If you’ve got donors, then you have the raw material for a major donor program – and it’s easier than you think.
Begin with your own database.
Most organizations have plenty of donor prospects, without having to go outside and look for prospects who aren’t connected to you.
You know who I mean. The people your board members tend to suggest to you. Folks who may be rich, and may even be philanthropic elsewhere, but don’t have any interest in what you do. And no one knows them or can make an introduction to them.
Don’t start with the most out-of-reach prospects. You can be a major donor prospect rainmaker without having to go outside or reach too far.
Begin with the Low-Hanging Fruit.
Even small current donors may be juicier prospects than “whale” donors with no connection to you or your cause.
It’s as easy as ABC!
Access. Belief. Capacity.
I’ve actually long used LIA (Linkage; Interest; Ability) as a mnemonic device, but I recently heard Rachel Muir reframe this as ABC, and I think it’s even more memorable. I’ve also seen CCC (Connection; Concern; Capacity). Pick your favorite; they all boil down to this:
- Who you know you can get to.
- Who believes in your mission.
- Who has capacity to give.
These are the folks with whom you’ve already got a foot in the door. They are your best prospects for upgraded giving, presuming you’ve treated them well.
Thank You Sets the Stage
Make sure you have a killer gratitude plan in place.
Saying thank you, and following through with reporting on the impact of your donor’s giving, is how to get folks to trust you as their philanthropy guide.
Remember, your job is to be a philanthropy facilitator. You’re always taking your donors on a journey with you. Moving them from awareness… to interest… to trusting… to helping… to feeling good because you told them how they made a difference… to wanting to help again.
They won’t follow through though.
Not unless you make them feel like the heroes they are. And the heroes they long to be.
And then you ask them to step up and actually become the hero they imagine themselves to be!
Wave the Magic Wand: Ask. Thank. Report back.
This is also known as the Lather, Rinse, Repeat strategy.
First-time donors are testing the waters. You asked. They gave. Now what?
You’ve got to show them some magic!
Show them your organization is truly a wizard at what you do. No fake Wizard of Oz stuff.
Your emperor has clothes, and creates real magic in people’s lives, but… your donor isn’t quite sure yet.
That’s why after you ask you’ve still got considerable work to do if you want to turn your donor into a major donor.
A first-time gift is never the donor’s largest gift. They’re simply dipping a toe in at this point. You need to invite them in by showing them “the water’s fine!
And that begins with a warm, prompt, personal and meaningful thank you.
What’s Your Donor Acknowledgment Policy?
Do you have one?
You need to have “business rules” you follow consistently when it comes to thanking donors.
Begin by developing a ‘Policies and Procedures Manual.’ Put into it everything you’ll do, from the moment a check is received to the moment your donor receives a thank you from you.
Translate these steps into an easy-to-follow grid that becomes your plan. Something everyone is aware of and everyone follows.
You say you’re understaffed and don’t have a fancy database?
Have thank you cards pre-made so you’re able to steward folks promptly and personally.
Don’t just send generic receipts, form letters and emailed auto-responders. Do something that really makes your donor sit up and take notice! Especially with first-time donors, this is your chance to make a great first impression.
Prioritize Upgrading by Finding What Floats Donor’s Boats
Do you know why your donor made their first gift to you? There are numerous ways to find out.
First, you can ask them.
Include a question on your remit piece that asks donors to pick which program they most care about. Or ask them to give you one word that best describes your organization in a nutshell. Send them a brief survey, or call them on the phone to say thanks, taking the opportunity to find out a bit more about them. Consider questions such as:
- What’s the best giving experience you ever had?
- What do you love about what you do?
- What do you think is the biggest problem facing our community/world?
- What do you want to pass on to future generations?
- What are your deepest, most cherished values?
It’s very important to understand what makes your donor tick in order to steward them effectively.
Second, you can stalk them. Legally.
- Set up Google alerts so you’ll see articles and news in which they’re mentioned.
- Add them to your personal LinkedIn network.
- Use Twitter and Pinterest to follow them.
- Like their company on Facebook.
- Use Zillow to find out about their real estate ownership.
- Use PoliticalMoneyLine.com to find out about their election contributions
- Examine how they interact and behave in other ways with your organization (e.g., volunteering, advocating online, attending programs and events).Think strategically about:
Match Donor Values and Interests to Your Organization
Ask yourself what you have to offer that meets each prospect’s specific interests:
- What programs would be of greatest interest?
- What projects would match their interests?
- Who should they meet with at your organization to learn more/become more inspired?
Then build individualized cultivation plans for your target donor prospects.
Select a Target Portfolio
I’ll bet you’ve got donors hiding in your database that you’re neglecting.
I like to compare these to the neglected clothes in my closet. Of course, I’m a bit of a hoarder. I stuff my closet to the gills; then can’t find the gems that are hiding in there. I’m constantly reminding myself to shop in my own closet. I encourage you to do the same.
Shop in your own database.
You’re aware of the Pareto 80-20 rule, right? 80% or more of your donors will likely give you just 20% of your contribution income. You want to focus on the other 10-20% who will give you the lion’s share of your funding. This thin slice of folks is your major donor portfolio “A” list.
Figure out what’s a manageable number of prospects for you (and others you include as part of your major gifts team), and build a portfolio of the appropriate size for your organization. I’ve found that targeting 25 prospects works for most small to medium-sized nonprofits who don’t have designated major gifts officers.
You’ll include other prospects on “B” and “C” lists, but you want to spend 50% of your time on your “A” list (Also see “How to Manage a Reasonable Portfolio” below) .
Shower More Attention on Your Best Portfolio
The best way to find your hidden gems is to look at past giving:
Recency. Frequency. Amount.
Pull that data for the last 2 – 3 years (depending on your organization’s size and donations history).
- Recent givers are warmer than lapsed givers.
- Frequent givers show they’re thinking about you and that your cause is top of mind with them. Often these folks make great legacy prospects.
- Sizeable gift donors show they’re passionate, and likely have capacity.
Also look at cumulative giving so you don’t miss out on the fact that small repeat donors have significant annual giving capacity.
You can also screen for capacity using paid tools and/or interviews or screening meetings with current leadership volunteers.
Also evaluate your donors’ past behaviors.
How do they interact with you?
- Do they do direct service volunteer work?
- Serve on a committee?
- Have a kid in the school?
- Attend events?
- Avail themselves of your programs or services?
All of these affiliations will incline them more towards making a more significant gift to you.
Practical Steps to Qualify Major Donor Prospects for Cultivation
Send a letter (or email) introducing yourself and telling them you’d love to meet them/learn more about them. You’d also love to tell them about their gift at work. Be as personal as possible. Tell them how important they are. Ask them to share why they chose your organization as a repository of their philanthropy. Your goal is to get them to tell you their story, as you tell them some inspiring stories.
Call to follow up. Leave a message. Tell them they can contact you at their convenience.
If you don’t reach them, or they don’t return your call, follow up with a brief survey.
If they don’t respond to the survey, send a final note saying how sorry you are to have missed them, and you’re still available to them should they wish to connect personally. Or if they ever have any questions you can answer.
Batch these so you’re working with a manageable number at any one point in time.
This is NOT a solicitation yet. It’s just warming folks up and laying the essential groundwork so they’ll be pre-suaded to give when the time is right for the “ask.”
How to Manage a Reasonable Portfolio
It’s generally accepted that 150 prospects is the ceiling for a full-time major gifts officer (MGO) who does nothing else. No grant proposals, fundraising appeals, marketing materials, event planning or mail merges. If you do other things, your portfolio will of necessity be smaller.
Apply the same reasoning to the portfolio you ask your executive director to handle. If they devote 20% of their time to major donor fundraising, they can’t handle more than 30 prospects. When it comes to your busy board members, don’t count on giving them more than 2 – 3 prospects each to manage.
Tier your portfolio so you put your best prospects at the top of the list. Remember that this list will be fluid, because as folks decline to meet with you you’ll need to drop them off your major donor cultivation list and move others up the list.
To successfully build a major donor program requires designating someone, or a part of someone’s time, to major donor cultivation and solicitation.
Best Practices for an MGO
If you can designate someone as a Major Gifts Officer, do it! Major gifts is the most cost-effective form of fundraising, and your investment will pay off in spades down the line.
First, you need to hire someone who has the right qualities:
- Enjoys talking with people.
- Makes it a priority to get out of the office.
- Is self-motivated, optimistic and inspired.
- Is organized.
- Likes to ask.
If you have the luxury of one or more full-time MGO’s, here are some guidelines as to how much they can reasonably be expected to handle:
- 2-3 visits before an ask
- 50 – 70% close ratio
- 2 – 3 face-to-face solicitations/month
- 12 – 15 face-to-face visits/month
What, you say? You’re not making an ask of all 150 prospects?
Of course you are! You’re just going to find, as you go along, that not everyone on your list will become “qualified” for the full court press. Not everyone will end up receiving an in-person, individual ask. Some of the prospects on your list may end up with letters. But they will be personalized. They will include specific asks for specific projects. And you’ll send these intentionally, not as a default or fall-back.
Individual Stewardship Plans
Set an annual revenue goal for each major donor prospect.
Develop an individualized cultivation plan with steps along the way.
Print a report from your database, or create an Excel spreadsheet, with monthly actions designed to create deeper engagement.
Use a mix of engagement strategies, understanding that different folks learn differently. Some will respond best in person. Others like to read. Others like to listen. Others like to see, feel and touch.
Go back to your research and to what floats your particular donor’s boat. Build their plan accordingly.
One Major Donor Prospect at a Time
Don’t rush things. The old Paul Masson Winery had a great campaign that stated: “We will sell no wine before its time.” Make no ask before the donor has been properly cultivated.
Build the relationship first.
Get up close and personal.
- Really work your individualized cultivation plan.
- Track and manage your ‘moves’ and ‘touches.’
- Create trust by following through and doing what you say you’ll do.
- Listen to your prospect. Don’t make it all about you.
Strike When the Iron is Hot
While you don’t want to ask too soon, you also don’t want to dawdle. After you’ve made a number of personal ‘moves,’ your prospect will be expecting an ask. Don’t short-change them. People truly do want to be asked.
Remember, you’ve been warming them up by showing them their opportunity to make a difference. To become a hero.
Now… you just have to let them!
Before their ardor cools and they begin to get confused as to why you haven’t asked them yet.
The ask should feel like a natural outgrowth of the relationship you’ve been building.
The time for the proposal has come.
Get down on one knee if you must, and… ask!
If you’ve done your job right, your prospect will likely respond with great passion and say:
YES! I DO!
Want to become a Major Gifts whiz kid?
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Photo by Claire Axelrad of artwork depicting Australian aboriginal Kurtal as the Rainmaker, as part of a series: The Art of Philanthropy – ‘Love of Humankind’ – as Seen Through the Prism of the World’s Art Museums
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