Has this ever happened to you?

A campaign doesn’t go well. A grant doesn’t come in. Unexpected expenses pop up. Something goes wrong and throws your whole budget out of whack.

It puts your nonprofit between a rock and a hard spot financially, and all eyes look to you to pull a rabbit out of your hat.

So what do you do? (After you hide in the bathroom for a few minutes to collect your thoughts!)

If you’re like most, you decide that a major gift is the answer.

True, your best source of relief may come from a big donor.

The Big Question for most nonprofits is “How do I find someone to give me a big check? I need it NOW!”

The answer depends on what you’ve been doing.

If you’ve been cultivating a few of your best donors, then you’re fine. Go sit down with one of them, tell them what’s happened and ask for their help.

If you’ve been ignoring your donors and only focusing on the money they give, you’re screwed. Seriously.

The Bad News

There’s no magic pill that you can give someone that makes them magically want to support your organization at a high level with no prior engagement.

Shoot, the reason you’re in this mess is because you’re not planning ahead and cultivating donors.

You might get lucky and have someone give big because they feel a strong connection to your organization, but it’s unlikely.

But, let’s have some realistic expectations here. If you haven’t done your part in building the relationship, why do you expect the donor to do theirs. If you haven’t shown them that you care about them, why do you expect them to care about your plight and give you money to fix it??

Asking for a major gift without doing any of the relationship building is like showing up on a first date in your wedding gown. It’s awfully presumptuous and you’re going to scare the other person off!

So, if you’ve got some bad habits and haven’t been paying enough attention to your donors, is there hope?

Of course. There’s ALWAYS hope. But you have to be strategic and get busy.

5 powerful words that strengthen your Ask

Chances are good that you already have someone giving to (or at least involved with) your organization who has the resources to make a much larger gift.

They’re right there under your nose just waiting for you to find them and invite them to get involved in a bigger way.

How do I know? I’ve seen it. And I am one.

Seriously, I would give much bigger to some of the organizations I support if they gave me a reason to and if I thought my donation would matter.

Did you catch the subtle clues there – as a donor, I’m not sure my donation makes a difference (probably because the organizations don’t tell me that it does) and if they reached out to me to ask for something larger (and not through a letter,

although I haven’t seen a letter in YEARS that asked me to increase my gift).

Alright. So, you getting this?

It’s not about you and your need for money. It’s not about your need for money RIGHT NOW.

It’s about what the donor wants to support. And how you engage them.

It’s all about paying attention to people and what moves them to give.

The Good News

The biggest enemy of good messaging in fundraising is time.

Most people in small nonprofits are strapped for time and are so focused on wading through their “to do” list that they don’t carve out enough time to really think through what they want to say and how it will impact their reader or listener.

The simplest thing you can do if you want to raise more money is to give yourself a moment to think through your words.

Be thoughtful about your message and your request. No matter who it is going to or how it will go out (letter, email, social media, in person, etc.), think about why it matters to them.

Here are some other common mistakes in asking for support:

Major gift prospects

Here’s a way to find the ‘diamonds in the rough’ who can help you out, even if you’ve not done a good job at cultivation:

1. Look at your list of top donors. Identify those people who have given a large gift in the past year or two. They’re telling you with their donation that they care about the work your nonprofit does. In fact, they’re giving in spite of how you treat them, which is saying a lot!

2. Sit down with them face-to-face and have an honest conversation. Stay as positive and professional as possible as you tell your story. (This is no time to blame everything on your Board Chair, even if it’s deserved). Explain to the donor what’s happening with the organization and how they can help. Be careful not to go into crisis mode – nobody wants to support a sinking ship.

3. Ask the donor if they would be willing to help and address the issue. Be prepared to spell out what it will take and what the result will be. And how you will avoid this happening again. Then see what they say.

In my experience, I’ve found that lots of donors are happy to help out as long as there’s a good reason for the situation you’re in. If it’s due to poor management or a lack of leadership, you’ll be less likely to find someone who will bail you out.

Major gift success from now on

Once you get the problems resolved, start thinking about what you need to put in place so this doesn’t happen again. (Hint: start building relationships with LOTS of great donors so that you have a steady stream of revenue to support your organization’s work.).

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Plan ahead. Know where your revenue is coming from. Don’t guess. Have a fundraising plan that’s based on data, not hope and wishes. And work that plan. This will help minimize the impact of an unexpected drop in revenue.
  • Know your donors. Knowing which of your programs excites specific donors will help you give them specific stories and updates that will excite them and encourage them to give. The better you know them individually, the easier it is to ask them to support things that you KNOW they will love.
  • Communicate consistently. It’s tough to keep a relationship going when you never hear from the other person. Or when you do hear from them, they want something. Don’t be that person. Send your donors updates. Tell them the happy ending to the story. Don’t expect a dry, boring newsletter that’s full of self-accolades to accomplish this – it won’t. Share things that warm your donor’s heart and make them feel good about supporting you.
  • Invest the time.  It takes time to build relationships, so it’s best to start cultivation before you need the donation. Don’t expect relationships to blossom overnight – it doesn’t work that way. Be prepared to cultivate individual donors for weeks, even months or years. It takes however long it takes for them to feel really connected to your mission and ready to write that big check.

The Bottom Line

Major gifts are a great source of revenue and bring joy to both the nonprofit and the donor. If you’re cultivating people consistently, you won’t ever be in a panic. You’ll always have the money coming in.

And isn’t that where you want to be?