The right relationships with major donors can help your organization secure flexible funding and meet budgetary needs. But if you’ve never cultivated a major donor, where do you start?
What is a major donor, anyway? The answer varies from organization to organization, but in general, major donors give at a level that is well above an organization’s average donation amount. You get to set the bar!
The amount should present an appropriate challenge for your fundraising team and help the organization reach its funding goals. The amount of a “major gift” could range from $100 to $1 million.
To define what constitutes a major gift at your nonprofit, consider your budget, donor history, and in-house talent and capacity (staff, board members, volunteers, etc). Then, work through these six steps to help build major donor relationships that will last a lifetime.
1. Assessment: Are you ready to make a big ask?
Before launching a major donor giving program, look inward. Is your nonprofit prepared? You should know who at your nonprofit will be involved in asking for large gifts and ensure they’re supported. Then, consider hosting a roundtable to unpack topics such as personal relationships to money and social and cultural taboos associated with money to assess your team’s comfort levels. Work to build a culture of celebrating fundraising wins, practicing fundraising asks out loud, and discussing the challenges openly and honestly. Major gift fundraising is a skill that can be learned with other fundraisers—whether those fundraisers are at your organization or in a larger fundraising network like GlobalGiving!
2. Identification: Who are your potential major donors?
We can all name wealthy individuals, but how many of them are we truly connected to? Connection is key. Start with your organization’s current donor base and network of supporters to identify prospective major donors. Who among them can give more generously if they are invited to deepen their commitment?
The answer to that question will kick-start your research. Look for specific indicators that might guide you toward a shortlist of prospects. These indicators can be:
Connection: Has this person supported your work before? Do they have existing connections with anyone at your organization? Is there a possible pathway you can chart out to make a future connection?
Wealth: Does this person have access to capital? You can usually get a basic idea of someone’s wealth by researching on Google, LinkedIn, and sites like Zillow. Search specifically for bios, obituaries, and wedding announcements. This research can be time-intensive, though. If you want a quick scan of your donors, analyzing zip code data is a good place to start.
Philanthropy: Is this person a giver? Again, Google can get you pretty far in answering this question. Does their name appear in other nonprofit annual reports? Annual reports frequently list top donors and provide giving levels (e.g. $1,000-$5,000). Get a sense of what types of causes they give to (specifically at the highest levels), and what their social media presence indicates they’re passionate about. Based on your findings, do you think they’d be interested and able to deepen their commitment to your work if given the chance?
3. Cultivation: How are you building and strengthening relationships?
Cultivation implies a series of “touch points” with a donor that, when strung together, work to build a relationship, strengthen their connection to your mission, and prime them for solicitation. Your organization may have standard touch points for all donors (e.g. emails, mailers, social media channels). For potential major donors, how can you make each touch point more personal and curate their experience with your organization? Many nonprofits assign a portfolio of major donors (anywhere from 15-60 individuals) to a major gift officer to think through these cultivation moves, which include scheduled phone calls and in-person visits. Relationships are at the heart of fundraising, so having a consistent contact for major donors is important.
4. Solicitation: How can you personalize your ask?
By the time you’re making an ask, you should know a fair amount about the individual from your research and cultivation. Come prepared to share the aspects of your nonprofit’s work that will resonate most, and present the information in a way that works for them. Is this donor a big-picture dreamer, visually moved, a nuanced policy thinker, or a needs-to-see-the-budget type?
Always make time to catch up on what’s happening in their world, and share about yourself as well. This shouldn’t feel scripted or rushed. Listen for life details that might indicate whether now is a particularly good or bad time to give (e.g. they just sold a company or paid for children’s tuition).
Once you get to making the ask, it should feel natural because you’ve been building up to this moment. Ideally, it’s also not the first time you’ve said this out loud if you’ve practiced the ask with colleagues.
It is important to ask for a specific amount that is justified by organizational need and within the donor’s realm of possibility. This is called targeting your ask. If you simply ask a donor to give and leave the amount open ended, then they’re thinking about whether to give or not. Asking for a targeted amount shifts their thinking to whether that amount makes sense for them.
Once you make the ask, remain calm and stop talking. Give them the space to take in the whole conversation. This can be an uncomfortable moment, but stick with it and refrain from apologizing or softening the ask. Then, truly listen to what they have to say. Of course, you want a yes, but maybes, nos, and not right nows offer an incredible chance to deepen your understanding of this donor’s giving philosophy and habits so that you may get a yes next time.
If they do say “yes,” then celebrate! Take time to appreciate the donor’s generosity and restate the world-changing work that they’re supporting!
5. Confirmation: Have you covered the logistics?
Larger gifts often take more time to arrange than regular donations. Discuss with your donor the exact amount, their preferred donation method, when to expect the donation, and—importantly—how you’ll follow up on their pledge. Make sure you have a shared understanding of how the gift should be used and how and when you’ll share impact.
6. Stewardship: How are you developing a strong, long-term relationship?
Stewardship is the process after securing a gift where you ensure the donor continues to feel the warm glow from deciding to give and sees the impact of their gift in action.
In other words, getting a major gift is not the end of the road. Failing to steward a gift properly might damage the relationship and jeopardize future gifts, so don’t skip this part!
Implement processes to thank major donors and keep them apprised of the work they’re supporting. Maybe your Executive Director sends a personal thank-you note. Maybe they’re invited to private quarterly update calls with staff. Whatever the method, be sure the style of communication resonates with them to strengthen the connection.
Major gift fundraising is an art and a science—there is no right way to do it. As you start out, be open. See what works, and build on the successes. As your program grows, it will naturally require more hands and more structure. Then, you can create systems that are flexible enough to allow for tailored giving journeys. Good luck in your major donor journey!
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