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Transformational Fundraising: Answering some key questions

Chris Moloney, Senior Consulting Associate, AGB Institutional Strategies  

Top of the Pyramid Philanthropy is inspired by big noble ideas or institutional opportunities.  It is critical to realize that part of the paradigm shift in today’s “giving” climate is that the top 2% of investors rarely contribute large sums for short-term survival tactics or institutional needs.  Instead, they tend to invest in solutions and long-term ideas—those promising to solve complex problems—that align with their aspirations. It’s important to recognize that top of the pyramid philanthropy is NOT traditional fundraising or campaigning or marketing; it is a hybrid of all three focusing on a very small target market. The best transformational fundraising initiatives are those that are bold and transformative for the institution and benefit the surrounding communities. 

When we speak on the idea of “transformational fundraising” we often receive many questions on how this type of project differs from a typical advancement campaign and how this type of project works.  Below are several common questions and our answers, which should give you some food for thought:

Q:  When is it a good time to implement or utilize this type of project?

A: There is no precise timing.  Given the potential magnitude and impact of this type of giving project (we are talking in the millions of dollars potentially from any single investor, or combination of investors), it is always a good idea to be ready and be thinking about how to start up and implement one of these projects.  With that caveat, we do observe, and believe, that the 12-18 months before a long-serving institutional President retires is an excellent timeframe to initiate one of these projects.  After many years spent serving the institution and nearby communities, an outgoing President can harvest the many strong relationships they’ve built over the years and secure gifts that will help the institution realize a significant, transformative initiative. 

Q:  What is the most difficult phase or aspect of a Transformational Fundraising project?

A:  Hands down the single most difficult and critical element of any TF project is developing an executable, big, noble, transformative idea…and then writing it down! If you can overcome this hurdle, implementation of the project and securing donations actually becomes quite easy.  Remember, the idea/initiative must be executable and must arouse in the investor a call to action; be inspiring, be bold, be creative—and the rest should fall into place.

Q:  How many donors should we be thinking of targeting and who should take the lead on this project?

A:  in our experience, a typical TF project may target as few as 12-15 investors from the top 2%, or as many as 50, depending on the size and status of the institution.  Your Advancement office should already know who these potential investors are (even if you haven’t approached or received gifts from them before).  Finally, a TF project must be led by the President of the institution, who should take ownership of the project as well (also see the first answer above).

AGBIS is here to answer your questions and can assist in developing the overall strategy, marketing campaign, and language that will appeal to the top 2% of potential investors at your institution.  If you would like to learn more about how a Transformational Fundraising project is organized and implemented, contact AGBIS and join us for one of our complimentary webinars on the topic: 202-776-0868, or email