Launched in 2002, Westfall Gold has hosted over 400 “major donor experiences” that have raised over $1.1 billion in nonprofit funding from 15,000 families. In its inaugural “2021 Major Generosity Report,” the consultancy reports a 21% increase in gifts made during its events from 2019 to 2020—despite a global pandemic.
The man behind the Atlanta-based firm, Bob Westfall, has been in the nonprofit space for some three decades. One of Westfall’s key convictions is that nonprofits have significant untapped major donor giving capacity within their own donor bases. In general, Westfall claims, only 12% of a nonprofit’s donors with major giving capacity are current major donors. But Westfall boasts an average gift of more than $173,000 from major donors, and in a recent weekend, raised $3.1 million from 28 major donor couples.
“You know, it’s a community building experience. And what we do is, we want to immerse those givers in community with the organization. We want to kind of inspire them,” Westfall told me in a recent interview.
But how exactly does Westfall draw from this “untapped” pool of big-time donors? And what other insights did Westfall have to share? One question I had right off the bat was how he even got into the business of donor cultivation.
A fundraiser is born
In the late 1980s, Westfall joined Walk Thru the Bible, a nonprofit that mostly served churches and foreign church organizations. At the end of the Cold War, the organization was invited to bring a faith-based curriculum into Russian public schools to curb a sky-high teenage suicide rate. Westfall’s challenge from his boss? Raise three and a half times the money raised the year before. “We had to create curriculum for the schools, have it translated into Russian, hire seminar instructors, train them,” Westfall said.
A self-described salesman by nature, Westfall wanted to do a road show. His first plan was to encourage established donor families to invite their friends over so he could pitch the idea of this educational effort in Russia and then calculate an exact dollar amount from them to sponsor a school.
Ultimately, with dozens of cities to visit and a busy boss, the young fundraiser had to revise his plans. He decided that rather than hunting down new donors, he would bring existing donors together at an annual weekend retreat, one that the nonprofit had hosted in the past as “purely cultivation and investment in the heart and mind of the giver as a way to say thank you for their support,” Westfall said.
Rather than just focusing on an “inspirational event,” Westfall embedded a pitch. Oh, and he upgraded the fundraising venue from a modest conference center at the Atlanta airport to a destination event. “We go to a nice place, we invite these families to spend the weekend with us… we tell our story, and invite them into our story,” Westfall explains.
In two weekends, Walk Thru the Bible raised three and a half times what it did the entire previous year.
Launching a consultancy
In the early 2000s, building on these experiences, Westfall launched Westfall Gold to bring this model to other nonprofits. The consultancy’s clients now include Biola University, Mercy Ships, Colorectal Cancer Alliance and Amazima Ministries. In his first five years, Westfall set out to serve three to five charities and raise $20 million in cumulative funds. Fast-forward to 2019, and the consultancy raised $171 million for about 40 nonprofits.
Westfall’s current approach works like this. The consultancy immerses a giving family, mainly couples, in a weekend retreat experience. Westfall says it’s rare that a donor would come without their spouse, reiterating that individual giving tends to be a family affair. Donors don’t know each other, so part of the weekend is about community building.
“When a giving family attends one of our events, I want to edify the community,” Westfall said, segueing into a story about Patrick Lencioni, the popular writer of books on business management. Lencioni was featured at a Westfall Gold event, where he talked about the “Five Dysfunctions of Team” but also about the “Five Dysfunctions of Family.” It’s this second piece—the emotional component—that Westfall believes is key to his success. That Lencioni talk ended up as the top-rated experience from that weekend.
Westfall Gold aims to move donors from what Westfall calls “transactional” to “transformational” giving, and from being “supporters” to acting as “ambassadors.” Throughout the course of a weekend, Westfall said, donors can go from “ice-cold, never having given to an organization, to making the single largest gift they’ve made in their entire life.”
Donors who’ve participated in Westfall Gold’s experiences run the gamut: owners of large private and publicly held companies, lawyers, architects and more. The consultancy serves about 1,500 to 1,800 donor families a year through its events. Westfall called in for our interview from Cloister at Sea Island, a glitzy five-star resort where he was courting 140 couples from across the United States. On the other coast, another recent event was held at Montage Laguna Beach overlooking the majestic Pacific.
The big ask
Westfall Gold, a for-profit company, runs a proprietary wealth analytics program that helps identify people of high net worth and develop a strategy to court them. Going back to his earlier conviction about untapped major donors, Westfall says that when auditing an organization’s file, nonprofits are accessing around 12% of their major donor file.
“So there’s so much opportunity that organizations are just missing,” Westfall said. His consultancy focuses on four things as it cultivates donors: lifting current major donors, converting prospective donors into a giving relationship, converting lapsed donors back into a giving relationship, and moving general and mid-range donors up the ladder to become major donors.
Regarding the kinds of financial commitments that come out of its events, Westfall says each weekend event culminates in an ask. A nonprofit CEO casts a vision of their organization, a chief development officer provides a giving portfolio that identifies strategic ways donors can invest, and a trained giving couple who have gone through Westfall Gold themselves make a case for support. When the big ask comes, Westfall Gold suggests giving amounts. Notably, 90% of givers earmark their donation as undesignated.
The consultancy does not work on foundation proposals or grantwriting. “All we do is help these organizations create this experience. Our company creates all the content for the charity so the charity doesn’t have to become an event planner overnight, or need to create a concise story,” Westfall said.
Westfall’s success when it comes to unrestricted gifts is notable. Its “Generosity Report” argues that given the right context, major donors will make these kinds of transformational gifts. But what is the “right context?” Well, one factor is time. The build-up to a big, unrestricted gift won’t necessarily happen over the course of a single luncheon, but rather through repeated exposure over time. The consultancy also talks about a “vision-centered appeal,” one that encourages donors to become stewards for the overall vision of a nonprofit, rather than for just one isolated program.
The report contains other insights, including five factors that it says will unlock generosity from the major donor community. The consultancy is keen on transformational videos and its video team travels the world producing hundreds of videos a year—earning nine Telly Awards in a recent year.
In 2021, Westfall reports $51 million already raised across 10 events. “We’re not stopping, man,” he told me. “We’re having a blast.”