The real million pound question

The philanthropy research centre where I work publishes an annual report on ‘Million Pound Donors’ which collates and analyses data on charitable gifts worth £1m or more. Media coverage (for example in the FT and the Times) tends to focus on how many donors give at this level, and whether the value of these mega-gifts is going up or down. But when I discuss the findings with wealthy donors, it’s not the question of quantities that most interests them. The finding that catches their eye is the one that counts how many organisations are on the receiving end of gifts of this size – they are all amazed to learn how few charities have donors giving at this level.

In both the years that this study has taken place, less than 160 charities were found to be on the receiving end of donations of this size, and the vast majority of these ‘million pound recipients’ received only one 7-figure donation. Of the 159 recipients in 2006/07, 141 only got the one; of the 153 in 2007/08, 133 only got the one. Therefore in each year, only around 20 organisations got more than one donation worth £1m or more.

It may seem unrealistic, even greedy, to expect to have more than one supporter who is willing and able to give at this level. But a large number of charities have fundraising targets that require them to raise many millions of pounds each year. According to the Charity Market Monitor 2009, 8 UK charities raised £100m or more, a further 51 raised more than £50m and a total of 116 charities raised more than £10m. As the vast majority of these organisations have either one or no million pound donors, then these impressive targets are being hit as a result of the collective value of a huge number of smaller sums.

A headline in a recent edition of  Civil Society media attests to this fact, as it carries news that the Make-A-Wish Foundation – which raised £4m last year – has received its largest-ever single donation of £702,158. This big donation is great news, yet the ability of charities to raise multi-million pound sums, year on year, in the absence of a major benefactor is surely one of the great, untold stories in UK fundraising. Many more examples abound. I recently met with fundraisers from two well-known charities – both amongst the 50 most popular fundraising charities – neither of which had had a donor giving £1m or more for many years.

Millionaire donors are genuinely – and quite rightly- shocked to learn that they are probably the only person giving at that level to their favourite cause. Knowing for sure they are the charity’s only 7-figure donor is empowering as it gives them permission to approach their friends, who they now know are not concealing a similarly-large donation through modesty. Being honest about the rarity of these gifts is also a powerful tool for retaining support as – assuming the million pound donor is pleased with how their money has been spent-  they are more likely to renew once they appreciate the unique significance of their gift.

Yet fundraisers appear reluctant to come clean about the size of their charity’s million pound supporter club. Perhaps they think it’s a sign of weakness to have attracted so few, or implies they cannot cope with donations of this size?

But the gasps of genuine surprise from millionaire donors tells a different story. They’ve been given a false impression that ‘people like them’ keep charities going, and are shocked that the burden of funding good causes is not in fact falling on the wealthiest shoulders. It’s time for fundraisers to swallow their pride and admit that major donors are rarer than four leaf clovers. It could help these exceptional donors to become a little less of an exception.

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