You don’t just roll out of bed one day, randomly go visit a major donor prospect and ask for a random amount. At least not without a boatload of advance preparation. Right?
It’s a lot smarter to begin at the beginning.
And then take it step by step from there.
According to a plan.
A plan to secure BIG gifts for you BIG mission.
It’s always a great time to review what you can do to get yourself and your solicitors (staff and volunteers) ready to make win/win matches between your organization and your prospective major donor/investors.
Ready for some A, B, C’s?
First… the Case for Major Gift Fundraising
They’re a BIG deal. Studies show over 88% of all funds raised come from just 12% of donors. You get a huge bang for your buck from an individual major gifts program, which costs you roughly 10 cents on the dollar vs. 50 cents or more on the dollar for special events fundraising and actually losing money on direct mail donor acquisition.
Of all the fundraising strategies you can implement, given their respective impact on your fundraising total, it’s clear a vigorous major gifts program should be a year-round priority.
You should be identifying, qualifying, cultivating and asking prospects for the gifts that should account for the lion’s share of contributions to your annual operating budget. And then you should be continuing to develop relationships with these supporters so you can count on this support year after year.
In other words, you need a system in place that turns random and accidental into intentional and deliberate.
Almost any nonprofit can, and should, actively and intentionally cultivate and solicit major gifts.
If you have donors, then you have the raw material for a major donor program – and it’s easier than you think.
Begin with your own database.
Most organizations have plenty of donor prospects, without having to go outside and look for prospects who aren’t connected to you.
You know who I mean these inaccessible folks. The people your board members tend to suggest to you. Folks who may be rich, and may even be philanthropic elsewhere, but don’t have any interest in what you do. And no one knows them or can make an introduction to them.
Don’t start with the most out-of-reach prospects.
Begin with the Low-Hanging Fruit
Even small current donors may be juicier prospects than “whale” donors with no connection to you or your cause.
It’s as easy as ABC!
Access. Belief. Capacity.
I’ve actually long used LIA (Linkage; Interest; Ability) as a mnemonic device, but I heard Rachel Muir reframe this as ABC, and I think it’s a great way to begin. At the beginning. I’ve also seen CCC (Connection; Concern; Capacity). Pick your favorite; they all boil down to this:
A. Who you know you can get to.
B. Who believes in your mission.
C. Who has capacity to give.
Your best prospects are folks with whom you’ve already got a foot in the door.
Look for hidden gems.
One way to gauge interest is to look at past giving:
Recency. Frequency. Amount.
Pull that data for the last 2 – 3 years (depending on your organization’s size and donations history).
- Recent givers are warmer than lapsed givers.
- Frequent givers show they’re thinking about you and your cause is top of mind with them. Often these folks make great legacy prospects.
- Sizeable gift donors show they’re passionate, and likely have capacity.
Also look at cumulative giving.
Don’t miss out on the fact that small repeat donors often have significant annual giving capacity. And they’re loyal. Take a particular look at your monthly donors, who love you on a regular basis.
You can also screen for capacity using paid tools and/or interviews or screening meetings with current leadership volunteers.
Also evaluate your donors’ past behaviors.
How do they interact with you?
- Do they do direct service volunteer work?
- Serve on a committee?
- Have a kid in the school?
- Attend events?
- Avail themselves of your programs or services?
All of these affiliations will incline them more towards making a more significant gift to you.
Select a Preliminary Portfolio of Likely Prospects
I’ll bet you’ve got donors hiding in your database that you’re neglecting.
I like to compare these to the neglected clothes in my closet. Of course, I’m a bit of a hoarder. I stuff my closet to the gills; then can’t find the gems that are hiding in there. I’m constantly reminding myself to shop in my own closet. I encourage you to do the same.
Shop in your own database.
Let’s go back to the Pareto 80-20 rule. Roughly 80%, 90% or more of your donors will likely give you just 20%, 10% or less of your contribution income. You want to focus on the other 5 – 20% who will give you the lion’s share of your funding. I just had to say this again, as it’s so often forgotten in the day-to-day of annual fundraising implementation. Don’t get off track!
We’re back to A, B, C’s again.
The thin slice of supporters at the top (usually between 5 – 20%) is your major donor portfolio “A” list.
Figure out what’s a manageable number of prospects for you (and others you include as part of your major gifts team), and build a preliminary portfolio of approximately three times that size. Why that many? Because only about a third of these folks will end up staying on your active portfolio. The truth is not everyone wants to develop a deeper relationship with you. Some of your $1,000 donors won’t ever give more than that. You’ll want to pay attention to them, of course. But you won’t lavish the ‘full court press’ cultivation on all of them.
You may have heard a major gift officer should handle a portfolio of roughly 150 prospects. They can only do this if they have no responsibilities other than talking and meeting with donors. For most small to medium-sized nonprofits who don’t have designated major gifts officers I’ve found that targeting 25 prospects works well (this means beginning with a list of about 75 prospects).
You’ll include other prospects on “B” and “C” lists, but you want to spend 50% of your time on your “A” list of folks you want to ask for significant upgrades and/or new major gifts.
To further hone your portfolio requires a process of qualification.
6 Practical Steps to Qualify Major Donor Prospects for Cultivation
- Send a letter (or email) introducing yourself and telling them you’d love to meet them/learn more about them. You’d also love to tell them about their gift at work. Be as personal as possible. Tell them how important they are. Ask them to share why they chose your organization as a repository of their philanthropy. Your goal is to get them to tell you their story, as you tell them some inspiring stories.
- Call to follow up. Leave a message. Tell them they can contact you at their convenience.
- Try again.
- If you don’t reach them, or they don’t return your call, follow up with a brief survey.
- If they don’t respond to the survey, send a final note saying how sorry you are to have missed them, and you’re still available to them should they wish to connect personally. Or if they ever have any questions you can answer.
- Batch these so you’re working with a manageable number at any one point in time.
This is NOT a solicitation yet; you’re warming folks up and laying the essential groundwork so they’ll be pre-suaded to give when the time is right for the “ask.”
Develop Individual Goals and Cultivation Plans
- Set an annual revenue goal for each major donor prospect. It should be realistic based on what you know about their past behavior, interests and values, but also a bit of a stretch.
- Develop an individualized cultivation plan with steps along the way. Go back to your research, and to what floats your particular donor’s boat. Build their plan accordingly.
- Then stick with it!
- Print a report from your database, or create an Excel spreadsheet, with monthly actions designed to create deeper engagement.
- Use a mix of engagement strategies, understanding that different folks learn differently. Some will respond best in person. Others like to read. Others like to listen. Others like to see, feel and touch.
CAVEAT to help you stick with your plan: Let’s say you need to raise $100,000 from your board, and you have 20 board members. You’ll need to secure an average gift of $5,000. Imagine you ask the board president for this amount, she gives you only $2,500, and everyone else follows suit. You’re sunk. If you ask for and accept too little, you’re not going to get anywhere. You may not be able to complete the project. You may even have to shut it down. This makes no one happy, least of all your donors. This is something too many nonprofits forget! Major gifts are passionate gifts. They’re transformative gifts. Your job is to inspire ardent philanthropy that excites your donors and brings meaning to their lives. So, know where you’re going and don’t back down.
One major donor prospect at a time.
Don’t rush things. The old Paul Masson Winery had a great campaign that stated: “We will sell no wine before its time.” Make no ask before the donor has been properly cultivated.
Build the relationship first.
- Really work your individualized cultivation plan.
- Track and manage your ‘moves’ and ‘touches.’
- Create trust by following through and doing what you say you’ll do.
- Listen to your prospect. Don’t make it all about you.
Get up close and personal.
Select and Support Your Solicitors
Determine who you have available, staff and volunteers, to make major gift solicitations.
Likely suspects are the director of development and/or major gift officer; executive director; selected executive and program staff; board of directors; former board of directors; committee volunteers, and donors. Volunteer participation is very important, and often raises the level of trust and comfort felt by donors. Let’s face it, it’s different if a volunteer takes their time to speak passionately of their commitment to your cause. They don’t get paid to do so.
Prepare these folks to become actively involved this year.
This may involve a formal training/practice session to help them overcome their fear of fundraising and learn how to joyfully inspire philanthropy, as well as one-to-one talks with each solicitor to develop and follow through on an individual fundraising portfolio (their “assignments”) and plan (specifically what you want them to do before, during and after the solicitation).
Strike when the iron is hot.
While you don’t want to ask too soon, you also don’t want to dawdle. After you’ve made a number of personal ‘moves,’ your prospect will be expecting an ask. Don’t short-change them. People truly do want to be asked.
Remember, you’ve been warming them up by showing them their opportunity to make a difference. To become a hero.
Now… you just have to let them!
And before their ardor cools and they begin to get confused as to why you haven’t asked them yet.
The ask should feel like a natural outgrowth of the relationship you’ve been building.
The time for the proposal has come.
Get down on one knee if you must, and… ask!
If you’ve done your job right, your prospect will likely respond with great passion and say:
YES! I DO!
Want to become a Major Gifts whiz kid?
Enroll yourself and your team in the Certification Course for Major Gift Fundraisers. I hope you’ll take a minute to review the curriculum and see what your peers had to say about the course.
If you’re a Clairification School enrolled student, let me know and I’ll send you a special discount code. If you’re not enrolled yet, you’ll save enough to cover your Clairification School enrollment fee, so… don’t hesitate! But don’t worry so much about the money; you’ll more than make back your investment with just one new or increased major gift.
And you’ll gain skills and confidence that will serve you your entire career.
Image — Three San Francisco Hearts: heartsinsf; Love Captured Heart; Planes. Benefit for S.F. General Hospital Foundation.