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Lessons from the 2023 Giving Institute Fall Meeting and Mentor Series By Ryan Woroniecki 

Lessons from the 2023 Giving Institute Fall Meeting and Mentor Series By Ryan Woroniecki 

December 20, 2023
Ryan Woroniecki

Lighthouse Counsel is proud to be a member of The Giving Institute; the professional association of ethical and successful service providers to nonprofit organizations. Many people are familiar with The Giving Institute’s sister organization, The Giving USA Foundation, and the annual Giving USA Report.  

At our board meetings we discuss some of the trends we’re seeing in the sector and, at this meeting, some of the longest-serving leaders help mentor newcomers to the nonprofit fundraising sector.  

Here are some of the top lessons from this year’s Fall Meeting and Mentor Series. 

Aligning fundraiser incentives with best practices  

Gift Officers should be evaluated on three-year averages, not annual fundraising results. We live in an increasingly fast-paced world seeking immediate gratification, but relationship-based major gift fundraising doesn’t lend itself to immediate results. Most fundraiser incentives are evaluated and paid either annually or quarterly. Nathan Chapell, co-founder of Fundraising.AI and senior vice president of Lighthouse Counsel partner DonorSearch, explained why this is a huge problem. 

It takes years of relationship building before most donors are ready to make a major gift and, over those years, they need to have good, deepening experiences with your organization as they explore more ambitious initiatives and funding opportunities to support your cause.  

The old fundraising adage is that the right donor will need to be matched with the right initiative at the right time. When major gift officers have their annual bonus riding on gifts closed this year, their incentives are not in alignment with these best practices. And their timeline could be at odds with a donor’s timeline. A long view or three-year average aligns those incentives, giving fundraisers and major gift officers time to nurture donors and find deeply meaningful opportunities that invite bigger gifts. 

All of us should be adhering closely to the AFP Code of Ethics, which means we don’t violate donor trust and we don’t make an ask simply because it’s right for the organization.  

Prior to his time at DonorSearch, Chappell spent three years at City of Hope overseeing a billion-dollar capital campaign. One part of the successful campaign was the organization’s policy of incentivizing fundraisers with metrics over a three-year period. This provided gift officers with a framework to build meaningful relationships on the donors’ timeline.  

If your organization has a commitment to relationship-based fundraising, you might want to consider incentives over a three-year average instead of incentivizing short-term asks that might result in smaller gifts and less meaningful donor relationships. 

Acting like an expert from day one 

Starting a new job is always a little scary – especially a job in an entirely new sector. I had the opportunity to present with Summers Hammel of Benefactor Group to share some advice for newcomers in the nonprofit and fundraising sector. 

  • Know your worth. Everyone was hired for a reason. If you’re new to fundraising, you might not have experience asking people for nine-figure gifts, but you likely have deep interpersonal skills and can understand what is meaningful to people, or you are a talented writer who can craft strong messaging to quickly hook a potential donor. 
  • Learn your trade. There are great resources and professional associations such as AFP that typically offer not only education and networking events but even formal mentor programs. Finding a mentor can make all the difference in your career trajectory. Lighthouse Counsel President Jeff Jowdy often talks fondly of how much he benefited both personally and professionally by being mentored by fundraising icon Jerry Panas.  
  • Learn your organization. Most organizations have annual reports, donor testimonials and other team members you can tap into to learn about the organization’s history. Building meaningful relationships inside your organization makes it easier to convey expertise to those outside it or to know who to turn to when appropriate to give someone meaningful insights. 
  • Prepare for meetings. When you’re going to meet with a potential funder, review their record in the CRM to understand how they first connected with the organization. If you have the benefit of a wealth screening profile or, better yet, a profile from a researcher, try to understand what they have done professionally and where else they have given. Often times people just look at a donor’s capacity. But if it’s a newer relationship, spending too much time on their means is a trap that will keep you from focusing on things that might help build a meaningful relationship. 

Behavioral Economics and Capital Campaigns  

For years, many fundraising consulting firms – including Lighthouse Counsel – have recommended waiting to announce a capital campaign until a majority of the fundraising goal has been pledged in what is commonly known as a silent phase.  

Our experience often is informed by academic research, but we didn’t think anyone performed research on an initiative as important and risky as a capital campaign; we were wrong. There is academic research on silent phase giving in a capital campaign.  

Well known in the field of behavioral economics, John List is the University of Chicago Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and teaches at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He has published many papers on fundraising and raised substantial gifts for his projects. His research was featured on the “What Makes a Donor Donate” episode of the Freakenomics podcast.  

List’s paper, “The Effects of Seed Money and Refunds on Charitable Giving: Experimental Evidence from a University Capital Campaign,”proves silent phase gifts make a big difference. This paper showed, “We design a field experiment to test two theories of fundraising for threshold public goods: Andreoni predicts that publicly announced ‘seed money’ will increase charitable donations, whereas Bagnoli and Lipman predict a similar increase for a refund policy. Experimentally manipulating a solicitation of 3,000 households for a university capital campaign produced data confirming both predictions. Increasing seed money from 10 percent to 67 percent of the campaign goal produced a nearly sixfold increase in contributions, with significant effects on both participation rates and average gift size. Imposing a refund increased contributions by a more modest 20 percent, with significant effects on average gift size.” 

Simply put, this means there’s deep research showing a campaign with well over half the funds raised in the silent phase will raise significantly more money than announcing a campaign without that known support.  

If you’re considering, or in the early stages of a capital campaign, the data suggests you should close your biggest gifts before you tell the world about your campaign. 


Ryan Woroniecki

Ryan Woroniecki spent over a decade at DonorSearch, most recently as the VP of Strategic Partnerships. His team built an ecosystem of the top fundraising consultants and technology companies including Lighthouse Counsel. He helped shape The DonorSearch product, authored the company's first corporate giving program, and designed the integration of wealth screening data in CRMs used by thousands of nonprofits today. He advised hundreds of nonprofits on their use of prospect research, wealth screening, and prospect management practices. Ryan leads Lighthouse Counsel's marketing efforts and helps clients with prospect development. He is a sought-after speaker, having spoken at AFP ICON for APRA-INTL and many places across the country. He is currently pursuing his bachelor's degree at NC State. Ryan has served on the board of AFP-DC, APRA-MD, and The Giving Institute. Ryan currently fundraises for The Giving USA Foundation, one of his favorite organizations.