“We Don’t Want Your Money:” Anatomy of a Transformational Gift

Here’s a story about a transformational corporate gift – $27.1 million from a company that was in bankruptcy, no less.

Detroit was in the dumps when this gift came through.

Can you imagine going into a HUGE potential donor and saying,

“We don’t want your money; we want you to come see what we do.”

This is what the United Way of Detroit said back in 2010, when they called on their major corporate supporter.

The United Way folks were smart.

Because it was a particularly tough time, they backed off of the direct, quick ask.

They wanted a deeper relationship before they asked.

They focused on getting the corporate CEO in the door for a transformational cultivation experience.

Here’s the story:

The timing for a huge gift could not have been worse.

It was back in 2010, when Detroit was sunk in a terrible recession. The auto industry had crashed and burned.

Unemployment was sky-high.

And the United Way of Detroit was calling on one of the big three auto makers.  One that had even declared bankruptcy!

Not a particularly fortuitous time to be raising big money!

But the United Way of Detroit had a killer plan. (knock it off!)

My friend, consultant Tammy Zonker (Fundraising Transformed) created this brilliant strategy  and led the United Way team that closed this remarkable gift.

Tammy shared the entire story with my online community Fundraising INSIDERS last week.

She coached everyone on how they can use this same strategy to raise their own transformational gift.

Here is the brillant cultivation plan they created and successfully executed to win a $27.1 million gift:

Here’s the heart of Tammy Zonker’s strategy for the transformational gift.

1.  The United Way had a dream.

They had a vision for a Detroit to be born again: That Greater Detroit could become one of the nation’s top 5 places to live and work by 2030.

(Question: how big is YOUR dream for your organization? Is it big enough to attract excitement and big dollars?)

2. The United Way had a clear, measurable plan.

Here is their concrete plan with four main, measurable goals:

  • Early childhood education: kids prepared to enter school ready to succeed.
  • Moving high schools to graduate at least 80% of their students.
  • Income: Helping 19,000 families become financially stable thru jobs and benefits.
  • Basic needs: reducing hunger by over 50%.

(Question: are your goals that clear? That measurable? How much money could you raise if you got really, really clear?)

The great messaging expert Tom Ahern recently said:

“A case for support is not so much about what your organization does.
A case for support is mostly about your promise, the promise you make
to the world through your mission, your accomplishments and your plans.”

(Question: what is your promise to the community through your work?)

3. The United Way had 4 major “Impact Strategies.”

How to present “Impact Strategies” to your funder. Courtesy of Tammy Zonker.

This kind of focus and wording helps drive the point home, particularly with corporate funders.

We know that more than ever, today’s donors want to make a direct impact.

What a terrific word to use when framing your plan: “impact.”

(Question: could you turn your case into several “Impact Strategies” – each with a measurable goal?  If you did – I bet you’d have an easier time fundraising!)

4. The United Way sought a “mutual-benefit partnership” with their corporate funders.

They invited their funders to share the dream, embrace the four goals, and be part of the solution.

They showed their funders how to make a difference – how to make a huge impact on the City of Detroit.

They envisioned themselves as the intersection between the corporate world and the people of the city of Detroit – bringing both together to re-make the city.

(Question: How can you create a mutually-beneficial partnership with your major funders?)

Here’s how to help your corporate prospect solve business problems thru philanthropy. (Tammy Zonker)

5. The United Way did not rush to solicit.

When they called on the North American CEO for the company, they said:

“We don’t want your money right now; we want you to come see what we do.”

They wanted the CEO to see their work differently – BEFORE the solicitation.

(Question: how much more money could you raise if you slowed down and asked your donors to first come visit?)

6.  The United Way created a “transformational” cultivation experience.

What’s a transformational cultivation experience?

Tammy says it is “providing a life-changing hands-on experience in the donor’s preferred mission area of your work.”

She say that it’s like mentoring a child, volunteering on the Crisis Hotline, awarding a scholarship, riding in the ambulance, a “day-in-the-life-of shadowing experience.”

When the corporate CEO came to visit, he literally participated in the work. He helped to man the Crisis Line that United Way maintained for people who urgently needed help.

The call he took was from another man who was about to lose his house and become homeless. And he was in tears. Before you knew it, the CEO was in tears with the man.

When someone’s heart is touched that deeply, their attitude about philanthropy changes!

The happy result of a carefully planned cultivation strategy.

(Question: how much more money could you raise if  you created a transformational cultivation experience for your major donors?)

7. The United Way followed the prospect’s timing – and his heart.

They were patient.

Like all large gifts, this gift was shaped slowly.

The CEO saw – with his own eyes – the high schools that needed help. His heart was touched.

When the United Way asked him to fund one school, he responded “how much would it cost to fund 5 schools?”

Tammy and her team came back with the huge proposal for $27.1 million – to carry out the CEO’s vision.

And when he agreed, he said “this is the right thing to do for Detroit.”

(Question: how much more money could you raise if your prospects felt – and said – this is the right thing to do for our kids, our elderly, our community, our environment . . . whatever your mission.)


Go slowly. Follow the prospect’s heart. Let them see -first hand – your work. Get them to participate – personally – in your work and you’ll have a home run for your wonderful cause.

For more information and for some killer major gift coaching, contact Tammy Zonker.

And let’s thank her for sharing these brilliant strategies and for personally training my INSIDERS on this strategy.

What did you think of this story?  Do leave a comment and let me know!