Large Gifts are Not Just for Bricks and Mortar

Most of the organizations I have worked with, either as a consultant or as the Director of Development, haven’t had building or equipment needs upon which to base a capital or major gifts campaign. Yet all were able to institute effective major gifts programs.

Institutions with “bricks and mortar” have buildings or other forms of tangible property that donors can see and feel. Think colleges, hospitals, social service centers, land trusts, zoos, museums — you get the picture. “Bricks and mortar institutions” have a number of built-in advantages when cultivating prospects for major gifts:

  • The idea of “bricks and mortar” is easy to understand — donors can visualize the kids in their classrooms, enjoy the birds and plants at the nature preserve, or appreciate all that extraordinary artwork at the museum.
  • Donors can relate to how expensive it is to buy, build or maintain real estate so they asking for a large gift makes sense to them. If you are struggling to get a home for this reason, check the prices at
  • “Bricks and mortar” symbolizes permanence and longevity. They evoke the donor’s belief that their gifts can make a lasting difference because the institution will be around for a long time (if not forever).
  • And, of course, all that “bricks and mortar” provides naming opportunities to publicly recognize donors.

If your organization does advocacy, outreach, public policy or education, it’s likely your programs aren’t  wrapped around your physical plant or equipment.

How do you motivate donors for major gifts when your nonprofit doesn’t have bricks and mortar?

Create investment opportunities that donors can visualize.

A solution is to create giving opportunities that FEEL just as solid and important as all those buildings or equipment.

Here’s an example:

An environmental advocacy organization wanted to develop a strategy that would help move its $25-$100 members to the $500- $1,000 level, and create opportunities to attract much larger individual giving of $10,000 and up. (It already had a pretty robust grants program).

Unlike its more well-heeled conservation colleagues, this environmental watchdog focused on research, public policy advocacy and lobbying,  and the thankless task of monitoring hundreds of requests for development, pollution and wetland alterations permits.

While this organization has been critical in preventing major commercial interests from buying and subdividing thousands of acres of valuable open space, unlike a land trust,  it will never buy the land itself.

However, it is a recognized leader in working with local and state officials to develop legislation to protect open space, recruit and train coalitions of activists, mobilize land purchasing groups and undertake extensive media outreach to alert the general public to the wider threat.

Here’s are two ways we repositioned these activities to attract larger gifts.

1. Create a campaign: By totaling the three-year operating costs of anticipated legal work, public outreach, research, lobbying, policy development and related overhead, viola! the $400,000 Endangered Lands Campaign was born.  Even without directly buying the land, the project was able to set a a goal of protecting 137,000 acres of land.

2.  Develop a special fund. This organization has to rapidly respond to unexpected threats. Since these quick actions can be costly, the organization named this activity its Rapid Response Force. Then, to enhance fund raising and pay the bills, it created the Rapid Response Fund, with a goal of creating a standing reserve account of $200,000 that could be deployed quickly.

Each project provided a new opportunity to mobilize large donors and send special appeals to the full membership list. Really major gifts could be linked to naming opportunities or sub-components of the projects. For example, one could name the project (e.g. The Helen Smith Rapid Response Fund). Other named gifts could fund legal work, volunteer activity or other discrete components of the project.

What, then, are the critical elements of a program-focused, major gift opportunity?

  • A solid-feeling project/program with tangible outcomes that donors can visualize, built by bundling interrelated program activities
  • A significant fundraising goal worthy of large gifts, built by combining direct program and related overhead costs, often over a multi-year period
  • An urgency or time line for funding
  • A compelling name.

Setting up these projects requires a heaping dose of creativity and the ability to see familiar programs in new ways. For more on how to do that, take a look at Successful Fundraising: 7 Tips for seeing through the kaleidoscope of opportunity.

We are always interested in learning how you’ve approached this challenge.




This article first appeared in Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review at

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.