Transformative Gifts

Transformative Gifts


30 January 2024


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


One day, back in my TNC days, a donor walked in and told us that he was taking his company public and that he wanted to make a million-dollar gift. He was not unknown to us. He had been a long-time contributor. He had served on the Board. And he had supported conservation in many other ways.

But he had never been in a position to make a “transformative” gift to TNC before that moment.

Since then, of course, TNC has received many gifts of seven, eight, and even nine figures – enough that a million dollars might not even be considered “transformative,” in the same way today.

But that day, at that time, the gift was unbelievable.


Many of you have similar stories, and many of you have shared them with me. The common theme of these stories has been “a donor came to us.”

I’ve always believed that lucky people play a role in creating their own luck. They are lucky, sure, but they were also well-positioned to recognize it and take advantage of it when it arrived. We were lucky that day – no doubt. But we were also well positioned to recognize the opportunity when it knocked.

But I also think about this: How many opportunities have we missed because we weren’t ready? And what could we do to get ready?

Instead of sitting back and waiting for the donor to walk in the door, what would it look like for us to actively seek out such giving?


Well first of all, we would not be looking at donors who were brand new to the organization. We would be looking at donors who had been making gifts over a span of many years. Let’s say at least five years. And we might look at people who were engaged with the mission in more ways than just giving money. Maybe they had served on the Board at one time. Maybe they had volunteered on the land in some capacity.

As a practical matter, transformative gifts almost always come from wealth as opposed to income. And almost everyone could make a gift from their wealth. But for most people the commitment would come upon their passing – so we’re talking about planned giving in most cases.

But not in all. My donor’s story above was very much coming during his lifetime.


Next, we’d need to know more than a little about how the projects and programs aligned with their personal values. Are they interested in protecting the land – perhaps for agriculture, for habitat, for water quality or quantity, or for outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing. Or perhaps they are more interested in caring for the land – family legacy, responsible stewardship, restoration, ecological processes – even climate change mitigation. Or programs that bring kids and families out to the land. Or …?


Then – the conversation.

You have the opportunity to do something special.

Would you be interested in exploring several opportunities with me?


Maybe not. We don’t hit all of these out of the park.

But maybe. Just maybe.



And here’s the thing. Tom – the donor’s name was Tom – Tom told me later that ten years before their million dollar gift, he and his wife had made a gift of $1,000. And THAT decision was a far more consequential one – at that time, for them.

In fact, that $1,000 decision very likely planted the seed for the million-dollar gift. Those two gifts were transformative for them as well.


What would it take for you and your land trust to secure a transformative gift this year?

Or even ten years from now?


Don’t sit back and hope your “lucky” walks in the door. Take a look through the donors who have been giving for a while and make a decision today to work with them this year.



Cheers and Have a Good 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 Schäferle courtesy Pixabay


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1 Comment
  • Danielle Hirsch
    Posted at 14:53h, 30 January

    Hi David. This post is really helpful! I have heard too many presentations by Development professionals in the Land Trust world that have the basic message of, “And then one day, we asked someone for $X amount of money (a transformative amount), and they gave it to us!” While this is a great story for that organization, it contains no information on how my organization would duplicate that success. The story was essentially just about their unicorn. But how do I find MY unicorn? This article helps give me an idea!