Discovering the Major Donors Next Door | Sharpe Group
Posted June 1st, 2002

Discovering the Major Donors Next Door

Most experienced fundraisers are familiar with the classic “funding pyramid,” which indicates that the majority of gift totals will typically come from a relatively small number of contributions. This tends to be true regardless of the scale of the fund development effort. It has also been well established that most charitable gifts each year come from individuals, or their estates.

Despite this wisdom, the planned and major gift development environment today is much different than it was even just a few years ago. During the late 1990s, many individuals were enjoying the “wealth effect” of a booming economy and were willing to share a portion of their new-found wealth with a favorite cause or organization. Likewise, estate gifts grew with rising real estate and stock values.

Today, much of the wealth that was created in the 1990s still exists, but the prospect for future growth is uncertain, and many Americans feel less wealthy than they did in the past. A number of donors who surfaced with new fortunes who could easily make transformational gifts in the 1990s have now significantly reduced their level of philanthropic activity.

As a result, increasing numbers of nonprofit organizations are now beginning to restructure their efforts along the lines of more traditional fundraising models. Among other changes, many charities are making renewed efforts to effectively communicate their message to their constituents in the hopes of uncovering those donors who have untapped capacity and are not making gifts in keeping with their full potential. Unfortunately, many of these persons are hidden in existing donor bases and are not easily identifiable through behavior or electronic screening methods that have gained popularity in recent years.

Revisiting the millionaire next door

The 1996 bestseller by Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D., and William D. Danko, Ph.D., is as instructive today as it was six years ago. Stanley and Danko surprised many readers with their characterization of America’s millionaires. Instead of being high profile big spenders, most millionaires in this country are low profile individuals who accumulated wealth as a result of hard work, diligent saving, and living below their means. According to The Millionaire Next Door, these persons are more likely to wear a Timex than a Rolex; drive a used Mercury than a new Mercedes; and prefer JC Penney to Brooks Brothers. They are seven times more likely to have a Sears Card than an American Express Platinum Card. Approximately 80% of American millionaires have accumulated their wealth in one generation.

While there are millions of millionaires and others with high incomes, the process of locating them in your donor base can be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. Because of their thrifty habits, many wealthy donors simply do not show up in popular databases comprised of persons who have demonstrated purchase and other behavior that indicates wealth. And it is rarely effective to merely rent lists of persons known to be wealthy and hope that you can interest them in a gift.

Plan for success

So, how do you find these millionaires next door? Begin by focusing on your existing constituency. Certainly continue to segment out your top contributors and prospective donors for individual cultivation and solicitation. Remember, however, that this method can only reach those persons that you have clearly identified as having the capability to make large gifts based on previous gifts, prospect research, or rating sessions. This is the easy part—you already know who these people are.

Once you’ve hit the high spots, it’s time to develop a strategy for locating the other “needles in the haystack.” After you have looked around in the haystack and found all the needles you can see, consider using some “magnets” to see if you can find others who will reveal themselves.

Think about adding a brochure on tax-wise methods of giving to your broad appeals this fall. The payoff may be tremendous—one gift of appreciated stock from a “millionaire next door” who is currently giving cash at modest levels may make the difference between a successful year and an outstanding one. Similar information may also be included with every gift acknowledgment between now and year’s end.

Also, if you are planning to have a phone-a-thon this fall, consider adding a line to your script about the advantages of gifts of appreciated property. Insert a brochure or booklet on creative ways to give securities and other property with any follow-up materials you send to help surface new major donors from among the mass of regular contributors.

What about planned giving?

It is important to occasionally include subtle messages about planned giving as part of your regular gift appeals. A certain number of those among your constituency are making and updating estate plans each year. For this reason, it is important to provide opportunities for donors to tell you of their plans on a regular basis.

It is also critical to emphasize bequests, the mainstay of many development programs. You may want to occasionally send a relatively broad-based bequest marketing mailing to all donors over the age of 50. While 50 may seem young, a recent NCPG study indicated that, on average, donors include charities in their wills for the first time at the age of 49. According to the study, charities were the donors’ number one source of bequest information, so taking the time now to communicate with your donors may pay off in the long run.

Identifying younger bequest expectancies and prospects may yield surprising benefits in the form of additional major or planned gifts. During the follow-up process you may discover that these highly motivated individuals are in a position to make major outright gifts.

In some cases, other planned giving arrangements may be more appropriate. Consider, for example, the millions of older persons who have seen their income from investments shrink as dividend and interest rates fall. These donors may be interested in “accelerating” a bequest provision through a life income gift that results in increased current cash flow, generates income tax savings, and helps provide freedom from investment decisions, all while gaining the satisfaction of making a charitable gift.

Don’t forget that many donors act on their own to create charitable trusts with the aid and encouragement of their financial advisors. Your remainder interest will often be revocable in these cases, so it is important to give these persons frequent opportunities to inform you that they have included you in their plans. Discovering and acknowledging these gifts can lead to deeper relationships and to more permanent gift provisions.

The plans that you make this summer may make a significant difference in the number of planned and major gifts that are completed between now and year’s end. Finding the millionaires next door in your donor base may take some extra time and added effort on your part, but the benefits will likely be well worth the effort.

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Sharpe Insights may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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