If I had to tell you what you need to do to succeed with major gift fundraising in one short paragraph it would be this:
Identify prospects. Qualify them so you know they want to build a deeper relationship with you. Cultivate them. Visit with them. Listen to them. Ask them for something specific that resonates with their passions. Steward their gift. Communicate the impact of their gift, more than once, to cement the relationship and make them feel like the hero they are.
It’s definitely not rocket science. It’s just not something most of us are taught. Ultimately, success depends on doing the right things the right way. Once you know what is required, success comes from good old hard work. Satisfying and rewarding work. It’s a type of work anyone can learn to do. [If you want to learn, please sign up for the upcoming Certification Course for Major Gift Fundraisers that begins January 25th. It may be the most important investment you make all year. Just one major gift will more than cover the cost].
Over my 39 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 some of my best words of wisdom, and also answer some of the questions folks tend to ask me frequently.
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!
Nonprofit Major Gift Fundraising Strategy: 10 FAQs
1. What is the board’s role in major gift fundraising?
It’s really hard to succeed with major gift fundraising if your board is not (ahem) on board. To succeed, your board must embrace their financing role. If they won’t give passionately, and ask others to join them in their passion, then why should anyone else give? Board members 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 abdicate 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. To get board members to give at the proper level, is it okay to ask them to give until it hurts?
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 her 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. Since they already know us, can we ask current donors to make a major gift without needing to meet with them multiple times?
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, even for folks who already support your mission. 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
4. When I can’t meet in person, how do I handle face-to-face meetings?
Suggest a virtual visit via Zoom, Face Time or another user-friendly conferencing service. One gift of the pandemic period is we’ve all learned new personal ways to connect with folks in real time. And while it’s fashionable to talk about “Zoom fatigue,” in fact many folks stuck inside today are feeling isolated. They don’t get enough socialization. They are actually starved for real, live human interaction and love.
“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. Make it as easy as possible for them.”
— Amy Eisenstein, Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops
5. How do I move someone from making a restricted to an unrestricted gift?
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
6. How do I know what project to ask for? What if I pick the wrong one?
Take time to learn what your donor cares about; don’t just ask for the donor’s money. You’re not offering them an occasion to simply lighten their wallet. 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. 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 right away, definitely the same day. You’ll find you include a lot more detail than if you wait until the next day or later in the week.
7. Is there a best practice for making an offer the donor won’t be able to refuse?
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. “We need $10,000 to help homeless people” is vague and totally oriented around money. Contrast this with “May I tell you a story about an extraordinary gentleman I met last week, someone you would never have expected to be in line for a food basket?” You can then describe the problem, the realistic solution your program provides, and the specific outcome the donor’s gift will create.
“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
8. 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?
If a solicitor makes their best possible gift – a stretch gift – they can effectively ask for a comparable stretch gift from any prospect. If you can find someone to make a peer-to-peer ask that’s usually best. However, if your solicitor has made a gift that, relative to their capacity, is the equivalent of a 6-7-figure gift for the prospect, then they should feel perfectly comfortable. This is called a proportionate ask. As long as the solicitor stretches, they can ask the prospect to stretch as well.
Keep in mind this is a very human, person-to-person conversation. There’s no one right way to ask; it just must be comfortable and as natural as possible. For all concerned. My mentor and friend, Kay Sprinkel Grace, wrote in her book “Over Goal” about a young Stanford volunteer tasked with making an ask of someone older with seniority in her company. She froze slightly at the moment of the ask and blurted out the hoped-for amount. The prospect said: “I’ve never been asked for a gift that large.” Instinctively, the volunteer responded: “I’ve never ASKED for a gift that large!” This broke the tension, and they had a good laugh together.
“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
9. What’s your best advice for getting good at asking?
Practice! To get good at anything requires doing it. Enroll in trainings where you can practice. Hold board solicitor 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 get comfortable by reframing fundraising as a positive, not a negative. 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.”
10. Is there a particular type of thank you that inclines first-time major donors to give again?
Tell a brief thank you story that makes your donor feel they’re right there with you or the person their gift is helping, experiencing their joy, relief and gratitude. There’s nothing more fulfilling than experiencing a gratifying outcome first hand. Whenever feasible, invite major donors behind the scenes — virtually or in person — to witness their philanthropy in action. For example, here’s a photo of masks, and teddy bears with masks, distributed to homeless children in Richmond California. The children were given the bears to encourage them to follow the model set by their teddies. I gave to this effort, and the thank you prompted me to want to give again.
You can also use descriptive text that puts your donors right at the scene.
“When Celia found out she’d get to go to school here because of the scholarship you made happen, she couldn’t stop screaming. With joy, and gratitude.”
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 this 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 to Supercharge Major Gift Fundraising This Year?
This is definitely an investment, but I promise it will be the best one you make all year. You’ll get:
- Valuable skills you’ll use through your entire career
- New fundraising tools you can put to work right away
- An actionable, step-by-step plan to apply what you’ve learned
- A peer group
- Access to experienced professionals who will answer your questions
- Professional certification
- 36 CFRE credits
Most important – you’ll raise more money than you thought possible. And you’ll do it with greater confidence and more joy.
That’s worth a lot, don’t you think?
NOTE: I love this course SO much I’m partnering with the Veritus Group to offer it to you instead of my own course this year. But I’ll still send you some of my own materials if you sign up through me. So you’ll get the best of both worlds!