September 5, 2023

I Was Wrong about Windfall & Unsolicited Major Gifts

For years, I attributed mega and unsolicited major gifts to luck. I told clients, “If you build your nonprofit’s quality, eventually you receive windfall gifts. Let’s hope that they come in your tenure.”

I’m glad I was wrong.

And here’s why you might be, too. It turns out that these gifts, the eighth nonprofit revenue stream, are not lotteries—that is, rare events that are an unpredictable gamble.

Instead, they stem partly from actions that healthy nonprofits do and that others can replicate.

And that’s good news for nonprofit CEOs running worthy organizations. Sporadic windfalls (10x or more what they’d consider a major gift) and unsolicited major gifts brighten the way and bolster—sometimes in a big way—nonprofit work.

Without such gifts and grants, nonprofit work can breed burnout.

Perhaps you are also discouraged by the slow progress of solving significant challenges with few resources. If yes, you’re not alone.

What would a mega, unsolicited major gifts, and more donations or grants from unexpected quarters mean for your work?

For most nonprofit leaders—a lot.

First, there is the money and the solutions you’d buy. Even more critical, in hindsight, would be the recognition and the momentum such gifts would herald.

The Backstory

We all treasure and tell stories of windfall and unsolicited major gifts and grants. And for years, we accepted that this income was beyond our control. You had to stand in the right place, at the right time, with the right mission to get them.

And no one knew how to get there.

Unsolicited major and mega gifts were the nonprofit lottery.

What Changed?

New data.

Yield Giving shared a list of the Makenzie Scott grants. This data, plus my list of windfall and unsolicited gifts from clients and friends, allowed me to explore unsolicited gifts and donations from a new viewpoint.

Curious, I created a database of nonprofits that received these gifts from multiple sources. Some sources were unexpected calls from local community foundations or government entities asking if the nonprofit could expend funds. Others were calls, emails, and letters from individuals, lawyers, or financial advisors about possible contributions, etc. Some gifts and grants were publicly celebrated; many were private. Often, there was little information about the donor or funder, even after funding.

I analyzed the data for commonalities between these nonprofits, their leadership, and their work.

It was then that I realized I’d been wrong. The story we’ve told ourselves about these gifts is just a story.

Yes, nonprofits who get unsolicited mega and major gifts are at the right place at the right time doing exemplary work, but it’s more than that. And that made me stop in my tracks.

Eureka! A Pattern

A pattern emerged. The funded nonprofits shared many characteristics. Not only were they worthy, that is, doing good work, like so many other nonprofits– they had their stuff together, a process that begins internally and, over time, spills out externally, so much so that not only do you talk about it, others do too.

Specifically, the “lucky” nonprofits identified by funders or donors found to be investment-worthy scored high on at least the following characteristics.

  • Laser clear mission, vision, and values
  •  Smart, logical, sensible strategies that lead toward your vision and include potentially sustainable funding
  •  Standout executive leadership (See What’s the Most Valuable Work Nonprofit Execs Do? for one must.)
  •  Quality, scalable, staff-lead processes that generated

— Mission (no surprise!)

— Community relationships and visibility

— Solid business functions

  •  Active work to build mission-delivering capacity

These are big categories, and the high scores reflect what made the gift recipients the “obvious choice” when the time, place, and the mission were on target.

What Do You Think about Your Nonprofit?

As you read this list, you might say, “Yup, that’s us.”

Stop. Breathe—double-check.

If your nonprofit was in five police lineups, would you be picked out for exhibiting each one of these characteristics?

The Takeaway

No matter how you measure up or don’t—your current state is less important than the fact that you have a role in getting unsolicited major gifts. Besides fundraising activities, nonprofits that want unsolicited major gifts must ensure they have their stuff together.

 You are worthy.

 But—are you competitive?

How are you helping donors and funders who want to invest in your mission to find you?

And when they do, how do others and you show them you’re worthy of an investment—without them ever talking with you?

Please share your comments below.

What’s Next

You don’t have to figure this out by yourself.

For nonprofits that qualify, we offer Quick Impressions Analysis and Careful Look (as part of our advising service.)

Follow this link to discover more about mega and unsolicited major gifts.

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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