If I had to tell you what you need to do to succeed with major gift fundraising in one sentence it would be this:
Identify major donor prospects… qualify them so you know they want to build a deeper relationship with you… cultivate them… visit with them… listen to them… reflect back to them what you heard… ask them for something specific that resonates with their passions… steward their gift and communicate in an ongoing way to make them feel like the hero they are!
Whew – that was a mouthful!
A shorter way to say this is: Meet with donors. Listen to donors. Ask donors.
See — it’s simple!
It’s definitely not rocket science. It’s just good old hard work. Satisfying and rewarding work. And it’s a type of work anyone can learn to do. [If you want to learn, please sign up for the next Certification Course for Major Gifts Fundraisers e-course . It may be the most important investment you make all year. Just one major gift will more than cover the cost].
Over my 37 years in fundraising, 30 of them working in the trenches as a director of development for organizations with budgets ranging from $1 – $40 million, I have asked for a lot of major gifts. I know what works, and what doesn’t work. Today I want to give you:
(1) some of my best words of wisdom, and also
(2) answers to some of the questions folks frequently ask me .
I hope these tips will help you tweak your mindset and invigorate your systems so you can be more successful fundraising in the coming year!
5 BIG Tips to Raise BIG Money for Your BIG Mission
1. To succeed with major gift fundraising your board must embrace their financing role.
It’s really hard to succeed with major gift fundraising if your board is not (ahem) on board. If they won’t give passionately, and ask others to join them in their passion, then why should anyone else give? Board must be leaders. They have a dual role: (1) governance; (2) financing. In the former role they hire/fire the executive director, determine the mission, develop the strategic plan and make sure the organization is delivering on its brand promise. In the latter role, they make sure funding is available to execute the plan. If they abnegate their full fiduciary role, their plans are nothing but unfunded mandates.
“Fundraising is one of a board’s most basic and important responsibilities, and it is key to an institution’s financial stability.”
— Patricia P. Jackson, The Board’s Role in Fundraising
2. Don’t talk about giving till it hurts. Giving should feel great!
Any time you hear someone say “I’m going to go twist his arm” or “Let’s be sure we hit him up,” you’re in dangerous territory. Fundraising isn’t something violent you do to people. It’s something gentle you do with them. Done right, it should be uplifting and joyful. So get in the habit of gently correcting your staff and volunteer solicitors when they talk this way. It’s your job to help folks reframe fundraising as a positive, not a negative.
“Fundraising in the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”
— Hank Rosso, Achieving Excellence in Fundraising
3. Major donors fund specific outcomes they can visualize.
They want to fund impact. Not your strategic plans, processes and general good work. Those things are important to you, but not the things that motivate your supporters. People are more likely to help if they feel their contribution will make a significant difference in someone’s situation. Help folks easily picture what their money will be used for. Use words and images that immediately bring a picture to mind.
“Two-thirds of donors say understanding their impact would influence them to give more, with 81% of donors citing questions or concerns about impact.”
— Fidelity Charitable study
4. The more times you are in front of the donor BEFORE asking, the bigger their ultimate gift.
A major gift is not an impulse purchase. It takes time for donors to warm to the idea. And they warm to it as they talk about it and bat ideas back and forth. With you, with their significant others, and sometimes with their advisors. Major gift fundraising is all about building a trusting relationship. This is next-to-impossible to accomplish via email. And the phone isn’t optimal either. It’s so much better if you can observe your donor’s body language, and they yours. That way you can pay extra attention when their eyes light up or their body leans forward – a signal you should talk more about this particular subject.
“If you get the visit, you’re 85% of the way to getting the gift.”
— Jerry Panas, Asking
5. Take time to learn what your donor cares about; don’t make it seem like just an endless quest for the donor’s money.
Don’t forget you’re offering donors the opportunity to change the world. You’re offering them the chance to be the person they want to see when they look in the mirror. You’re not offering them an occasion to simply lighten their wallet. Find out what really floats their boat, and move in this direction. If you just want $1,000, and ask for it, you may just get it. But that’s not what you, or they, really want. You want to accomplish something – and it may cost $10,000. If you don’t take time to learn about your donor, you’ll inevitably leave money on the table.
TIP: Write up your notes immediately after a donor visit. Don’t put this off. Do it while the information is fresh in your mind – preferably within 24 hours. If I drive to a meeting, I like to go back to my car and sit while I quietly write up my notes. I find I’ll include a lot more detail than if I wait until I get back to my office the next day or later in the week.
5 FAQs about Asking for Major Gifts
1. Q. When you’re scattered across the country, how do you handle face-to-face meetings?
A. Visit those with the highest targets. They’re the ones that require the most care and feeding, and from whom you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck. Ironically, it’s sometimes easier to get meetings with these folks because you can tell them your timeframe is limited. People respond better when they’re given deadlines: “I’ll be in your area for these three days, and I’d love to set up a time with you while I’m there.” If you absolutely can’t meet in person, suggest a virtual visit via Skype, Face Time or another user-friendly conferencing service.
“Video chatting is fairly universal these days. Even most older donors know how to video chat, because they do so with their kids and grandkids. Ask them what format they are most comfortable with, so they don’t need to worry about learning something new. If they use Facetime, use that. If they Skype, set up an account for yourself. Don’t force them to download something to Google chat or Zoom with you because that’s what you normally use. Make it as easy as possible for them.”
— Amy Eisenstein, Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops
2. Q. How do you move someone from making a restricted to an unrestricted gift?
A. Why would you want to? People tend to make more passionate gifts when they can specifically earmark them for things about which they’re really zealous. They don’t give to your organization. They don’t give to numbers of people. They don’t give to solve every problem your organization tackles. They give to one person faced by one challenge. They give because you told them a story to which they can give a happy ending.
“Instead of saying ‘give where most needed,’ what if you said ‘give where most moved?’”
— Claire Axelrad, Clairification
3. Q. What’s your best advice for getting good at asking?
A. Practice! To get good at this requires doing it. Take workshops where you can practice. Hold board trainings where they can practice. Volunteer for an established nonprofit that will train you and give you opportunity to practice. Take board members with you on solicitations so you can model how this is done before you send them off on their own. AND… never forget you’re giving people an opportunity to feel good, not taking something away from them.
“The act of giving / helping another is one of the most powerful feelings we humans get to experience – it can light us up inside for hours. The feeling influences our subsequent actions with others considerably, the potential ripple effect is enormous. To me, charities are the best place to sell this feeling.”
4. Q. Some of my solicitors are okay asking for four or five-figure gifts but have never asked for six or seven-figure gifts and don’t think they’re the right person to do so. How do you deal with this?
A. If you can find someone to make a Peer-to-Peer ask that’s usually best. However, a comparable ask is also swell. If your solicitor has made a stretch gift that for them is the equivalent of a 6-7-figure gift for the prospect, then they should feel perfectly comfortable. This is called a proportionate ask.
“Research your prospective donors, carefully rate them, and then seek a generous and proportionate gift.”
— David Lansdowne, Fund Raising Realities Every Board Member Must Face
5. Q. Is there a particular type of thank you that inclines first-time major donors to give again?
A. Yes. Tell a brief thank you story that makes your donor feel like they’re right there with you or the person their gift is helping, experiencing their joy, relief and gratitude.
When Celia found out she’d get to go to school here because of the scholarship you made happen, she couldn’t stop screaming.
Also, whenever feasible, invite major donors behind the scenes to witness their philanthropy in action.
Today’s trend is fewer donors making larger gifts to fewer organizations.
If you want to survive and thrive, you need to do whatever is in your power to attract the folks who give the largest gifts – the ones that can be potential game-changers for your organization.
The tips above are specifically designed to help you improve your major donor fundraising efforts and secure a larger piece of the philanthropy pie.
Pick one or two if you can’t do them all. Just, whatever you do, don’t throw your hands up in the air and say we can’t attract major donors. You. Can. Do. It.
Don’t get discouraged! Every organization was once, perhaps a long time ago, exactly where you are today. It will take time and patience, but it will happen. As long as you commit to it. Major donors will come!
If I can help you, it would be my honor.
To your success!
Want more Winning Major Gifts Strategies?
Winning Major Gifts Fundraising Strategies for the small to medium-sized shop may be just the ticket! Check out the syllabus, see what others have to say about the course, and don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com if you have any questions about whether this may be right for you.
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Great article, Claire. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Asking for money can sometimes feel very daunting. However you make it seem easy and enjoyable. Your experience and readiness to share the same is very much appreciated.