Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who is isn’t sure if they should invest in building their major gifts program or their mid-level donor program.

Dear Charity Clairity,

Should I invest in building our major gifts program or our mid-level donor program? Which should be a priority?

Can’t Do Everything

Dear Can’t Do Everything,

How about simply renaming what you’re planning? You see, a mid-level and major donor program are really a continuum.  They don’t exist independent of one another. You want both components of your “major gift pipeline program” to be strong — because they feed each other.

  • The mid-level program is where you find prospects you’ll want to cultivate for upgrades.
  • When major donors drop their gift level, you want to be sure they find themselves in a cohort of supporters you are also actively stewarding (Note: sometimes folks take a break due to personal financial or health issues, or perhaps because they join another board, or perhaps because they redirect some philanthropy to a current issue like an election or natural disaster, but this doesn’t mean they won’t be back – as long as you take good care of them).

Your investment should be targeted to develop and sustain a flow of major gifts.  Your major gift pipeline exists so you can strengthen relationships with supporters and move them to the point where they make larger, more passionate investments when they’re able and ready.

Make the case for vigorous major gifts development by explaining to your ‘powers that be’ this is the only way to recession-proof your nonprofit. Major individual donors account for roughly 70 – 90% of most nonprofit philanthropy (check what the ratio is for your organization), so you can’t afford to leave this money on the table. And during economic downturns, these are the supporters most likely to stick with you – even if they give a little bit less. And sometimes, depending on your mission, they may even give more (that’s what happened in the aftermath of the 2008 recession when I was working for the San Francisco Food Bank).

Make the case for dynamic mid-level donor development by explaining to your ‘powers that be’ this is the very best way to identify and secure new major donors and it increases major donor retention. Folks who are giving an above average gift to you already are indicating their strong interest in what you do. If you treat them just like you treat a $25 donor, they’re not likely to be inspired to give at a higher level. Many of them will, however, respond positively to active cultivation and targeted solicitation. You need a plan for this, because… a mid-level donor is a terrible thing to waste!

Today’s mid-level donors are tomorrow’s major donors. And, potentially, vice-versa. You don’t want to lose any of your already generous supporters, no matter where they are at this point in time in your pipeline.

Yes, you can’t do everything. But some things you can’t afford not to do.  Find something else to drop off your plate. Perhaps an event (super resource-intensive)? Perhaps a publication (evaluate what its ROI is, compared with the potential ROI of a major gifts pipeline program).

When it comes to priority strategies, I advise investing in getting personal. Invest less in automated, detached strategies it’s easy for folks to dismiss. Invest more in talking to donors, getting to know what floats their individual boats, and personalizing more of your interactions with them. When you know what donors care about, you’re better able to match them with offers they’ll have a difficult time refusing – because what you’re inviting them to do (in the form of a larger gift) directly aligns with their values.

Invest in your entire major gift pipeline – not simply one segment of it.

This way, you can do ONE thing that really encompasses everything!

Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?

Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Can’t Do Everything” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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.