The major gift journey is a synergistic one. You see, it’s both your journey and your donor’s journey.
If you want to follow along the most direct pathway to sustainable philanthropy, you’ll want to consider the two-fold nature of the expeditious endeavor known as major gift fundraising. Or, as I prefer to call it, passionate philanthropy.
First understand it’s not just about the money; it’s every bit as much about the experience.
Strive to become your donor’s favorite philanthropic journey guide.
If you do your job as guide well, they’ll find meaning, purpose and happiness being engaged with you.
- If you make the experience a joyful one, your fellow traveler will become your donor.
- If you continue to make the experience joyful, they’ll continue to travel the road with you by renewing and upgrading their support.
Major gift fundraisers, essentially, are in the happiness delivery business.
That’s right! It’s both (1) a business, and (2) a donor journey toward joy. You’ve got to treat it like a business if you want to make money. That means clarifying goals, setting specific objectives, planning strategies and tactics, and holding yourself accountable. Otherwise you’re just occasionally taking folks along for a stroll, without being thoughtful about what’s in it for both of you. And if you haven’t concretized what the benefits are, it’s hard to deliver on them!
Let’s take a look at the 6 steps you must take to build and sustain a winning major gifts program.
Expeditious Steps to Fuel Your Pathway to Passionate Philanthropy
1. Lay Groundwork
Before you can begin in earnest with major gifts development, it’s necessary to lay some groundwork. Essential pre-conditions are:
- Know where you’re going.
- Know who’s going there with you.
Why you must know where you’re going.
Per the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, 88% of funds raised comes from just 12% of donors and 76% of gifts come from just 3% of donors.
“When so much in the way of revenue can be derived from either 3% or 12% of any donor database, extra focus on identifying and building relationships with both groups is time well spent.”
— Bill Levis, Project Manager, Fundraising Effectiveness Project
Knowing where you’re going means establishing an appropriate major gift level that assures you focus on building relationships with the right donor-prospects. What will prove most fruitful will differ for every organization. While a major university may not consider gifts under 6 or 7 figures ‘major,’ a small social service agency may consider of $500 gift big enough to merit personal cultivation, solicitation and stewardship. Begin with the 10% of folks giving you 90% of your philanthropy (or it may be 20/80 or 30/70 for you), and see what the average gift here may be. You may have to throw out an outlier or two that could skew your results.
Once you know who gives above average among your top donors, ask yourself if the number of donors you have at or near this level seem like a number you can handle. If so, perfect. If you can handle more or less, you’ll need to adjust. Remember, you’re not making judgments about people here. You’re simply being practical about working with limited resources. Unless you’re extremely small, you simply cannot treat everyone like a major donor. This doesn’t mean you can’t treat all donors well. You can, and must. Still, major donor prospects should be differentiated so you can provide the requisite extra focus.
Why you must know who’s going there with you.
Major gift development is a team endeavor. You can’t put a development staffer over into a corner and expect major gifts to rain down from the sky. Nor can you relegate critical fundraising to one committee of the board, giving everyone else a pass. Major gift development is all about building relationships, and you want as many relationship builders on your team as possible. Staff and volunteers. Fundraising should be part of everyone’s job.
If you try to go it alone, it’s more stressful than it should be. You never know who in your organization may come into contact with a prospective major donor, so why not develop a culture where everyone is on the look-out? Plus, different people within your organization are likely to have different skills. Some are good door openers… some are good researchers… some are good with facts, figures, and making case for support… some are good at offering testimonials… and some good at asking. Why not use them all?
2. Identify Prospects
It’s essential to create a viable prospect list – not from scratch! Look for donors already giving at or above your major gift level, and those you think might be inclined to give at this level. Don’t simply brainstorm a list of wealthy folks in your community.
You need three things, standing together, to make a major donor prospect for your organization:
LINKAGE to your cause.
Look for folks who’ve given before, have attended an event, have volunteered, have been a client, patron, member or user of services, or who know one of your board members, staff, vendors or other leaders. These are folks you can access, because you have a legitimate connection.
INTEREST in your cause.
Just because a family member was treated at your hospital does not mean they want to build you a new wing; linkage alone, without interest, does not suffice to make a viable major donor prospect. Major donor prospects must have a relevant concern.
ABILITY to give.
While money alone is an insufficient indicator, it’s important the prospect have ability to make a major gift if you’re going to put them on a major donor cultivation track; if not, you’re just wasting your time. Whether it be through purchased wealth screening tools (see also here), researching giving to other organizations, or sitting with current donors and board members to conduct peer screening and rating, spend some time assessing your prospect’s capacity.
3. Qualify Prospects
Your job is to differentiate between your major donor travelers and the stay-at-homers. Don’t put everyone who gives, or who you think might give, at your major gift level into your major donor cultivation and solicitation portfolio. Not everyone wants to go on this journey with you. Some donors simply want to give and be left alone. Plus some will never give more than they’re currently giving.
Don’t ‘knight;’ invite.
“Qualify” folks to assure they’re likely to want to build a stronger relationship with you. If you make a practice of ‘knighting’ every $1,000 donor and naming them “Sir/Lady Major Gift Prospect” you’re going to go down the wrong path with two-thirds of these folks. That’s right. Only one-third of identified prospects will self-identify as wanting to take the major gift journey with you as their guide. The rest simply will not respond to your attempts to cultivate them. You don’t have time for this!
Know that major givers who are taken out of the regular annual giving cycle are likely to get less attention from you than they did before. Sadly, it’s too often the case that donors in too-large major gift portfolios get pushed to the back burner. Where in the past they may have heard from you multiple times throughout the year, suddenly you don’t call or write. You’ve decided they’re a ‘big fish,’ you’re currently dealing with other ‘big fish,’ and you’ll get to them when you get to them. Or, sometimes, not. Bad mojo.
Engage in a finite number of qualifying touches and moves.
Invite folks to the dance! Call them. Send them a letter. Email or text them. See if they’d like to meet with you. Or attend an event. Or otherwise engage. Be persistent, and try 4 – 8 times to get a response. When they don’t bite after a reasonable number of attempts, cut your losses and move these folks out of the top tier of your major donor portfolio.
4. Cultivate Prospects
In the major donor cultivation business, this part of the journey is often called ‘moves management.’ It’s not just about moving people from one step to another. It’s about moving them emotionally so they get to the point where they’re inspired to engage in passionate philanthropy.
Think of ‘moves management’ as your and your donor’s treasure map.
Come at it from a thoughtful, donor-centered perspective. Bring some fun and adventure into the endeavor by taking time to think how your donor will feel about each move. This prevents you from getting lost, and seriously bogged down, in the process. You need to stop robotically checking tasks off a list by infusing a lot of love – aimed straight at your donor – into your donor’s journey towards deeper commitment w/you.
All the moves are ways you show donor love. You get to know people better, and make them feel good. This makes you feel good. See? As much fun, and as rewarding, as a good treasure hunt should be! Or, if your will, a moving experience.
5. Solicit Prospects
Beware of cultivation paralysis. You can’t just be wooing. I adhere to the Goldilocks rule and suggest developing a system so you’ll know when the ‘just right’ time to ask has been reached. You don’t want to ask too soon, or you’ll get a smaller gift than you could have because your prospect was too cold. You also don’t want to wait too long; too hot (think of your donor getting hot under the collar) and you may lose the gift entirely.
This is all meaningless unless you bite the bullet and make the ask.
Donors willing to be cultivated want to give. It’s actually annoying to your donors if you cultivate them endlessly; then never do them the favor of asking them to do something specific that will bring great meaning to their lives. They need to be asked.
If you’re not asking, figure out why.
I find there are three reasons asks don’t occur:
- The asker is not in touch with their own passion. It’s hard to inspire others if you’re not inspired yourself. Do what you can to reconnect yourself to your mission. Visit your programs. Talk with program staff. Do what you can to re-ignite your board members’ passions. Ask them what first brought them to your cause, and what keeps them engaged. When you’re inspired, it comes across. When you’re not, that also comes across. I always tell major gift solicitors “what you say is not as important as how you say it!”
- The asker hasn’t enacted their own passion. They say “if you’re going to preach religion you must first get religion.” If you’re asking for a passionate gift you must first make a passionate gift. This is not about dollar amount. It’s about making a stretch gift – whatever that means for the asker, personally. Don’t let anyone make an ask who hasn’t made a passionate gift (for them).
- The asker is unwilling to share their passion. Generally this means there is a need to reframe fundraising to infuse some joy into the endeavor. At its best, the process is simply one of offering an opportunity to others to join you in something about which you’re super enthusiastic. If you love the cause, why not be generous with that love and share it?
6. Appreciate Donors
Pour on the gratitude.
Once you’ve asked, don’t omit the final step. Make sure you let donors know how much the gift means to you. How much it is accomplishing. How special they are for seeing the need and helping to fill it. Not just once, but multiple times. Gratitude must be repeated to be effective.
Tell donors they’re your heroes.
Have a ‘donor love and loyalty plan’ in place if you want donors to continue to experience joy from their philanthropic affiliation with you. Alas, giving is not always its own reward. Be proactive. Don’t wait for your donor to connect with you; connect with them! Your job as a philanthropy facilitator never ends. At least not if you want your donor to book you as their philanthropic journey guide ever again!
Want to learn about the major gift journey step-by-step, detail-by-detail?
Enroll yourself and your team (groups of 3+ get a big discount) in the Certification Course for Major Gift Fundraisers. The next course begins June 6th and finishes September 2nd — just in time to help you have the best year-end fundraising ever! Grab your spot NOW — before registration ends June 3rd.
A combo of know-how and commitment will get you where you need to go. Seize the day! Commit to the endeavor now. Leave it to experienced experts to help you with the know-how over the next 13 weeks. I”m partnering again this year with the Veritus Group to offer this career-changing course to you, and I promise the investment will be more than worth it. Because major gifts cost only 5 – 10 cents to raise a dollar — they are by far the most cost-effective form of fundraising. And the skills you learn will always be in high demand — whatever your role with your nonprofit.
Questions? Email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll respond personally.
Photo courtesy of Michael Clarke on Unsplash