Unless You Do These 7 Things, Your Major Gifts Program Won’t Succeed


Guest Post by Claire Axelrad

Your major gifts program is one of the most important components of your non-profit’s development strategy.  Here are 7 key things you absolutely MUST be doing if you want your major donor gifts program to succeed:

1. Cultivate the Right People

Too many is, well, too many.  One full-time person can only handle a portfolio of 150 or so donors.

More than that, and you’re only going to have time for “transactions…” not cultivation.  Sure, you can ask for gifts. But you’ll likely leave a lot of money on the table. Folks may give you $1,000, when they could have given $10,000. Or they’ll give you money this one time, but they’re unlikely to repeat their giving.

Which is why truly successful major gift fundraisers know you must “qualify” folks to assure they’re likely to want to build a stronger relationship with you.  And, guess what?  Typically only about a third of the folks on your preliminary caseload list will wind up on your final, carefully honed major donor portfolio.

Money (capacity) and history (past gifts) alone do not signify a desire to be “cultivated.”

Some people like to be wined and dined. Some really want to be part of a community. Others simply want to make a gift; then be left alone. You may be “on their list,” but not a top priority.  You need to take some proactive steps to find out! Call them. Send them a letter.  See if they’d like to meet with you. Or attend an event. Or otherwise engage.

This is a process. And an essential step towards developing a genuine major gift fundraising program.

2. Have a Personal Revenue Goal for Every Donor on Your Caseload

You have to carefully consider this for each prospect, based on past giving, current affiliations with you and others, recent actions and research.  If your plan is to simply ask every prospect for $5,000, because that’s your major donor “level,” you’ll inevitably ask some folks for too much and some for too little.

Major gift fundraising is nothing if not personal… trust me.

  • I’ve had the occasion to ask someone for less than they were considering. They were offended that I didn’t consider them more of a “VIP.”
  • I’ve had the occasion to ask someone for more than they were capable of. They burst out laughing and no longer took me seriously.

Please learn from my mistakes.

3. Have a Strategy that Gets You to Your Goals

Write it down!  Without a written plan, you’re doomed. Sure, you’ll get things done. But they likely won’t be the best things you could have done.  Work smart, not just hard.

For a major gifts program to be successful, you’ll need to develop individualized cultivation and solicitation plans for each prospect.   You’ll want a list of “touches” or “moves” you’ve considered ahead of time.  And you’ll want to calendar these for each prospect in your portfolio.

4. Ask Your Donor to Give!

Too often, nonprofits cultivate, cultivate and cultivate.  But they never get to the “ask” because they’re uncertain their prospect is “ready.”  At best, this confuses your donor.  At worst, it pisses them off.

  • Don’t waste your donor’s time.
  • Don’t waste your time.
  • Don’t waste your organization’s resources.

Follow your planned cultivation strategy. This will tell you when the time is right.  When it is, ask!

5. Thank Your Donor Promptly, Personally and Powerfully

Do this within 48 hours.  And have the right person do the thanking… the one who will mean the most to the donor.

Powerfully demonstrate the impact of the donor’s gift.  Help the donor really be the hero!  Giving is not always its own reward.  It’s up to YOU to reward your donor.  If you want repeat gifts, you must earn them by recognizing your donor, constantly reminding them of your mission, and making them feel like they are an integral part of your team.

6. Report on Outcomes

This is crucial if you ever want to get another gift!  Major gifts are an investment, and folks need regular reports on how their investments are doing.

The main reason people give is to make a difference.  They worry a bit that their gift did not have its intended impact.  You can’t just tell them once!

7. Hold People Accountable

Ever heard that “what gets measured gets done?”

  • Managers must sit down with major gift fundraisers to review their goals and actions on a regular basis.
  • Major gift officers must sit down with volunteer fundraisers to review their progress, and offer support and encouragement.

If you don’t hold folks’ feet to the fire, the warmth never gets to its intended place.

In this case, the ultimate warmth of a successful ask is two-fold:

  1. The warmth of furthering your mission.
  2. The warm and fuzzy feeling your major donor will have!

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About the Author

Claire Axelrad is a well-respected fundraising consultant, author and speaker and the founder of Clairification.  She has over 30 years experience helping non-profits build cultures of philanthropy, not fundraising.

Photo Credit: Andy Maguire