Every organization I’ve been part of has received the much ballyhooed $1 million gift.  I’ve only been with a few organizations, so it may not seem that remarkable, but the largest of these had a $5.5 million annual budget at the time, so the $1 million gifts at these organizations were gifts of transformational impact.

These organizations were very different in their mission, but they did share common characteristics that all organizations can be aware of and work toward.  

Non-profits focused on major gifts from individual donors are more likely to make greater progress in a shorter time span.  Individuals make decisions faster and independently.  Relationships with individuals last longer and are more meaningful.  Individuals will share their contacts with you once they’re convinced your cause is a worthy investment. 

Gifts of this size also take considerable negotiation between the organization and the donor, as the donor searches for the impact that meets his/her goals and dreams.

Here are five characteristics that will put you on the path to success for the big gift.  These are worth channeling significant energy toward! 


  1. Be highly relational with individuals.  Successful organizations genuinely cultivate relationships for the long haul, and they focus significant energy on this, knowing that the payoff may be years down the road.  These organizations also have a full pipeline and are receiving smaller but significant gifts along the way.
  2. Be opportunistic and flexible.  Yes, you can be highly relational, as well as opportunistic and flexible.  Successful organizations have their ear to the ground.  They are in touch, and listening for marketplace opportunities such as an IPO of a young executive’s company or the sale of a company by a former trustee.  When an opportunity occurs, the organization is nimble enough to move up or shift vision priorities when the funds are available.
  3. Have integrity.  Integrity in everything you do from your programs, to how you treat your team and the people you serve, to how you steward donor’s contributions.  Integrity also applies if a donor tries to sway or leverage their gift in an improper way.  The organization will politely, but firmly say no.  Other major donors are watching and they do talk.  No gift is worth compromising yourself or your organization, and people will respect you for it.
  4. Have significant vision and leadership that people will invest in.  Major donors in this category usually have significant history with the organization, deep confidence in its leaders including volunteers and endorsers, or both.
  5. Have patience.  This one is no fun at all, but it is a reality.  The organizations I was part of ultimately received the $1 million gift when they were ready for it.  You can want it, you can seek it, but so many factors have to come together before you are worthy of it.


While you must invest in broad-based support for your non-profit, major gifts from individuals are the quickest and the best way for long-term success in fund development for most organizations.  And, when you invest the time and effort, along with many other factors, the $1 million gift can come to your non-profit.

AuthorCraig Smith