commitments, including the first one, would be as much as 50% to 60% of goal. Finally, another 30 gifts would equal as much as 30% of goal.

Step #11 Campaign Interviews (Inviting)

As a result of the previous awareness event and signature ask event, the campaign cabinet was able to choose from a list of over 100 fully cultivated families who had already been introduced to ESP’s Case for Support. Appointments were set by staff and cabinet members with each family, to explore how they could be financially involved in the campaign.

Step #12 Three Part Ask (Inviting)

During the campaign interview process, cabinet members invited each family to consider a small multi-year annual fund gift, a one-time project stretch gift, and an endowment gift through their estate plan. Because cabinet members had already made their own financial commitment and had built proper relationships with each prospect, cabinet members invited each family to make their best gift ever to this campaign.

Step #13 Campaign Success (Inviting)

ESP’s “Dream Build Campaign”…

…came in over goal
…was completed on time
…was executed under budget
…resulted in happy volunteers
…produce grateful donors
…promoted community pride

Here’s where they ended up:

Laura, Aimee, Carter, Jerry, ESP’s board, and generous Georgia donors gave families with developmental disabilities the gift of new facilities, expanded programs, and additional staff. Upon completion, ESP’s “Dream Build Campaign” raised $3 Million dollars for one-time capital projects, and increased ESP’s annual income to over $650,000 per year.

It’s important to note that Aimee Vance emphatically states, to this day, that Laura Whitaker, a STRONG CEO, was the key to ESP’s campaign. Aimee insists, “If your campaign doesn’t have a Laura…your campaign will fail.”

Now, back to the Strickland Family.

Here you have a group of loved ones committed to ensuring others experience life worth living. They understood that they had more to offer than just money, and that the “turnarounds” they performed for energy companies applied to nonprofit organizations as well. They understood the adage money is oxygen and restricted a significant portion of their gifts to capacity-building that led to greater financial sustainability. In the person of Laura Whitaker, they found a strong CEO who trusted her small board to provide support and avoid mismanagement. She believed that donors were as important as causes or people, and invested her time accordingly. She didn’t demoralize her board by insisting that they fundraise, but rather had key board members serve alongside veteran volunteer fundraisers on a separate campaign cabinet that knew what they were doing. The Strickland Family supported Laura in her search for a super consultant, to ensure ESP implemented a donor-centered fundraising plan that meaningfully involved new friends. In hiring Aimee Vance, they avoided the pitfalls of outdated methods and instead implemented a model that built trust relationships with families just like the Strickland’s. Both Carter and Jerry understood that “turnarounds” don’t just happen, and saw Major Gifts Ramp-Up as a plan whose success was based on “intentionality.” Finally, as key milestones were met, Jerry personally gave additional monies to increase salaries, secure additional support staff, and provide health care benefits for all employees.

These “big ideas” revealed themselves over a period of weeks and months because Laura committed to building capacity. She went ahead and launched a Major Gifts Ramp-Up Campaign.

It reminds me of something Thomas Jefferson once said, “I’m a firm believer in luck and the harder I work the more I seem to have of it!”

In closing, major gifts fundraising generates cash in the shortest period time possible, with the least amount of expense while providing the highest return on investment.

Simply put, the most effective form of cash acquisition for nonprofits is MAJOR GIFTS FUNDRAISING.


Major Gifts Fundraising With Jimmy LaRose was first posted at INSIDE CHARITY

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