For Impact


Think Big: Transformational Funding

For Impact Ideas | | Nick Fellers

We’re doing some work with a college access program. Founded about six years ago, it’s now looking to raise $4M over the next 1000 days (in effect, doubling the operating budget). Insofar as every organization is perfectly designed to get the results its getting, these next 1000 days are about DESIGNING our intents, our team, our programs to move from helping 500 seniors get to college (and graduate with success) to 2000 students (note, this is simply a number based on serving the total need at several schools.

We have a funding plan that calls for a $500K lead gift (over 1000 days).

L. emails “I’m not sure we have someone that can do a $500K lead gift… maybe we need to lower our leadership levels.”

My email back:

Isn’t this next chapter about CHANGE/INNOVATION/AWESOMENESS? Isn’t it about TRANSFORMATION? Can we be thinking bigger? Is there not someone in [our city] that could give $150K++ to this (x3)??? Shouldn’t we provide the space for that possibility?

I really truly believe that top number… at this stage of the game… within our team is about the visceral connection to the vision. Is this about a MOVEMENT? CHANGING LIVES? SHAKING others in [our city] by their necks saying, “Come on people, wake up, this is a BIG DEAL?” If that’s the tone, the belief, the pitch, then $150K+ per year is about TRANSFORMING THE WORK THAT WE’RE DOING!

I completely accept that we don’t know that gift will be at this point. I also acknowledge that we don’t have a LEADER for that level. For you, at this point, I don’t think this is about the ‘old school definition’ of LEADER but it is all about the other word ‘TRANSFORMATION’.

I would keep a higher level… if someone asked me, “Do we think we can get that?” My answer would be, “We must! I don’t know who it will be but I’ll be damned if we don’t bring some urgency and audacity that can bring someone on at that level… if we can’t then I think it’s more a statement about our vision and plan than funding capacity.”

[incidentally, L. was asked this on a visit yesterday and she gave her version of this response!]

Can we say for sure that you’ll find that person? Hell no. Worse case scenario, we alter the funding plan at a later date to reflect the gifts you’re collecting. We go with a wider base – more visits – more gifts – but setting as an intention to play it safe is not how we create the kind of change we need in the community.

I think a ‘Leadership Commitment’ can be limiting in terms of thinking. I’ve sat with funders who have said, “I don’t want to take the lead.” (eg. $1M+). I’ve had conversations with these same funders who have then committed $1M to TRANSFORM the organization. While the $1M (in this instance) is a ‘lead gift’ its purpose is different, in a profound way.

Just something to think about.

I think we’ll continue to see more and more opportunities for TRANSFORMATIONAL FUNDING. As the decade long trend of more wealth ending up in the hands of fewer people there will be less leadership and more transformation. Think: Gates. The Gates Foundation can’t LEAD everything. Yet, I can think of several projects we’re working on in which Gates has made gifts to organizations at transformational levels.