Every nonprofit should have a major gifts program.
That’s where the lion’s share of the money is.
It’s a rare organization that has a mailing list large enough to raise a million dollars from a million different $1 donors. But most nonprofits do have major donor prospects hiding in plain sight.
It’s up to you to find them; then move them along a cultivation path that prepares them – and you – to make an ask that results in a win/win values-based exchange.
Let’s review 7 secrets that will guarantee your major gifts program is a success, whatever your size.
1. Cultivate Only Qualified Prospects
Too many is, well, too many.
One full-time person can only handle cultivating a portfolio of 150. Maximum. Assuming they do nothing else.
How many hours do you have, organization-wide, to devote to major gifts development? If it’s 20 hours, you can manage a portfolio of 75. If you’re the executive director, and have no development staff, perhaps you’ve got 7.5 hours. That means you can handle a portfolio of 20.
More than that, and you’re only going to have time for “transactions.” Sure, you can ask for gifts. But you’ll likely leave a lot of money on the table. Folks may give you $1,000, when they could have given $10,000. Or they’ll give you money this one time, but they’re unlikely to repeat their giving.
Which is why truly successful major gift fundraisers know you must “qualify” folks to assure they’re likely to want to build a stronger relationship with you.
And, guess what? Typically only about a third of the folks on your preliminary caseload list will wind up on your final, carefully honed major donor portfolio.
Qualification is the process of finding out who wants to build an engaged relationship with you.
Money (capacity) and history (past gifts) alone does not signify a desire to be “cultivated.”
Not every donor on your mailing list who gives above a certain amount is ‘portfolio-worthy.’ Be realistic. Some people like to be wined and dined. Some really want to be part of a community. Others simply want to make a gift; then be left alone. You may be “on their list,” but not a top philanthropic priority.
The best way to find out where your cause falls on your donor’s list is to take some proactive steps to find out!
Call them. Send them a letter. See if they’d like to meet with you. Or attend an event. Or otherwise engage.
This is a process.
And an essential step towards developing a genuine major gift fundraising program.
2. Have a Personal Revenue Goal for Every Donor on Your Caseload
Carefully consider this for each prospect.
Base decisions on past giving, current affiliations with you and others, recent actions and research.
If your plan is to simply ask every prospect for $5,000, because that’s your major donor “level,” you’ll inevitably ask some folks for too much and some for too little.
Major gift fundraising is nothing if not personal.
- I’ve had the occasion to ask someone for less than they were considering. They were offended I didn’t consider them more of a “VIP.”
- I’ve had the occasion to ask someone for more than they were capable of. They burst out laughing and no longer took me seriously.
Recently I was asked (via mail) for a major gift by an organization to which I’d never previously donated. I’m guessing it’s because the new development director there knew me as a major donor where they’d previously worked, so knew I had capacity. That’s not the same as interest. I’m not saying interest couldn’t have been developed, but that’s what the qualification process would have unearthed. In this case, the ask was too soon and bore no relation to my history with the organization.
Learn from mistakes.
This isn’t an exact science. You’ll make mistakes, just as I did. and as my development director friend did.
The point is to reasonably endeavor to determine an appropriate ask amount for each prospect; then ask!
When you make a mistake, it’s really okay.
You’re human. Your donor is human.
People understand, and are often willing to forgive.
When you screw up, own it.
I’ve gone back to donors and made a second ask that was more in the ballpark.
But, don’t get me wrong. It’s better to get it right the first time around.
3. Have a Strategy that Gets You to Your Goals
Write it down!
Without a written plan, you’re doomed to mediocrity.
Sure, you’ll get things done. But they likely won’t be the best things you could have done.
Work smart, not just hard.
Develop individualized cultivation and solicitation plans for each prospect.
To make a major gifts program truly successful, you’ll need to make a record.
- You’ll want a list of “touches” or “moves” you’ve considered ahead of time.
- You’ll want to make sure you’ve got the right person making each move.
- You’ll want to calendar these moves for each prospect in your portfolio.
- You’ll want to enter the results of each move into your database.
- You’ll want to track and monitor your progress towards your goal.
- You’ll want to adapt and make changes, as prudent.
4. Ask Your Donor to Give!
Too often, nonprofits cultivate, cultivate and cultivate.
But they never get to the “ask” because they’re uncertain their prospect is “ready.”
At best, this confuses your donor.
At worst, it pisses them off.
- Don’t waste your donor’s time.
- Don’t waste your time.
- Don’t waste your organization’s resources.
When it’s time to ask, do it!
If you follow your planned cultivation strategy, and pay attention too your donor’s responses, this will tell you when the time is right.
Before you ask, make sure you have the right solicitor prepped to make the ask.
There is no one right solicitor for every prospect.
Ask yourself questions from the perspective of your targeted prospect.
- Does the prospect know who the asker is?
- Will the prospect enjoy meeting with the asker?
- Will the asker be perceived as important, authoritative, credible, or otherwise persuasive?
5. Thank Your Donor Promptly, Personally and Powerfully
It’s up to you to reward your donor.
- Do this within 48 hours.
- Have the right person do the thanking. The one who will mean the most to the donor.
- Powerfully demonstrate the impact of the donor’s gift. Help the donor really be the hero!
If you want gifts, you must give them.
And with major donors, you do want to be thoughtful.
I remember one major donor who told me he’d make the gift only if I promised him he’d never have to “put on a penguin suit” and attend a major donor event. So, for this donor, the gift of an invite to attend a special donors-only gala would not have been appreciated.
6. Report on Outcomes
Ongoing communication is crucial if you ever want to get another gift!
Major gifts are an investment.
Folks need regular reports on how their investments are doing.
The main reason people give is to make a difference.
They worry a bit their gift did not have its intended impact.
You can’t just tell them once either, because good news wears off fast. Research shows that to be meaningful, gratitude must be repeated.
In addition, people want to be valued for more than just their money. If you thank once, and then every other communication is another appeal, people don’t get to feel the joy they deserve to feel from making a real difference.
7. Hold People Accountable
Ever heard that “what gets measured gets done?”
- Managers must sit down with major gift fundraisers to review their goals and actions on a regular basis.
- Major gift officers must sit down with volunteer fundraisers to review their progress, and offer support and encouragement.
If you don’t hold folks’ feet to the fire, the warmth never gets to its intended place.
In this case, the ultimate warmth of a successful ask is two-fold:
- The warmth of furthering your mission.
- The warm and fuzzy feeling your major donor will have!
Want to Be a More Successful Major Gift Fundraiser?
I’m partnering with the Veritus Group to offer their awesome 8-module Certification Course for Major Gift Fundraisers commencing January 25th. You’ll learn everything you need to know to set up (or accelerate) a strong major gifts program. Including tips to connect even while social distancing. And you’ll walk away with a concrete plan you can put in motion right away.
Why do this now? The trend has long been towards fewer donors making larger gifts. Since the 2017 Tax Act reduced the tax incentive to give for small and mid-level donors, this trend has accelerated. It makes sense to focus efforts on wealthier donors who want to make impact gifts. Plus it’s hands-down the most cost-effective form of fundraising, yielding a true bang for your buck. If you’re not strategically focused on building relationships with major donor prospects, you need to start.
You’ll more than make back your investment — likely much more — if you apply what you’ve learned.
Lion photo by Piet Bakker from Pexels