major donor approaches

A recent report unearthed key areas where small changes by major gift officers to tweak major donor approaches could reap large benefits for their nonprofits. Transforming Partnerships with Major Donors,” by the Leadership Story Lab, which works with companies and organizations on messaging, delved into what motivates the wealthy to give. While some donors care about public recognition, they found most respondents care more about solving problems. Specific ones.

Wealthy donors also want to know you’re effective. They see their gifts as investments. Evidence of positive social returns – solutions to important problems – persuades them their money will be well spent.

So rather than receiving generic appeals, or attending galas, or getting glossy annual reports, many wealthy donors say they would prefer nonprofits updated their major donor approaches and made their pitches more personalized.

4 Tweaks to Your Major Donor Approaches

Be Genuine and Personal

One-size-fits-all messaging is a no-no for major donor approaches. A pitch about how great your organization is, and all your many accomplishments, will fall flat. Especially if your donor is primarily interested in just one of your programs. To build a genuine relationship, it’s imperative you get to know your donors by asking them questions about how and why they became engaged and invested with your cause. 

Learn what floats their boat, and speak directly to that. If you were trying to sell your kid who loves archery and horseback riding on summer camp, it would be a mistake to talk up the swimming, trampoline and lanyard making which they could care less about (and might even be scared of). You’d talk up the activities they most love, right? The same holds true for donors.

Don’t talk like an obsequious robot. It’s fine to flatter and praise donors if you know they’ll feel the credit is due to them. But when you overdo it, and they believe they really didn’t do that much, you’ll end up leaving them with feelings of guilt. That’s the exact opposite of how you want them to feel.

“Sometimes everything feels too polished… If they can make their solicitation as human as possible, it would work better. It shouldn’t be about putting someone on a pedestal.”

— Esther Choy, President, Leadership Story Lab

Focus on Building a Relationship

I mean it! It doesn’t matter how many times I tell people this, too often they only pay lip service to the concept. This happens when you think of relationship building as a chore. Something to be checked off your task list. Make a scripted call; check! Send a form email; check! Send a generic greeting card; check! That’s transactional fundraising.

Major donors need to be engaged in something transformational. They want to be connected to like-minded folks who share their values. They need to feel part of your community. They want to be part of something larger than themselves.

Just like any lasting relationship, good donor relationships are based on give and take. Which is why major gift officers who are somewhat introverted may succeed even better than those who are extroverted. Because they don’t hog the conversation; they listen!

 “It’s about building a partnership based on a relationship. People used to be OK with just giving the money and being done with it, but that isn’t the case anymore.” 

— Michael Wagner, co-founder Omnia Family Wealth

Help Donors Solve Specific Problems

Just adding more money to your general fund doesn’t thrill major donors. General funds are bottomless pits. It’s not clear what damage will be done if they don’t give. 

Yet most nonprofits make a practice of regularly admonishing supporters to give “where most needed.”

You probably think this is a good thing. After all, it gives you the greatest flexibility. Right?

Wrong. Think again.

You’ll have a lot more flexibility, now and later, if you raise more money.

And you’ll raise a lot more money if you stop thinking about you and your needs and think more about your donors and their needs.

“It is more motivating for donors to sponsor something specific, for example providing supplies or a well for a school at a cost of $xx.” 

— Anonymous donor, Burk Donor Survey

Focus on High Impact and Damage Prevention, Not Dollars

Simply leading your request with a dollar amount is backwards. It’s not about the money; it’s about the impact. If you want to inspire major donors’ most passionate giving, you must passionately demonstrate the impact their giving will accomplish.

Passionate philanthropy is inspired through storytelling. If the donor can sense the pain that will result if they do not give, they’ll be more motivated to do whatever is needed to prevent that pain. Show and tell. Use video, images and descriptive narrative. Introduce real case examples. Draw the donor into the story so they can envision being the hero who gives the story a happy ending.

“I had been listening and asking what they were really interested in funding… Traditional programs weren’t motivating to them, but this was. In that same conversation, I found out they’d be interested in doing more of this high-impact, quick-need funding.”

— Tyson Voelkel, President and CEO of Texas A&M Foundation, reflecting on securing a $500,000 scholarship gift to help students whose parents lost jobs due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Be Open to Non-Traditional Approaches

The Leadership Story Lab report uncovered what they called “stealth wealth” — donors who don’t want attention called to their philanthropy. These folks will not respond to a naming opportunity since that recognition would probably attract other organizations asking for money. An ‘old-fashioned’ appeal that focuses on public acknowledgement benefits will actually turn these potential supporters off.

The report also recommended a more stripped down, action-oriented approach to younger generation donors. After listening to what their donors preferred, the Texas A&M Foundation now publishes two magazines — a fancy one for older donors and a simpler, action-oriented one printed on recycled paper for younger donors.

Take Advice with a Grain of Salt

Despite this report, based on my own experience, I advise you to listen to what donors SAY while also observing what donors DO. In a desire to be positively perceived, people lie. Decades ago there was a famous study where researchers asked people what magazines and periodicals they read. Wanting to appear smart and informed, they reported renowned publications like Newsweek, Time, New Yorker, and so forth. Yet when researchers searched these folks’ trash cans, they found a preponderance of more low-brow periodicals in the garbage.

Your donor may tell you not to spend money of token gifts, but then you’ll notice their behavior doesn’t match their words. You notice they always wear the logo pin you gave them when they joined your Major Gift Society. They may tell you they think galas are a waste of money, but then you notice they always attend. One board I know of told their development staffer not to bother with an “expensive Annual Report mailing;” instead he could just hand deliver the report to their homes – at his “convenience.” 

Final Take-Away

Donors increasingly want to take an active role in how their money is spent.

This is a good thing. Greater engagement leads to greater loyalty and passion down the road. Younger generations, and major donors, are less inclined to let your organization decide how their philanthropy will be allocated. You’re competing in a landscape where other organizations are giving your potential donors the opportunity to be actively engaged in their giving.

If you don’t satisfy donors by giving them enriching opportunities to provide specific solutions to specific problems, you will cease to be competitive in the donor marketplace. Effective major donor approaches to fundraising are more about giving than taking.

Want to supercharge your major gifts fundraising program? Check out this incredible opportunity to become a certified major gift fundraising rock star!

Information for this article was gleaned from a recent New York Times article, Raising Money for a Nonprofit? Try a Personalized Approach, which builds on The Leadership Story Lab report. 

Major gift fundraising

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.