major donorsIf your fundraising plan doesn’t include a strategy for finding, cultivating, and asking major donors for a large donation, you’re missing out on some big gifts for your small nonprofit.

Larger gifts equal more net revenue which means you can do more good.

It’s the old 80/20 rule at work: Over 80% of all funds come from about 20% of donors. Actually, the Fundraising Effectiveness Project shows that 88% of all funds come from 12% of donors.

That means if you spent most of your time on the top 12% of your donors, you will raise more money and in less time than dinking around with little nickel-and-dime fundraisers.

Just think: you could work less and raise more!

So, let’s get you some major gifts, okay?

There are two big reasons why people don’t work on major gifts:

  • They aren’t comfortable asking for money in person.
  • They don’t know who to ask.

If major gift work is new to you, I get it. I was pretty nervous about asking people for a large donation when I was new to fundraising. But I learned a few tricks that worked beautifully and now I want to share them with you so you can get big gifts for your small nonprofit.

Let’s start by taking a look at some surprising benefits of working on your major donor fundraising strategy.

Why Focus on Major Donors? 

The biggest reason to work on major donors is because the return on investment is so high. Major donor strategy should be a foundational piece of your fundraising plan

Here’s why:

1. Major donors can make a decision right away. There’s no committee to convene and  very little (if any) paperwork. The only person who might need to approve a major gift is a spouse. When you have an urgent need, a fantastic opportunity, or a funding gap, major donors can fund that need FAST for you!

2. Major donors are the BEST source of funding for specific projects. Maybe your food bank is working on a special program to send meals home with students over a holiday break, for children who might not have any other way to get food when school is closed.

A donor who is moved by this particular project might fund the whole thing— yes, that’s happened to me before! There are no hoops to jump through like with grants or corporate sponsors. A major donor who believes in your mission is more likely to take a chance without documented proof that your approach will work.

3. Major gifts give you breathing room to stop hosting all those little fundraisers that barely generate any money. You could spend hours and hours planning and hosting a fundraising event and make a couple hundred dollars or…

… you could spend a fraction of that time growing a major donor relationship that yields a $10,000 check plus kindles an important relationship for the future.

Where would you rather spend your time? 😉

4. Fundraising gets less stressful. Knowing you have major gifts coming in can ease the stress of finding money and allow you to get down to work, focusing on your services and programs. Major donors are also more likely to provide unrestricted funding than grants or other sources of revenue.

What Do Major Donors Want When They Give? 

Donors who give big are no different from you and me. They just happen to have bigger bank accounts.

It’s important to understand their motivation before you go searching for major donors.

They give to make a difference and support a cause they care about. They want to feel great knowing they did a good thing. (Actually, this is the same across the board with all donors, regardless of wealth. In short, donors give because giving feels amazing!)

Occasionally a major donor will want their name on a building—naming rights is a whole separate topic—or some other perk like the opportunity to meet people receiving services in a more private setting, an exclusive tour, or their name listed in a report.

But the vast majority do not. They just want to give to something that matters to them and that will have a meaningful impact.

What Amount Is Considered a Major Gift? 

Many small nonprofits use $1,000 as the entry into major gift territory. And YOU get to decide what’s right for your organization.

Some organizations start at $500. Others may have grown to the point where they’ve raised their minimum major gift size to $5,000 or $10,000. (Yes, you can raise the bar as your nonprofit grows!) Regardless of the size of the organization, major donors are the ones who give BIG relative to other donors.

If you aren’t sure, try this: Look over the gifts you receive from individuals, and see what size gift is at the top of the scale. Start with your top 10 gifts over the past 12 months. What is the average size of these gifts? Is there a natural breakpoint? (There usually is.) Use that number as your major gift definition.

For example, if your top 10 donors last year all gave at least $1,000, then use $1,000 as your major gift threshold.

The important thing is to define major donors for your organization, so you can properly cultivate them and grow your major donor base.

Where do I Find Major Donor Prospects?

fundraising donorsOk, so where do you find major donors, especially if you’re new and you don’t have a big donor base yet?

The bad news is that there’s not a list of rich people somewhere that you can access and just get the names.

In fact, targeting people based on their wealth is just a bad idea.

Even if you did know exactly who the wealthy people are, it doesn’t mean they’re going to give you money. People have their favorite causes, and if your cause isn’t one of their favorites, you’re not going to get a gift.

It’s not about how much money they have but about how much they care about the work your nonprofit does in changing lives. They give because they trust that you can make a difference in the world. They give because they feel connected to your mission.

So, instead of focusing on their ability to give, look for a strong connection. Your best prospects might be closer than you think.

1. Start your search for major donors in your personal circle. Think about people you already know who can make a big gift and start with them. This is particularly important if you’re the founder of your nonprofit or if your programs aren’t yet up and running. People will give based on their relationship with you and the trust they have in you. Think about people in your social circle, former coworkers, extended family members, etc., even if you aren’t sure if they could give a big gift or not. You won’t lose anything by cultivating them, so add them to your list anyway.

2. Identify prospects from your organization’s inner circle. The most likely prospects for major gifts already have a link to your organization. So, consider Board members, staff, and volunteers who might be good prospects for major gifts. Sometimes people using your programs and services are major donor prospects, so don’t overlook them.

3. Ask “who do you know?” Ask people in your own personal inner circle and in your nonprofit’s inner circle who they know who might be interested in the work your nonprofit does. You’re not necessarily looking for wealthy people. Remember, people give because they care about your work, so start looking for interest before you sneak a peek into their wallet to try to guess how much they can give. An introduction by a friend or Board member or volunteer can be the connection you need to meet your next major supporter.

4. Look through your current donors. You may have current donors who have the capacity and willingness to donate even more than they already are…but nobody has ever thought to ask them to do so. To identify potential major donors in your database, look at several factors. First look at their total giving over the past year. It’s important to look at cumulative giving and not just one-time gifts because someone who donated $1,000 once and someone else who made three gifts of $500 are both valuable but only one will show up if you search your data for those who have made a single gift of $1,000 or more. Also look at the number of gifts and the number of years they’ve been giving. Regular, consistent giving tells you the donor is invested in your cause and it’s worth the time to visit with them in person.

5. Identify major donors who support similar causes. You may run into philanthropists at parties, events, or through your current connections. Don’t avoid conversations because you don’t want to “steal” them away from another nonprofit. Simply give them the chance to get to know your nonprofit and they’ll make the decision whether or not to give. People who donate to a specific type of nonprofit are actually more likely to donate to a similar nonprofit than those who don’t donate at all.

6. Leverage your fundraising events. A well-done fundraising event can be a great way to raise money AND make new contacts. Non-fundraising events can be productive, too. At every event you hold, whether it’s a fundraising event or some other kind of event like a volunteer orientation, program event, etc., make a point to “work the room” to meet as many people as possible. You never know when you’ll meet your next big donor!

7. Plan a friendraising event. Plan an event specifically for your Board members, staff, and volunteers to invite potential donors, especially those they think might have the ability to be major donors. An open house or cocktail party can be a great, low-pressure opportunity to get to know people and find out what their interest is in your nonprofit’s mission.

8. Use a wealth-screening tool. You may have donors in your current donor family who are capable of making a large gift but haven’t chosen to do that yet for whatever reason. A wealth-screening tool can tell you who among your donors has the means to make a larger gift. Some donor management softwares like Kindful have these wealth-screening tools built in or you can use a service to help you identify diamonds in the rough among your donors.

How Do I Get a Major Gift? 

Identifying major donor prospects is just step 1. The next step is to build a relationship and cultivate each prospect to understand what’s important to them so you can match your Ask to their interests.

People give big when they feel passionately about a cause and want to make a difference. You need to invest time and attention in your top donors to make sure they know they are making that difference.

Think about it this way: the more money you want a donor to give, the more time and attention you must invest in the donor.

Building relationships with major donors can be fun and rewarding work as you learn more about each donor and what truly matters to them.

If your nonprofit is new or young, you may not have major donors yet. Or you might have them, but don’t yet know it.

Tips to make major donor work easier:

  • Designate someone as your Major Gifts Officer. This could be a staff or Board member. And, who are we kidding, it might have to be you! It should be someone with the time and willingness to focus on identifying and cultivating major donors. Having one person consistently following up with prospective and current major donors helps ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

    If you appoint yourself to the role of Major Gifts Officer—you would certainly not be the first nonprofit leader to do so— remind yourself that time spent focusing on major gifts is THE most productive time spent raising money. You won’t see results immediately, but be patient.

    Major gift work is like gardening. It takes time for plants to grow and bear fruit. Every positive interaction with the donor is like watering and weeding the garden. Your patience and consistency should result in a bountiful harvest!

  • Start a list of prospects. A major gifts program starts the way so many new initiatives do: with a list. Make a list of everyone you can think of who has demonstrated a genuine love for your organization’s work.

    You can make your list in a spreadsheet or if you already have a donor tracking software, you can tag or group names so you can easily find them later. You can also track all your interactions with each donor in your software, just to keep everything in one place.

  • Never assume someone’s capacity to give. Until you know differently, treat everyone as if they’re capable of making a game-changing gift. Don’t assume they have no money based on the way they dress or the car they drive.

    There is an old but wonderful and still-relevant book called, “The Millionaire Next Door,” which shows how wealthy people live. Many people with a lot of money live modestly and don’t show the world that they have big bank accounts.

    So don’t assume. Likewise, don’t assume that because someone drives a fancy car or lives in an expensive neighborhood that they have lots of money to give. They may be barely making their car and house payments!

    The point is this: People don’t give based on their wealth. They give based on your nonprofit’s value. So focus on how much they care about your mission, not how much money you think they have.

  • Develop a strategy to get to know each donor. What types of activities can you do to find out what the donor cares about? Can you invite the donor to come to your organization and watch a program in action? Can you ask for a meeting over coffee?

    Cultivating a donor is part art and part science. You can always start with a phone call to thank the donor for their past support, then invite them for a tour or meet them for coffee. But once you start the process, pay attention to the little clues the donor gives you and modify your approach to fit their needs.

    For example, if they respond well to your initial call but aren’t comfortable meeting in person for coffee, be ready with a couple of ideas for virtual interactions.

    Remember that every donor is different. Some might be ready to give after 2 or 3 interactions. Others might need 8 to 10 interactions before they’re ready. The more major donors you work with, the better you’ll get at sensing when the time is right to Ask for a donation.

  • Choose the right special project for the donor to fund. If they expressed interest in the past about a particular program, think of a way they can further their interest with a larger gift.

    What is something your organization really needs? “We really want to move two families off the waiting list into transitional housing, and we need $5,000 to make that happen. Would you be interested in contributing half that amount?”

    When you can match an immediate need with something the donor really cares about, the more likely you’ll be to get exactly what you ask for.

  • Consider hiring a fundraising coach. If you’re just not sure how to attract major donors or how to build relationships with them, or if you’re feeling too shy or uncomfortable to talk to major donor prospects, there are consultants who can help you build your skill and your confidence.

    There’s so much potential for a huge return on investment, that spending money hiring the right coach can pay off big in the long run both in the amount of money you can raise and in growing your skill so you can keep cultivating major donors for years to come.

    The point is this: People don’t give based on their wealth. They give based on your nonprofit’s value. So focus on how much they care about your mission, not how much money you think they have.

The Bottom Line

time management

Becoming a Major Gifts Officer—on top of everything else— is as much about time management as anything else. Make time every day to consult your major gifts spreadsheet and check to see steps you need to take with each person on your list. What tours do you need to set up? What face-to-face meetings do you need to schedule?

It’s your job to nurture their journey to get them to the sweet spot where they are giving as much as they can and loving the return on their investment, the wonderful feeling of knowing they are using their money to do something good.

The more major donors you cultivate, the more money you will raise, and the more lives you can change. And the less stressed you will feel as you get comfortable asking people who love your organization to give a little more.