November 1, 2023

When Another Nonprofit Receives “Your” Gift

“We’re bummed. A competitor just received a million dollars from a donor with whom they’ve had no contact. We’ve been seeking a relationship with the same donor for years and got nothing.” 

Perhaps you know this executive, or it’s your story. It hurts to almost receive revenue that would make a vast difference.

Experiences like these shatter your confidence. You know that while they do fine work—your outcomes are just as good as or better than the other entity.

Was it just bad luck? Or something else?


This post invites you to reconsider your assumptions about why some nonprofits receive unsolicited gifts and others don’t. It also introduces you to nonprofit development resisters.

Where We Are

If you want to understand someone doing something that doesn’t make sense to you, ask yourself what the world would have to look like for those actions to make sense. Change your perspective to change what you see. –FS BrainFood

To move from disappointment to agency about missed opportunities, we will change our perspective to change what we see. First, let’s review the conventional fundraising thinking:

  • Nonprofits identify funding streams and execute fundraising plans to raise funds
  • Successful revenue development collects new revenue, donors, and funders.
  • Nonprofits track the gifts and resources and see them as the results of the development team’s work. 

It’s all, more or less, orchestrated by the nonprofit.

Here’s the challenge. Using these assumptions, your competitor wouldn’t receive a million dollars with a donor you’d been courting. The gift would be yours.

To fix this hole, conventional thinking attributes unsolicited gifts to luck or as a byproduct of development efforts.

Let’s change our perspective: What would the world look like for the donor’s actions to make sense? 

Hiding in Plain Site: Nonprofit Development Resisters

Let’s assume a new perspective. From it, we notice that some nonprofit revenue doesn’t flow directly from development efforts. Some of it flows around it, and in some cases, despite it.

Who is the source of this revenue? People and institutions who, for various reasons, duck development efforts. These individuals, foundations, and trusts are serious about giving. They want to do it their way.

What’s important about nonprofit development resisters? They give. They do their own “research.” And, by appearing at your door ready to give, their behavior indicates they seek to control the process.

What’s the proof that development resisters exist?

  • Bequest donors. Only one in seven donors will tell you in advance of their estate plans. 
  • Foundations that don’t accept unsolicited applications. One source shared data found that 26 percent don’t.
  • The 1600+ gifts listed in Yield’s Giving (Makenzie Scott researched investments) and my database of nonprofits that received surprise unsolicited major gifts from all sources.
  • Governments, foundations, and other entities whose ground rules preclude participation. (One foundation president told me, “We don’t spend our donors money going to galas.”)
  • Folks who want you to invest money in programs, not them, and those getting too many philanthropic requests from you or anyone

The Back Story

Let’s return to the nonprofit that received the largesse. The nonprofit also had the donor on their radar screen. Since their outreach to the funder received no response, they assumed the individual was avoiding their outreach.

While they never gave up seeking opportunities to form a relationship with the donor (i.e., checking with board members for relationship opportunities with them.) Instead, the nonprofit poured energy into what they could control, ensuring that anyone who sought information about them would find a nonprofit worthy of investment. They looked at their work from a development-resistant donor’s perspective and ensured it was stellar. 

So What?

  1. You may feel powerless when it comes to missed gifts and unsolicited donations. Yet, you control (the clarity of your mission, your strategy, your public presence, etc.) and influence others (your reputation, getting found, and so forth)—all of which matter as you compete for resources.
  2. A growing number of donors and funders resist fundraising. The good news is that these investors seek to invest in results, and the healthier (clear vision, quality strategy, good recommendations, strong outcomes, etc.) you have, the more they reward you.

Hitting Home

  1. How many of your gifts came from surprise sources this year?
  2. How many development resistant people do you encounter in a week?
  3. If someone was “shopping” for a nonprofit that does your work, would you go in their shopping basket?


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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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