fundraising on a shoestring

You can, and should, have a major gift fundraising program – whatever your size.

If you don’t, you’re just ignoring the facts.

  • Nearly 80% of all fundraising comes from individuals.
  • Studies show over 88% of all funds raised come from just 12% of donors.
  • Two-thirds of all household charity in the U.S. comes from the top 3% of U.S. households.
  • Major gifts is the most cost-effective fundraising strategy, costing on average 5 to 10 cents on the dollar (compared to 20 cents for renewal appeals, 50 cents for events and $1.00 – $1.25 for direct mail acquisition).

So even if your budget isn’t huge, deploying some of it to develop major gifts makes a whole lot of bottom line sense. Because, if you do it right, you’ll see a significant return on your investment.

So… how big and strong does your shoestring have to be?

Make it strong enough that when you lace up those shoes they stay put!

In other words, you do have to spend money to make money.

Understanding and embracing this reality is your first step to success in fundraising.

Now let’s take a look at the other steps that must become a part of your reality.

You. Can. Do. This.

1. Stop Making Excuses

Excuses are a way to place the blame for an internal problem on an external condition. It may comfort you to tell yourself you’re not doing more major gift fundraising because “we don’t have enough time,” or “we’re waiting to hire a major gift officer,” or “we don’t have the right prospects,” but it’s not going to be of comfort to the folks who rely on your nonprofit for help. Think of it this way: It’s your organization’s responsibility to steward your resources in such a way that you fulfill your mission to the fullest extent possible. If you’re raising money inefficiently, you’re preventing your nonprofit from fulfilling its potential. Even if you have only one major donor prospect, you should be asking that person to make a passionate gift. Otherwise, you’re leaving money on the table – money that could do a lot of good.

2. Make Major Gift Fundraising a Strategic Priority

You have to make an internal and external commitment that tells yourself and the world you value major gift fundraising. Commit to hold your own feet to the fire. Commit to hold others on your team responsible to complete assigned major gift fundraising tasks. Put all your commitments in writing, in the form of a strategic fundraising plan. Announce your commitments to your board and to the rest of your staff. Ask others (your board chair? Executive director? Development director?) to hold you accountable. Commit to a plan to report back on your progress at pre-determined points over the course of the year. What gets measured gets done.

3. Deliberately Dedicate Some Resources

While you may not have a full time major gift officer, you can decide to dedicate a specific percentage of someone’s time to major gift development. It can be your development director, executive director or some other staff person on your team.  It should be a staff member, ideally, because it’s hard to hold a volunteer’s feet to the fire. You can also spread the responsibility among one or more staff. Make sure to make this a real commitment, which means you may have to move other tasks off this person’s plate. You say you can’t do that? Yes. You. Can. Remember: Major gift fundraising needs to be a strategic priority. If you raise more money, you can do more good.

4. Determine the Number of Donors You Can Cultivate and Solicit

You’ve dedicated some time; now dedicate a manageable workload. A full time major gifts officer, tasked with doing nothing more than cultivation, solicitation and stewardship, can handle 150 prospects. Do the math. Take the percentage of time you’ve determined you can dedicate, and multiply by 150. If it’s 25%, you can handle 37 prospects; 10%, you can handle 15 prospects. And so forth.

5. Select the Prospects You’ll Endeavor to Upgrade to a Major Gift

This should be obvious. If you don’t choose folks with whom to work, you’ll never get around to it. Since you’re on a shoestring, the quick and dirty way to select your best prospects is to look inside your own database and choose (roughly) the 10% of folks who give you 90% of your individual philanthropy. You can also use an 80/20 or 70/30 ratio; whatever makes the most sense for you. You’ll then likely need to add some prospects, because usually only one-third of donors will respond to becoming more deeply engaged in a relationship with you. This means multiplying your prospect pool. If you’re going to work with 10 donors, you’ll need 30 prospects. So add more folks, as needed, using other qualifying factors (e.g., longevity of giving; frequency of giving during the course of the year; other engagements with your organization; connections with your leadership, etc.).

IMPORTANT GUIDELINE: Once you’ve got your number, then you need three things [LIA] to make someone a viable candidate: (1) linkage to your cause (e.g., they’ve given before; they’ve been a client or patron; they know one of your board members, etc.); (2) interest in your cause, and (3) ability to give.

6. Qualify Prospects to Find Your Most Likely Donors

This is the step that is most often overlooked. It means you take a preliminary stab at some cultivation moves and touches to see who ‘bites.’ If after three to seven attempts you get crickets, this is a sign to move these folks down to the bottom of your list and move some others to the top. It’s pointless to keep working with folks who don’t want to work with you. It may seem like you’re checking tasks off a list, but they’re not tasks that will get you anywhere. Qualification helps you know when to cut your losses.

PRACTICAL STEPS: (1) Send a letter (or email) introducing yourself and telling them you’d love to meet them/learn more about them. You’d also love to tell them about their gift at work. Be as personal as possible. Tell them how important they are. Ask them to share why they chose your organization as a repository of their philanthropy. Your goal is to get them to tell you their story, as you tell them some inspiring stories. (2) Call to follow up. Leave a message. Tell them they can contact you at their convenience. (3) Try again. (4) If you don’t reach them, or they don’t return your call, follow up with a brief survey. (5) If they don’t respond to the survey, send a final note saying how sorry you are to have missed them, and you’re still available to them should they wish to connect personally. Or if they ever have any questions you can answer. (6) Make a final phone call attempt with top prospects.

7. Tier Your Qualified Portfolio

If you can’t fit every qualified major donor prospect into the percentage of time you’ve allocated to major gifts development, you’ll want to begin with your very best prospects. Tier folks into A, B and C groupings.

8. Establish Revenue Goals for Every Qualified Prospect

If you don’t set goals, you’ll settle for less than you need. And likely less than you could get. If you need Donor A to give you $5,000, and they’re the leader everyone else will look to, what happens if you accept a $2,500 gift from them?  

9. Put a Cultivation Plan in Writing for Each Prospect

Ideally, you’ll want to reach out and touch your top prospects on a monthly basis. Every plan will be slightly different. Since no two donors are alike, there is no one size fits all plan.

PRACTICAL STEPS: Keep in mind that whatever you do is designed to move your prospect along a continuum from awareness… to interest… to involvement… to greater investment. Simply including folks in a mass e-newsletter or holiday greeting card mailing is not going to get this done. You need to add a personal touch, like calling their attention to a particular article you think they might find interesting. Or adding a personal handwritten note. Major donor cultivation is a process of getting to know folks better; then showing them you know them. Useful moves and touches might include: personal thank you; impact report; tour; intimate event; thoughtful token gift; personal visit.

10. Clearly Define Accountability

This gets back to making major gift fundraising a strategic priority. Assign someone to hold you (and anyone to whom major gift fundraising responsibility has been assigned) accountable. And make sure this person really buys in to major gifts as a priority.  If you’re the development director, and you assign the executive director to hold you accountable, this will only work if your boss has committed (ideally publicly in a statement to the board and the rest of the staff) to prioritizing this work. The same holds true if you’re the executive director, and you’re assigning the board chair to hold you accountable. Make sure they are truly on board.

If you follow these basic steps you’ll succeed, no matter the size of your shoes. Just make sure you’ve got those laces in place and tightly laced up. If you do, I can assure you they’ll support you and stand you in good stead as you march down the road towards greater financial sustainability.

You. Can. Do. This.

Enroll yourself and your team (up to six people per organization) in my Winning Major Gifts Strategies for the small and medium-size shop E-Course. I offer it just once or twice a year, and the 2019 course begins January 22nd. Grab your spot NOW.  Please take a minute to review the curriculum and see what your peers had to say about the course.

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.