There’s a treasure trove of knowledge and research around major gift fundraising. What works well. What doesn’t work at all. What’s, at best, half-baked.
It’s not rocket science. But there’s definitely art, and some science, involved.
The gestalt way of thinking about the three secrets boils down to simply being:
(2) systematic and
But, I’m pretty pragmatic. So I’d like to give you something more practical.
If I had to pick the top three practical secrets to success, they would be the following:
There’s only one person to consider asking for a major gift.
1. A. Qualified. Prospect.
Not Bill Gates (or your local community equivalent), who’s never given to you and with whom no one in your organization has a connection. Not Joe Blow in your database who’s made only one gift and never engaged with you in any other way.
Trying to put the cart before the horse when it comes to building your list of folks with whom you’ll ultimately engage in the major donor cultivation journey will get you just as far as would asking a horse to push your buggy into town.
Not very far.
You need a system to find out who your folks are, pronto, so you don’t squander precious time and resources clogging up your major donor pipeline and beating your head against the proverbial wall.
Major Donor Qualification TIP: Don’t assume. Just because a donor has given at a certain dollar level, or because you’ve got predictive modelling that marks them as “likely” to make a major gift, does not mean that donor wants to relate to you personally or be a part of your major gifts ‘program.’ In fact, only about a third of the people on your original prospect list will respond to your attempts to build a closer relationship with them over time. If you have a caseload of 150 prospects, and only 50 will respond to your ‘moves,’ then you have 100 donors clogging up the works. Worse still, if you’ve pulled them out of your regular cultivation process (where they may have heard from you 12 – 24 times/year), now they’re hearing very little from you. In your attempt to pay them special attention, you’re providing them less attention than they’re used to. If you don’t get them out of that clogged major donor pipeline, they may very well get stuck there and stop giving at all. Free them to be who they want to be (e.g., $1,000 annual donors who are unlikely to ever give much more). Free your major donor portfolio so you can attend to the third of your donors most likely to respond to your tender loving care. The qualification process is like Drano for a clogged pipe.
There’s only one time to ask for a major gift.
2. When. Your. Donor. Is. Ready.
Not when you are ready. Not because you have a monetary goal to meet. Not because your boss insists you make X number of asks per month. Not until you’ve succeeded in your mission to change your donor’s heart. Their heart must be filled to overflowing with the thought of how joyful they’ll feel making a passionate gift to your organization.
It takes time. A recent major gift study found that, on average, the major donor journey requires 18-24 personalized ‘moves’ or ‘touches’ to get to the point where the prospect is ready to be asked. Generally, this takes 4-5 years. Not always, of course. Sometimes donors with an already strong connection don’t require this much cultivation. They may begin as a “hot” prospect. The others need to be warmed up.
You need a system to move folks along a continuum from awareness, to interest, to involvement and, ultimately, to investment. However long this takes, the time will be well spent.
Major Donor Cultivation TIP: Build a bridge. Effective fundraising is all about making a connection between your donor’s passion and your organization’s work. The cultivation phase is your opportunity to take your donor on a journey that crosses the bridge from the values they hold dear and the values you enact. Bridge building takes great care. If you do a sloppy, careless job you’ll get a careless gift. That’s not what you’re after. You need a cultivation plan; you need to follow that plan. You need to think about the donor’s needs every step along the way of that plan. Don’t expect this to happen overnight. You need to learn more about them, and vice-versa. They need to come to trust you, and this results from increasing levels of engagement and follow-through on your part. Perseverance is key.
There’s only one way to raise major gifts.
3. Ask. For. Them.
There are many reasons people fear fundraising, and just as many ways to overcome people’s hesitations. If no one in your organization is willing to make a face-to-face ask, you’ve got your marching orders. Get folks to this point!
You need a system to overcome asking fear by offering training and support. By putting on virtual training wheels, beginning with tasks that may be less daunting than asking. Like making thank you calls. Or getting to know donors through ambassador activities like hosting an event, meeting people for coffee or serving as a tour guide.
Major Donor Solicitation TIP: If you begin by getting the visit, you’ll likely get the gift. This is the hardest part of major gift fundraising. If you can nail this, you can nail the rest. Studies show you’re 85% on your way to getting the gift if you can get the prospect to agree to a personal visit. Jerold Panas, in his iconic book, Asking, wrote that if you want to milk a cow, you shouldn’t send it mail. Sitting by someone’s side is the best way to get a gift of the size you want; not sending a letter or calling on the phone.
The. Good. News!
Every organization can generate major gifts if they put a system in place.
A single major gift, especially a passionate one of six figures or more, can be more than all the gifts you receive from new donors over the course of an entire year.
If you want major gifts enough, you can secure them.
You can put an effective major gift fundraising system in place by following tried-and-true practices that work, today and over the long term. Things you need to cover include:
HOW to build a development team
WHAT steps will unlock your major gift potential
HOW to shape your major donor pipeline
WHAT roles your board must play to enhance your outcomes
WHICH indicators to focus on for long-term health of your major gifts program
Make Your New Year’s Resolution Today
“I solemnly resolve to do what it takes to raise the most money possible, at the lowest possible cost.”
— [Your Name Here]
Major gifts are the most cost-effective form of fundraising. By a long shot.
Imagine if you could add a single five, six or seven-figure gift to your year-end fundraising total this year.
It could make a big difference, right? Not just for your organization, but for your career. Because your success, ultimately, will be measured by the dollars you generate and what can be done with those dollars. And folks who know how to raise major gifts are worth more than their weight in gold!
So, next year…
Prioritize major donor identification, qualification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship over adding another bell or whistle to other strategies that yield a much smaller bang for your buck.
It’s the smart thing to do.
Need Help to Become a Major Gifts Fundraising Star?
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Stop struggling so hard to figure this out on your own. While you’re struggling, you’re not raising the funds you need right now. This year, resolve to invest in yourself and your organization.
Remember: 88% of dollars raised comes from just 12% of donors. You need a plan to focus on your 12%.
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