Randy Smith
Senior Consultant

Whether launching a new principal gifts program or working to maximize an existing one, it is frequently tempting to begin with questions like “How much?” and “How many?” While they represent important practical issues that should be addressed as quickly as possible, it is advisable to resist answering these questions until a more foundational one has been clearly and thoughtfully addressed: are we ready to have a successful principal gifts program?

While not an exhaustive list, one productive way to assess principal gifts readiness is through an intentional assessment of the extent to which your institution lives out the value of the following three statements:

  • Culture shapes strategy, but successful strategy can transform culture
  • Principal gifts work should always be treated as a team sport – always
  • Documented bequests are as important as outright commitments

Culture shapes strategy, but successful strategy can transform culture

How big are your biggest ideas? In other words, how much cultural transformation is your institution excited about taking on so that it might realize its mission more fully? What an institution has already achieved speaks to its current culture, but what it is willing to pursue next has potential to remake that culture.

To cite an example, one institution determined that after several years of emphasizing the importance of merit-based scholarship endowment in its fundraising program, it had more than enough merit-based financial aid to be competitive among its peer group. An unintended consequence of this success was a lower than desired number of students receiving need-based financial aid. Because admissions acceptance standards had increased dramatically during this same period, the institution was able to declare emphatically all its students as “meritorious” and shift its fundraising focus to need-based scholarships. Alumni enthusiastically endorsed this new emphasis, including by making principal-level philanthropic commitments, citing the homogenous student population during their time at the institution as a shortcoming of their own student experience. Diversity by every measure quickly increased in the student body, and alumni took great pride in this cultural transformation of their alma mater.

Principal gifts work should always be treated as a team sport – always

At the principal gift level, it is important to remember and live out the reality that the bigger the idea, the more people it takes to bring it to fruition. And the more effectively these people work together, the better the outcome.

Certainly, this means that individual gift officers should feel encouraged to call on others for collaborative help in principal gifts work: gift officers, prominent administration figures, faculty members, volunteers, etc. These partners can bring invaluable subject matter knowledge and relationship knowledge to a principal gifts project. However, the most important partners in the endeavor are the potential donors. In more ways than one, prospective principal gifts donors are savvy investors with a clear understanding of what they are trying to accomplish – and may even have initially brought the idea to the institution for consideration. Some donors will expect involvement from 35,000 feet, others at “boots on the ground” level. Either way, their observations should always be sought out and, wherever possible, honored, which may involve a process of working and reworking scenarios to mutually agreeable final outcomes.

As to the ever-present question of “Who gets credit?”, be as generous as possible, remembering that effective collaboration is key to a robust principal gifts program. A precise, percentage-based model may ultimately be less helpful than one that reflects that everyone involved made a “game-changing” contribution to a successful outcome.

Documented bequests are as important as outright commitments

Speaking of credit, it is frequently the case that documented bequests, including at the principal gifts level, are regarded as something of a philanthropic consolation prize. While this is understandable in the immediate term – “We need gifts we can put to work now!” – a longer view brings a more appreciative perspective to documented bequests. A successful articulation of that longer view to others at the institution should include at least the following:

  • Pointing to valuable present-day features of institutional life that came into existence through the proceeds of a documented and then realized bequest.
  • Providing data to prove that, on average, the institution eventually receives more than the originally documented bequest amount, and that the attrition rate of documented bequests is very low, particularly when exceptional stewardship is provided.
  • Observing that at least some donors who document a bequest today are open to advancing it during their lifetimes a bit later, and calling extra attention to those who have done so over the life of the institution.

Set? Go!

With these three statements clearly assessed and existing deficits addressed, an institution can more confidently move forward into successful principal gifts work. And those very practical questions – “How much?” and “How many?” – can now be answered, and more strategically so.


I am grateful to several members of the Washburn & McGoldrick Principal Gifts Practice Group for their contributions to the ideas included in this blog: Maggie Brown Chesebro, University of Richmond; Carolyn Ciriegio, College of Wooster; Robert Fairfield, Syracuse University; Kirsten Kellogg, The College of William & Mary; Andrea Trisciuzzi, The Catholic University of America; Eleanor Young, Davidson College.

Contact Senior Consultant Randy Smith for more discussion about principal gifts or any other aspects of advancement via email at randy.smith@wash-mcg.com or phone at 615-400-2848.