How National Geographic Society Increased Major Gifts Despite Sector-Wide Struggles

In August of 2020, National Geographic Society named Jill Tiefenthaler as its first female CEO. Since then, the nonprofit has set lofty goals to advance both its fundraising efforts and its mission.

From 2020 to 2022, the nonprofit nearly quintupled fundraising efforts to $117.9 million and increased its board giving to a seven-figure sum. The organization also nearly doubled its average gift amount to $324 and made significant strides when it comes to the number of major gifts received — in a time when major gifts are declining sector-wide. 

Though nonprofit sector trends reveal major donors pulling back on their giving to nonprofits, National Geographic Society defied the odds in the course of a development department reorganization, which focused heavily on obtaining major gifts at the onset.

At AFP LEAD in Philadelphia last week, Lara Tilley-Bouez, senior vice president at CCS Fundraising, led a conversation with Lisa Herzog, deputy to the chief advancement officer and campaign director at National Geographic, about that effort in the session, “Jump In! Leading a New Advancement Team From Shore, Through Storms, and Out to Sea.” Here’s a look at the organization’s path to success in growing its team and managing expectations along the way. 

1. Grow Your Development Team

The development team included a small staff broken down among corporate; foundations and government; individual giving; and annual giving efforts before the overhaul. Prior to Tiefenthaler’s hiring, Herzog admitted the nonprofit didn’t effectively engage donors and stakeholders. 

A major part of National Geographic Society’s goal was to grow its development team by increasing the headcount from 27 in 2020 to 61 in 2022. The CEO first onboarded Kara Ramirez Mullins as chief advancement officer to lead its fundraising efforts in September 2020. Mullins then hired Herzog to join the organization in a newly created role in November 2020. 

Today, the advancement team is broken down into advancement operations; annual giving and membership; global special events; institutional partnerships; leadership giving and campaign; and special projects. Here’s an overview of what the nonprofit was able to accomplish as part of the reorganization. 

Invested in Operations

National Geographic Society prioritized corporate and foundation fundraising in 2020, Herzog said. One of the first steps for the nonprofit’s development department revamp was to build a support system by investing in a 12-person advancement operations team, though Herzog hopes to grow this area even more to bolster its research and analytics capabilities in the future. 

“I’ve seen it happen where an organization will invest in frontline fundraisers, but they will not invest in the operations support, the research support — all of the things that really set up those [major gift officers] for success,” she said.

Part of this team’s objectives is to create fundraisers’ prospect lists. To start, National Geographic Society didn’t have many donors and those it did have were disgruntled, so a lot of the success came through acquisition of entry-level donors. 

“And now, even three years later, we’re starting to see those benefits, but it takes a lot of time,” Herzog said.

Consolidated Teams to Create Institutional Partnerships

Previously, the nonprofit had five employees working on corporate partnerships and four staff members focused on foundation and government revenue. However, in the new set up, those efforts were combined into a seven-person department for institutional partnerships since the team saw more promise on the corporate side. 

“[Our team will] sit down with a corporation to talk about philanthropy, and often they’re looking for a marketing deal,” Herzog said. “They’re looking to put their logo in our magazine. And so it gets us in the door, but then we need to be very thoughtful about how we communicate our decision-making around what corporate partners we will partner with and what that true philanthropic partnership looks and feels like.”

Bolstered Leadership and Individual Giving

Though the team viewed corporate giving as important, there’s no denying that more than 60% of giving comes from individuals, per the latest Giving USA data. An increased focus on individual giving began with an increase from five to 17 staffers.

Though The Hubbard Council, named for the nonprofit’s founder Gardiner Greene Hubbard, helped to steward donors giving $50,000 or more, there was a noticeable engagement gap for donors giving $25,000 to $49,999. This tier is now known as The Clark Council, which is named after explorer Eugenie Clark. 

“So essentially, if you gave $25,000, you were getting less than a $10,000 donor so there were just some pretty clear opportunities to add some structure so that donors knew what their experience could look like as they grew philanthropically with the organization,” Herzog said.

The team also wanted to cultivate board members and senior leadership. It took months to gain the trust of one board member who had been a donor for about two decades. The team was finally able to ask for a larger gift to achieve the organization’s big aspirations. 

“It was astronomical,” Herzog said. “They went from being like a $50,000 donor to a $5 million donor in just about six months. So that’s identifying who those key folks are both in terms of who’s ready to give a gift at that level and then also who can be a connector.”

As for the organization’s senior leadership team — 90% of whom, Herzog estimated, had zero nonprofit experience, the team needed to first educate them about philanthropy and develop relationships. As a result, National Geographic Society has secured gifts from 100% of the senior leadership team for two straight years. 

“We asked our senior leaders to make a gift to the organization,” she said. “And we explained it. We treated them like donors. ‘Here’s why your gift matters.’ ‘Here’s what we’re gonna do with it.’ And that’s important. We had to have that conversation multiple times. And it worked.”

Emphasized Membership in Annual Giving Efforts

With ambitious goals, comes prioritization. Though focusing on larger gifts was an earlier priority to help fund the rapidly expanding department, evolving annual giving efforts from five to eight members, and focusing on membership more closely is the next pressing matter, evidenced by the recent hiring of a vice president of membership. 

“Our CEO wants a million members,” Herzog said. “So we’re getting started on that.”

Created a New Department for Global Special Events

Aside from operations, the other team that really helps to support the entire team is the global special events team. Many outsiders view National Geographic as a magazine only. To develop its brand and grow its visibility as a nonprofit, this team hosts events across the country. 

A few weeks ago, Tiefenthaler was in Chicago for one of those events, but there was a noticeable difference from last year’s event when it came to attendee engagement, mainly the enthusiasm during a 90-minute question-and-answer session.

“It was wild,” Herzog said. “And I think she started to see, ‘Oh, this is what we’re doing. We’re building this and I see it working.’ And some of that happens in a qualitative way, like seeing an event.” 

2. Manage Expectations

Deciding to expand your team is one thing, but getting leadership to fund these positions is a completely different undertaking. For National Geographic Society, the organization has a clear vision to drive significant impact by 2030. 

“Because we prioritized those really large, significant gifts and we were able to go, with incremental increases, to our leadership and to the board and say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve done. We have this. This is where we will reach.’ — and that takes a lot of courage because it’s a risk.”

Tiefenthaler’s background as an economist helped to guide the development team’s approach. For example, to get approval for three new positions, including a major gifts officer (MGO), the team approached leadership with a lofty promise of $3 million over the next 12 months if those positions were funded. However, the organization doesn’t expect a new major gift officer to raise $3 million.

“[Tiefenthaler is] interested in numbers, quantitative data, which is what most of our leadership will look at,” Herzog said. “So we have to approach it in that way. And it worked. But then the pressure is on you. You’re really giving yourself some real metrics, and ours were on a really big scale with big numbers.”

Aside from ensuring transparency with leadership, National Geographic Society also set expectations with their current donors, with Mullins or Herzog setting initial meetings with any interested donor giving $50,000 or more. One of the main themes was donors wanted access to the explorers. Now, the nonprofit organizes trips, like one to Costa Rica slated for next month and another to the Galapagos in February, to further cultivate these donors. 

“I’m lovely, but they don’t want to talk to me, right?” she said. “My job is to connect them to the incredible people who are bringing this vision to life. And so one great way that we can do that is through travel and experiences.”

Building out a team is a risk and can be scary, but Herzog advised being flexible, creative and brave to grow your organization in terms of both headcount and fundraising success.

“We all know that those investments in our staff [are] taking money away from the mission,” she said. “I authentically care so much about the work that our explorers are doing. And I took that responsibility very seriously.”


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