The Fundraising Executive

Strategic and Tactical Giving – Part 2: Hans Brinker with His Finger in the Dike

By Eddie Thompson | July 31, 2012 | Charitable Estate Planning

NOTE: While Strategic and Tactical Giving – Part 1 defines and contrasts the different two approaches to planning, this article (Part 2) defines and contrasts the two types of gifts — i.e. strategic and tactical gifts.

In the novel, The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge, Hans Brinker discovers a hole in the dike and plugs it with his finger. The heroic little Dutch boy stays there all through the frigid night and saves the town from a catastrophe flood. You can probably think of many occasions in which donors have responded in a time of crisis to plug the leaky dike and have continued to do so until others arrived to help stabilize the organization.

Imagine a scenario, we’ll call it Silver Skates 2 , in which holes developed in hundreds of dikes all throughout the Dutch countryside because of the constant ebb and flow of rushing seawater. The situation constantly required hundreds people willing to periodically insert their fingers into the weakened dams. With a tactical response to each crisis, heroes would avert the impending disaster and save the day. Eventually, a forward-thinking visionary came up with an outrageous idea — a storm surge barrier. The tremendously expensive barrier indirectly solved the problem of a thousand dikes and created prosperity throughout the land for generations to come. All the people rejoiced and built a statue of the great strategic thinker.

There are several fundraising realities implied by the example and illustrations above. All of us who have been in fundraising and/or charitable estate planning for a while have seen examples of the principles below.:

1.  Appeals to avert a crisis create a sense of urgency to give, while strategic giving creates a sense of vision for the future. One of the compliance tactics employed by aggressive salesmen is the principle of scarcity. “This is the last one we have,” they say, “and we won’t get any more.” Crisis appeals are a version of the scarcity principle — “If you don’t give today, it will be too late.” I rarely see this in my client organizations, but it’s a well know fact that many organizational leaders actually create one crisis after another as a fundraising tactic.

2.  Strategic giving is almost always visionary and future-oriented. Tactical giving is usually a response to foreseeable or unexpected obstacles standing in the way of the strategic objective. Consequently, strategic giving is more often proactive while tactical giving is usually reactive; thus the term “tactical response.” (See The Language Classical Planning; Strategic and Tactical Applications for Fundraising)

3.  Strategic giving usually has residual impact. For example, building an interstate exit will solve a traffic problem. It will also have a residual impact on local commerce and property values, creating new buildings, new businesses, new jobs, and an expanded tax base. The strategic gift to build a storm surge barrier didn’t avert one crisis but a hundred.

4.  Strategic gifts are usually far larger than tactical-response gifts given to solve an immediate crisis. Those gifts are also far more efficient because the return on investment (ROI) of a strategic gift is measured over years, decades, or generations of residual impact. The ROI of a tactical-response gift to avert a crisis is measured only in the time frame of that immediate need.

5.  Crisis giving verses visionary giving could also be labeled in terms of classical planning terminology as tactical verses strategic gifts. This is not to suggest that one type of giving is better than the other because both are essential. With the above examples and illustrations in mind, below is a comparison of the characteristics of tactical and strategic gifts:


One finger in Each Dam     Building the Storm-Serge Barrier
Present/Past Oriented       Future Oriented
To Avoid Failure                 To Advance Strategic Objectives
Crisis Oriented                    Vision Oriented
Reactive Response              Proactive Planning
Immediate Impact              Long-term Impact
Solve Single Problem         Fix System / Structure
Single Issue solved             Empower Hundreds
Direct Impact                      Indirect, Residual Impact
Smaller Investment            Largest Investment
Lower Efficiency                 Higher Efficiency
Saves the Day                      Makes History
Annual Donor Award         Create Personal Legacy

(High-capacity donors) are, however, less interested in problem solving on a single issue than they are visionary structural changes. 

6.  High-capacity donors are more likely to be strategic thinkers. Dr. Paul Schervish uses the term “hyper-agency” to describe the perspective of wealthy donors. They do not think in terms of game tactics. If the game is not going the way they like, they think in terms of changing the rules (see Wealth and Hyper-Agency: Why Strategic Philanthropists Grow Frustrated and Bored with Organizations and Their Leaders). They will indeed make operational gifts because they see the need to maintain the dams. They are, however, less interested in problem solving on a single issue than they are visionary structural changes. That is not to say that strategic donors will not step up to plug the hole in a single dam. However, they are far less comfortable with large or long-term gifts to avert a crisis, especially if they think (rightly or wrongly) that the crisis is a leadership issue.

7.  Crisis appeals will eventually undermine charitable estate planning initiatives. The applications here are obvious to all. I see more than of this some because, as an estate planning consultant, I make visits almost every day to organizational donors.

It will be hard to suddenly shift perspectives and convince your donors that you have a solid strategic plan worthy of estate planning investments.

Major donors may not use the terminology, but they intuitively understand the difference between tactical and strategic giving. Many of the more deliberate donors think about the distinctions much more than the fundraisers who solicit them. If you spend twenty years in conversations about the obstacles facing the organization and the need to fund tactical responses to one crisis after another, it will be hard to suddenly shift perspectives and convince your donors that you have a solid strategic plan worthy of estate planning investments.

One of the primary concerns about planned gifts is the stability, leadership, and longevity of the organization. Donors considering legacy gifts are not interested in tactical problem solving or averting an immediate crisis. Estate planning gifts are always strategic, set up to forward-thinking, visionary gifts that will have residual impact for many years and will create an enduring legacy.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2012 — R. Edward Thompson