I drive a Prius, so don’t get it twisted — there is also no judgment here of 25 year-olds (I’ve been one). But the no judgment piece is exactly the point here.

I was at a happy hour networking event. Remember those? How we dreaded them and now they are… thought of longingly. At least, by me. 

Well, I met this young professional who worked at a big professional services firm as a consultant. Nice guy. Interested in philanthropy. 

He gave me his card, mentioned that he wanted to do more with his giving, then drove off in his Prius.

I follow up the next day first thing thanking him for the great chat. (This is why I say follow up, follow up, follow up, people!)

We end up meeting again for lunch and it was just the two of us to discuss how he’d like to get more involved. 

Important side note: He mentioned that we was interested in philanthropy and so I took his word for it. Sometimes nonprofit leaders think people are just being “nice” when they say “I’d love to get more involved.” Or “How can I help?” – test them. Tell them what you need. You’ll find out real quick if they are just being “nice.” Hint: they usually mean it. 

Back to the lunch with the young professional. I asked a lot of open-ended questions. We talk about his passions. We talk about the impact he wants to have on the world. 

He tells me that he is the executor for his great uncle’s trust and that since it’s a charitable trust, he is responsible for giving away AT LEAST $250,000 a year to charitable organizations. 

I was stunned.

(I’d like to highlight that this fact about him could not be found online or via a wealth engine.)

I go back to the office and after a series of meetings, my team and I come up with a pitch. His passion aligns with a specific need that we have. I meet him for breakfast and pitch him this amazing way to use technology in schools to invest in education. He loves it. He says YES. 

The amount? $250,000. Over the course of the next 3 years. 

You might say, “Julie, you got super lucky. I don’t have any donors like that.” 

DON’T YOU, THOUGH?! 

Don’t you have donors who you judge as not being able to give a major gift? We all do. 

When I say major gift, I mean $10,000+ annually. For some organizations that raise less than $1M per year, I would say $2,500 or $5,000 could be considered a major gift. 

Looking at this young person, you would never jump to the conclusion that they had that much to give on an annual basis. 

We don’t want to admit it, but part of fundraising is making a judgment of what people CAN and CANNOT give to support our organization. And a lot of organizations get this wrong. 

How many people walked right past that young man because he doesn’t drive a Tesla or he’s 25 or he works full-time in an entry-level position and couldn’t possibly be a major donor?

It was one of the biggest and most important lessons I learned: not to judge a book by its cover. 

You literally do not know about anyone’s finances unless they tell you.

And I know, some of you have a fancy wealth engine (that you don’t know how to use! but, I digress) and it tells you that so-and-so can give $25k+. 

Guess what: Not even Google or a fancy wealth engine will tell you what your donors will tell you from their mouths. 

The best prospect research is having meaningful conversations with your donors.

In his book “Didn’t See It Coming,” Carey Nieuwhof says this: “If you listen longer than most people listen, you’ll hear things most people never hear.”

This is actually the FUN part of fundraising – getting to know people and building strong partnerships. Listening to their stories, uncovering passions, then inviting them to put their money where their mouth is!

I cannot tell you how many donors who have great wealth have told me how they have experienced homelessness in their adulthood or donors who donate 30-50% of their household income—and I know this because I know how much they make and would have never *expected* them to give this much! 

If you want to raise more money, you’re going to have to get curious about your donors and let go of some assumptions you’ve been making that have kept you and your organization small.

Here are some dangerous assumptions we make that are limiting our fundraising results and the size of our impact: 

1. Young people are weighed down by student loans and don’t give generously. 

Yes, many young people have tremendous debt, however 3 out of 4 millennials have donated to charity during the pandemic actually. And the second highest givers? Gen Z. 

Don’t say “No” for anyone, including young people. Asking them to give is an invitation, not a requirement. Treat it as such.

2. White (male) boomers have the most money and therefore are the best major donor prospects.

White baby boomers have great wealth, but they are not the most generous. White Americans sadly only give about 2% of their wealth to charity each year. (Source: Urban Institute)

My advice? Stop overlooking Gen Z, millennials and BIPOC individuals in your major donor pipeline. Reach out to them and build a line of communication. Ask them why they give. Where you invest, you will see growth.

3. Donors who give $25 or $50 one-time gifts are giving the most they can give or will ever give.

How do you know? Just because of the amount they gave? Have you looked into it? Have you asked them why they gave in the first place? Even just reaching out to get to know them a bit better can reveal more of what their capacity and more importantly, what their willingness to give really is. Developing a relationship goes a long way. Sometimes to see exponential growth in our fundraising efforts, we need to do things that don’t scale—like picking up the phone and calling our donors.

4. People are exhausted and can’t be bothered to give to anything right now.

Do you feel this way because YOU are exhausted? That’s understandable. It’s been a crazy past 15 months. Raising more money will actually give you some space and breathing room to get more rest, pay your team more, hire that volunteer who goes the extra mile for you, and dream for the future. 

The truth is this: We live in a world ready to say YES. This is one of the keys to my fundraising success. People deeply desire to make a positive difference in the world. I believe the best in others and that’s exactly what they tend to bring.

5. We don’t have any major donors.

This is a favorite assumption of the nonprofit sector. I think we jump to this conclusion because it lets us off the hook of asking for major gifts from the people we know and are connected to already. 

Every single organization I’ve ever worked with, with annual budgets of $75k up to $26M, is connected to people who can give a major gift. 

Again, it doesn’t mean they are high-net worth individuals necessarily or people who “appear” wealthy (i.e. drive an expensive car, have a million-dollar home, kids go to private school, wear designer clothing – whatever you use to judge whether someone has a lot of money). It means that they are connected to people who would even be willing to *sacrifice* in order to give a major gift. 

Your major donors are the ones with MAJOR passion and MAJOR determination, not just MAJOR financial wealth.

You are connected to people who are ready and willing to give more and step up to help. 

Do you see them? What will you do about it? 

Major gift fundraising

Julie Ordoñez
Julie Ordoñez is the founder of CourageLab, a 6 week group coaching accelerator for nonprofit founders, EDs and fundraisers ready to double their individual giving. Learn more at julieordonez.com.
Julie Ordoñez