Every non-profit wants to raise more major gifts, but for so many organizations, the process is shrouded in mystery.
Far too many organizations see major donor fundraising as a “luck of the draw” situation… they are overjoyed when they connect with a large giver, but they don’t think the process can be systemized in any significant way.
To an extent, these non-profits are right. Major donors are different from other donors, and major donor fundraising will never be as standardized for your organization as some other strategies like online giving and direct mail fundraising.
That being said, there are parts of your major gifts fundraising program that you can streamline and systemize. Doing so will allow your frontline fundraisers to cultivate more major donors and successfully solicit more major gifts for your non-profit.
Understanding Major Gifts Fundraising
In order to systemize your major donor program, it is important to understand several key concepts. The three most important things to understand if you want to build a successful major donor system for your organization are the following:
#1 – Bigger Vision = Bigger Gifts
If you want to raise major gifts for your non-profit, you need to cast a big vision for your donors. Big donors don’t give big gifts to small visions. If you want a major donor to make a major investment in your work, you need to be able to explain why your work is life-changing, world-shaking, and super-important, even if it is just life-changing for your own local community. Either way, you need to have a bigger vision than ever before if you want to raise more money than ever before.
#2 – Major Donors Require Personal Cultivation
Major givers expect and deserve a greater degree of personal cultivation than other donors. You may be able to limit your communication with $50 donors to snail mail and e-mail, but $50,000 or $5 million donors expect to have real-life in-person conversations with your team. Major gifts fundraising is all about building personal, mission-focused relationships between your team and your donors and prospects.
#3 – Major Gifts Fundraising Needs to be Collaborative
Your largest donors aren’t looking to simply write a check to a good cause. They want to feel like they are investing in a meaningful project, and seeing the project through to its successful completion. Simply put, many (if not most) of your major donors want to feel like they are collaborating with your non-profit, instead of just funding it. This means that you stay in touch with them, ask them for their advice, appoint them to committees, take them on tours of your project facilities, and make them feel like an integral part of your team.
Building a Major Gifts Pipeline
The first component of building a major donor system for your non-profit is figuring out where to find new major donor prospects. How can you build a scalable major gifts pipeline for your organization?
In my experience, there are three primary ways your non-profit can consistently meet major donors to engage and cultivate:
#1 – Donor Referrals
The first (and probably the best) way to meet new major gifts prospects is by asking your current board members, donors, volunteers, and other supporters to introduce you to their friends, neighbors, and business associates. We call this process “asking for referrals,” and it has proven to be an extremely reliable way to find new major donor prospects. You can learn more about asking for referrals by reading How to Build a Donor Referral System for Your Non-Profit.
#2 – Non-Ask Events
Another great way to meet new major donors is by holding non-ask events. Sometimes called point of entry or cultivation events, these events are an opportunity for you to meet people who are interested in your cause without any fundraising pressure being applied. You can ask board members, donors, volunteers, and others to attend and to bring along a friend or two, or you can hold a panel discussion, invite in a speaker or author, or hold any other type of event that would be appealing to your target demographic.
You can learn more about holding these types of events by reading Using the Non-Ask Event Strategy to Fill Your Donor Pipeline.
#3 – Networking Events
One final strategy to think about when looking for major gifts donors is utilizing networking events to reach your targeted donor audience. Are there places where major donors who are interested in your mission field congregate? Conferences they attend? Groups they belong to? If so, consider sending one or more of your fundraising team members to these places to begin building relationships.
For networking events, the fortune is in the follow-up. You won’t be asking for money at the event itself. The conference or other event that you attend is the starting point for building a relationship that will hopefully lead to a fundraising ask at some point in the future.
Cultivating and Stewarding Major Donors
Once you have started to engage new major gifts prospects, how do you cultivate and steward them? Remember what we said above: major donors require more personal cultivation than other types of donors. This means that major gifts fundraising generally takes more time (i.e. has a longer “sales cycle”) than other types of fundraising. That’s ok, because you’re investing more of your time into a donor who will be covering a larger part of your budget than other donors. Here are three key considerations when building a major donor cultivation / stewardship system for your non-profit:
#1 – Two-Way Communication
Generally speaking, all donors prefer two-way communication, rather than being “talked at” by your non-profit. This is doubly true when it comes to major gifts: your larger donors want to have conversations with you and your team.
What does this mean on a practical basis for your organization? It means that you should be going out to meet with your major donors a couple of times per year, including times where you aren’t going to the meeting asking for anything, and instead just going to update the donor and to listen to their ideas and concerns. You should also be calling your major donors several times per year to ask them for their advice and ideas. You’ll know you are doing it right when some of your major donors start feeling comfortable enough to send you unsolicited e-mails saying, “Hey, I just had a great idea…”
#2 – Customized Investments
Similarly, your major gifts donors will… more often than not… want to make customized investments in your work. Because they want to know where their money is going and that it is making a real difference, they will want to devote their financial resources to specific programs and initiatives at your organization that resonate with their own wants, needs, desires, and philanthropic goals.
Your non-profit should be prepared to craft gift agreements that are customized to your major donors’ giving goals. That being said, don’t allow any donors – even major donors – to get your organization off-track. Don’t create new programs that aren’t helpful for your work just because you are chasing major gifts. Likewise, be sure to include provisions in your major gifts that are beneficial to your organization… such as reserving a percentage of the gift to cover overhead costs or negotiating a multi-year gift to support programs the donor cares about, rather than one-time gifts.
#3 – Donor Giving Clubs
Finally, I have found that donor clubs and giving societies can be a great way to systematically cultivate and steward your donors. This is particularly true for mid-level donors and also for the lower-end of your major donor program. Your top dollar givers will likely be giving too much to your organization to be motivated by donor club tiers and benefits, but smaller major donors to your non-profit are ideal candidates for your donor club program.
Major gifts are important to your non-profit. Your major donors allow your organization to grow its programs and think bigger about its work. While not all aspects of your major gifts program can be systemized, much of your major donor work can be put into a system that results in more major donors, better major donor communication, and better relationships with your organization’s largest givers.
Photo Credit: The Ray Center