Middlegame Philanthropy: Lessons from Queen’s Gambit


By Bharat Krishnan, MBA, Counsel at The Hodge Group

Like much of America, The Hodge Group’s team binged Queen’s Gambit when it came out on Netflix in October 2020. In fact, many of our teammates finished it in one weekend. We also identified one application to philanthropy: the under-appreciated value of having a solid middlegame strategy.

The middlegame of chess begins after players develop most of their major pieces and move their king to safety. At that time, a player needs to recalibrate their strategy so checkmate is inevitable. The more control they have of the board, particularly its center, the better positioned they are for success because they have more room to move. Philanthropically, we align this with a major giving campaign. The “opening” is securing the first 40 – 60% of funding. The king (lead gift) is secured, and the knights and castles (leadership donors) are engaged. Now, it’s time to keep up (or even step up) the momentum and get to a place where checkmate (100% gift goal) is guaranteed.


(Photo: Netflix)

When THG counsels our clients through major gifts campaigns, we do so the same way as a chess game with a strong middlegame strategy. Often, just like in chess, the middlegame of a campaign is overlooked in favor of establishing a strong opening or holding back in the hopes of trying to guarantee an impressive closing. Recently, we counseled two of our clients through their respective middlegames while each are conducting eight-figure campaigns. Each client moved through their “opening” game effortlessly. So quickly, in fact, that if we hadn’t been watching the “full playing board” for them, the completion of a successful finish would have been threatened. Just like in chess, success with philanthropy can mean planning five steps ahead and understanding the potential response to each of those steps. So, while these campaigns each slowed a bit, by recalibrating their “playing boards” with strong middlegame strategies, they are both now reinvigorated and well on their way to inevitable success stories.

Whoever starts the middlegame with an advance in development and with the command of the center (of the board), has every reason to hope for ultimate success….Eugene A. Znosko-Borovsky.

In anticipation of planning five steps ahead, and understanding the potential response to each of those steps, when we are implementing a campaign for our clients (setting up the playing board), we counsel closely toward the following so we can make sure we have a command of the “center (of the board)” at the start of the middle game:

  • What is the relationship of the private, philanthropic response to the overall capital stack? In other words, over the course of the campaign, what are the other sources of revenue that may influence philanthropy?
  • How are the lead donors being stewarded? If possible, based upon their interest, engaging them in the continued momentum of giving and including them in subsequent cultivation and even solicitation is impactful (we have observed this twice in the past six months with the impact including the lead donor giving another gift).
  • Are the feasibility study participants involved in the campaign? Include all of them if possible. Even if they indicated they would not be available as a volunteer and/or donor, often we find once the momentum of a campaign reaches them, there is a shift.
  • Are the benchmarks of the campaign directly linked to strategic benchmarks of the organization or project? Being able to demonstrate immediate and continuous impact throughout the entire campaign is a significant way to maintain momentum.
  • How can commemoration and recognition continue to hold high status? Often, the commemorative opportunities are identified only at the beginning of a campaign and it’s difficult to hold high esteem as the campaign unfolds. By thinking outside the box and identifying creative ways to reestablish new opportunities, new interests arise.

Through our continued experience with clients and major giving campaigns, we continue to hone these into a stronger “middlegame” strategy. If you would like assistance as you plan yours, please contact us at [email protected].