pursuing major gifts

Are you trapped on the small-dollar spin-cycle, spending all your time on fundraising activities that can’t fully-fund your organization and help you grow? 

If you’re going to get out of it, you need to prioritize the fundraising activities that give you the highest ROI.

That’s right, I’m talking about major giving from individuals. 

How do you feel about that? 

I recently conducted a survey of Development Directors and discovered that discussing major gifts uncovers some major baggage for many fundraising professionals. As I looked over the results, I found three major concerns that stop Development Directors from pursuing major gifts as a lucrative and necessary avenue of fundraising. 

Do any of these ring true for you?

#1: “I Don’t Really Know How to Do Major Gifts Fundraising.”

Do you know how to attract, cultivate, and steward a major donor to an investment-level gift?

I didn’t when I started in nonprofits. I needed someone to show me how to do this when I left my corporate role and entered the world of nonprofit over a decade ago.  

I set out to learn what it really takes to fully fund an organization. I learned how to align my time to a fundraising model based on ROI. I fought to spend my time on the things that made the most money. And when I did, we tripled our funding in 18 months. 

Sometimes, I find that like me at the beginning, fundraisers don’t entirely understand the step-by-step process of individual donor cultivation

“I understand how to fill out applications that ask for money or talk about sponsorships with corporate reps, but when it comes to talking with people on an individual basis, it’s hard to understand the path forward. It’s not as defined,” said one survey respondent. 

The good news is that you can learn about the path. Once you know what it is, it won’t be a mystery and you’ll know how to proceed, step-by-step.

So why isn’t everyone pursuing major gifts training?

Here’s the elephant in the room:

It feels like you’re supposed to already know everything about fundraising, so it’s hard to ask for help. 

It feels scary to tell the Executive Director and Board Members that you need more training to successfully secure larger donations from individuals. After all, isn’t that the same as admitting you don’t know how to do your job?

No way! With what’s expected of nonprofit fundraisers these days, there’s no way you can be an expert at it all. Moreover, most fundraising professionals I surveyed (91%!) kind of fell into the profession, without formal fundraising training. Unless their past experience was in sales, most people don’t have immediately transferable major gifts skills from their previous careers.

It makes sense if you don’t intuitively know about pursuing major gifts. Why would you?

You need a specific plan in place to lead your Top 30 individual donors to their best gift this year. When you have a step-by-step plan in place to secure those gifts, then you’ll reach your goals. 

But, you can’t do it alone. You need to be equipped to lead your board and executive director to this understanding. So go ahead, and confidently pursue getting that training. 

#2: “Major Gifts Aren’t Instant.”

Tell me if you’ve ever encountered this. You meet a person who has the ability to make an investment-level gift to your organization. You’re excited, and so is your board. Maybe a little too excited, because they fixate on this person and start bugging you about why you haven’t gotten millions of dollars, yet. With no immediate action, they are frustrated. 

One person who took my survey said it directly . . .”My board doesn’t understand it takes time to build relationships. You can’t just ask strangers for a $100K gift. It takes time and the payoff isn’t immediate.”

This person was right. You can’t make major fundraising asks without a relationship to back it up. (Well, you can, but it doesn’t work out very well). These things take time! 

Have you seen Greg Warner’s 2020 Major Gift Benchmark Report by MarketSmart? The vast majority of respondents in that report (81%!) said it takes, “six months to two years” to move a prospect to making a major gift.

If you’re not envisioning a six-month to two-year timeline, you’re probably moving too fast or giving up too soon. When Development Directors expect individuals to commit thousands of dollars the first time they meet for coffee, it’s easy to conclude, “I guess they aren’t interested/I’m terrible at Major Gifts/this is all a mystery,” and stop pursuing major giving. 

It’s true, major gifts aren’t instantaneous. You might get some money faster by hosting an extra event, doing a Facebook fundraiser, or doing one of those voting competitions. However, the money you raise from these kinds of things won’t be an amount that can fund your mission, long-term. Major gifts fundraising ultimately results in long-term, investment-level relationships. It’s worth the time. 

#3: “I Don’t Know Where to Find Major Donors”

Lots of people hop on my calendar to ask me a specific question. That question?

“How do I find major donors?”

Unfortunately, there’s no secret catalog of philanthropists or annual convention of “Wealthy People Looking for Small Nonprofits to Give To.” No, the real answer to how you find major donors is…you don’t.

You don’t find them, you attract them. 

This is sometimes a major mindset shift.

If you want to find major donors, you’ve got to ask yourself if you’re doing the types of things that major donors are interested in.

And what, exactly, are major donors interested in? Several things, like:

  • Hearing you passionately share your plan to grow your programs
  • Learning about how their giving can propel your organization forward and change lives
  • Speak to their heart with engaging stories about impact
  • Stakeholder discussions, including why their gift is a good investment, how it serves their mission for giving it to you, and thoughtful, appropriate financial asks. 

If you’re stopping at heart and stories, but not methodically sharing, explaining, or welcoming financial conversations, you will never attract large donors. 

You can start doing the things that attract major donors without even having a single prospect by cultivating a growth mindset, habitually sharing your financials, and using your budget to demonstrate your true financial need. When a prospective donor does enter the scene, you’ll be ready, and they’ll be interested. 

You Can Do Major Gifts

I understand that getting serious about pursuing major gifts can feel risky. It’s something a lot of nonprofit folks aren’t trained in and can seem intimidating. But you can do it! When you banish misconceptions, commit to learning, adjust your timeline, and start focusing on how to attract major donors, you’ll find that the rewards outweigh the risks.

Major gift fundraising

Sherry Quam Taylor

Sherry Quam Taylor

Founder & President at QuamTaylor LLC
Sherry Quam Taylor is Founder and President of QuamTaylor LLC, where she helps nonprofit leaders level-up their organization's annual revenue. Her consultancy releases the overworked ED from the day-to-day fundraising grind by helping them establish the core processes that streamline funding growth, identify the top donor priorities that lead to larger gifts, and then prepare them to present plans and financials their donors want to see from them during solicitations.
Sherry Quam Taylor