What is a Gift?

What is a Gift?


16 March 2021


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I’m developing a new workshop this year on fundraising basics. I feel like one of the most important lessons of 2020 was that fundraising basics still matter. Organizations that had – and trusted – good fundamentals tended to do very well last year. Several reported record growth. While some other organizations either had flat or declining revenues.

With that theme of fundraising basics in mind, I’m planning to start with the most basic.

What is a gift?

A GIFT is something that is given freely, without expectations of receiving something of value (gifts and services) in return.


It seems pathetically obvious, doesn’t it?

So why is it so hard?

A sponsorship is NOT a gift. Even sponsorship of a biker or runner in a charity race.

A dinner ticket, a golf tournament entry, the purchase of a bookstore discount – these are NOT gifts, regardless of the profit margin. They are transactions.

A donation made in memory of one who passed, or in honor of a birthday or wedding, IS a gift. It’s just not a gift to you.


ANNUAL GIFTS are gifts that are given in support of a mission, ideal, or vision. They are made by believers. They are renewable and are most often solicited that way. On a scale of “token-significant-sacrificial,” they normally range from token to the low end of significant.

MAJOR GIFTS support a specific program, project, or outcome. They are most often not renewable and can range from the low end of significant well into sacrificial. A gift of land is a major gift.

A DONOR is someone who makes a gift – without expectations of receiving something of value (gifts and services) in return.


Donors who make gifts in support of land conservation are motivated by emotional reasons. Our job as fundraisers is to understand those emotions and connect them to something we are doing. The more we understand, the better we will be able to do this.

And we consistently muck this up.

  • Instead of listening and understanding, we try to sell.
  • We fail to trust that believer motivations exist, and reach for transactional motivations instead, like entry fees and bookstore discounts.
  • We offer multi-year discounts on membership in the mistaken belief that doing so will incentivize donors to give more.
  • We send renewal notices to memorial donors.


We shoot ourselves in the foot.


So why is this distinction important?

Because more donors – real donors making real gifts – is strongly correlated with sustainability. There are exceptions to be sure, but generally, the organizations that enjoyed the most gifted support in 2020 – that were supported by the most donors – tended to be the ones who thrived. The wind shifted, and they reset their sails and kept moving.


I want to cover this, too, because I know it will come up. Gifts and giving are most often associated with money, but they need not be. Gifts of time are important and certainly deserving of significant recognition.

But they are NOT equivalent, because you can’t spend gifts of time in the same ways. (See also: In-Kind Contributions Need Systems, Too.)


So, take a moment and think about how many donors your organization really has. Are you sustainable?


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Michael McGough courtesy of Pixabay..



Share this!
  • Ashley UpChurch
    Posted at 11:43h, 16 March

    Very thought provoking; thanks as always, David! I’m curious about what donors not to send renewals to- such as memorial donors. How about donors who give in honor of someone or an event? Donors who give at events (paddle raises) but not throughout the year? How granular should our appeals process be?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 12:58h, 16 March

      I recommend sending renewal letters to people who made a gift last year and sending appeal letters to people who have made at least one gift in the past several years. I recommend ignoring the fact that people at an event “spent” money at the event (even paddle raises). For those who give or have given in other ways, see the previous sentence. For those whose only donation was related to the event, send a letter several months later thanking them for coming to the event and asking them to make a gift to join, support the mission, or support a specific project. If they respond to that, they are a donor. If not, they are not a donor (yet).
      Thanks for the question!