February 11, 2022

Finding Major Gifts that Change the World

In four years, would you like to–

  • Grow your six-figure donors by 30 percent?
  • Develop an event that attracts 75,000 people?
  • Earn 50 percent more from foundations such as Carnegie, Gates, Rockefeller, and MacArthur?

While this article can’t promise you that, it shares how the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) achieved these feats. It outlines six elements your nonprofit can use to stimulate major gift success and provides a major gift recipe.

NYSCI changes how we help children learn by creating educational models for STEM topics, including science, technology, engineering, and math. Their STEM-based learning models engage children in a fun, play, and excitement to facilitate deeper learning of content.

Hosting nearly a half-million visitors per year, NYSCI was built for the 1964 World’s Fair. The site offers visitors 450 interactive STEM exhibits and more. Dr. Margaret Honey, NYSCI President and CEO lead the effort to “use the informal environment of the science museum as a laboratory to innovate new models for science teaching and learning both in and out of the classroom.” NYSCI generates significant income by offering funding partners a chance to help them create, test, and distribute these models.

What’s the Appeal?  

1. Recognized Challenge. 

The work of NYSCI responds to a national challenge to improve STEM education.

You: Even if your nonprofit doesn’t work on a nationally recognized challenge, it solves problems.   To create partnerships like those enjoyed by NYSCI, design a solution to solve or significantly improve that problem long-term.

2. Value.

Given their history and the groundswell of interest in STEM, some of NYSCI funding requests would have succeeded. Their overwhelming success suggests a more compelling value. What is it? Their approach engages learners creating delight.

For example, ratios are a critical STEM concept. Traditionally, teachers use word problems to teach them. And they confound many middle school youth.

During my pre-COVID visit to NYSCI, Peggy Monahan, Exhibit Projects Creative Director, demonstrated the first tool in a suite of digital noticing tools. Using a specially designed iPad application, she created a picture of a giant foot stomping me. Using another prop, a paper-doll-like pair of pants on a stick, Peggy shot a digital image of me wearing clown pants with my business jacket. To make the images, she used ratios, so the pants were sized right.

Now that you’ve imagined me in clown pants imagine young teens making silly pictures using ratios. Now conjure up donors and foundation staff playing with the tools during on-site visits.

You: Design your proposals to generate interest and, as appropriate, play. Play fosters learner engagement. Think unique, fresh, and engaging. For another example of creating appealing proposals, read Sesame Street’s service to military families here. For more on how to identify your value, check out Does Your Nonprofit’s Value Standout?

3. Experience. 

New York City families have plenty of museums and excursion options. To remain open for 50 years, NYSCI mastered engaging visitors. “Our visitors vote with their feet,” said Dr. Margaret Honey. NYSCI has extensive experience sharing STEM skills with joy—when the experience is elective. Traditional educators can’t make the same claim.

You: Build your expertise into your solutions. Ask and answer why you are the logical choice for your funding partnerships.

4. Leverage. 

What happens at NYSCI doesn’t stay at NYSCI. NYSCI uses its physical site as a learning incubator. NYSCI designs its tools for classroom use and partners with teachers and other educators in the work. NYSCI seeks to reach classrooms nationwide.

You: To inspire partnerships like NYSCI, design proposals to start at your site and evolve everywhere.

5. Location, Location, Location. 

Yes, NYSCI is located in New York City, close to a subway line with easy access to millions. However, it is  Queens location, not Manhattan. However, Queens is one of the nation’s most diverse communities. Their site means that they can test their ideas with children who reflect America’s growing diversity.

You: As you seek partnerships with foundations or individuals to create an extraordinary impact, you’ll probably moan about some aspect of your location. Turn this around until you find your advantage.

6. A Culture of Yes.

The NYSCI said yes to my request for an interview about nonprofit income. Not everyone does.

You: To create partnerships, create a culture of “yes.” A culture of yes is subtle but critical. To succeed, especially with fiscal partners,  balance your needs with their needs but endeavor to say yes a lot. Partnerships require openness.

The world you want to change may be as significant as STEM education in America. It might be midsize or tiny. Whatever your challenge to grow your impact and obtain income, use the six NYSCI elements. Apply them to get individual donors, sponsors, and foundations excited about your work.

For more windfall and major gift insights, explore Karen’s Nonprofit CEO Library.

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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