major gift fundraising

Wizard of Oz: A Tale of Prospect Identification

If you want to become a major gift fundraising wizard, you would do well to follow Dorothy’s advice.

major gift fundraising

There’s no place like home.  

You can find a lot of prospects in your own backyard. You just need to know where to look; then look in every corner. This is a process called major donor prospect identification.

When you’re in your yard — aka your own database(s) – take a look at some of these philanthropy indicators:

  • Past giving
  • Volunteer engagement
  • Other active in person engagement
  • Business and/or family connections with your organization
  • Active online engagement

Don’t overlook anyone who shows heart, wisdom and courage.

Everyone you meet along the way is worthy of consideration. You want to tap your scarecrows, tin woodsmen and even cowardly lions. They all can take you a far piece down the road towards your destination, but only if you find out what they most value; then give them the love and attention they seek.

Pay attention to every indicator people give you. Don’t just pull out donors who give at a certain monetary level. Also look at other ways folks are engaged with you. Perhaps they give multiple times over the course of a year. Perhaps they also fundraise on your behalf. Perhaps they are active as an ambassador on social media or have participated on your behalf in a crowd funding initiative. Perhaps they attend a lot of events. Perhaps they or a family member have benefited from your services. Perhaps they’ve let you know they’ve made provision for your organization in their estate plans. Perhaps they’ve simply reached out to inform you of a change of address so they can stay on your mailing list.

Take note that many of the major players are women.

In Oz it was Auntie Em. All of the witches. And, of course, our heroine, Dorothy. Who is it for your organization? Are you potentially overlooking prospective donors who could become major gift philanthropists for your cause?

Research from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University found when you compare men and women in the same financial circumstances, age boomer and older, for every $100 dollars men gave women gave $258. Plus women give more frequently and make larger gifts.

There’s a huge likelihood you may be missing out on some generous donor prospects if you’re not reaching out to the women in your community, especially the older ones, who might love to sit down with you for tea. Think about your board members, committee members, direct service volunteers, and also former volunteers and staff for starters. Also, of course, look at current donors who are giving frequently and/or giving above the level of your average gift. And consider beneficiaries of your programs, as well as their family members.

Sleeping Beauty: A Tale of Prospect Qualification

Consider the prospective donors at your fingertips who are simply awaiting a kiss from their prince – YOU! – to wake them up!

major gift fundraising

Who are your sleeping beauties?

You probably have all the major gift prospects you need to begin – right inside your donor database files! They’re just asleep right now.

You first need to consider who wants to be awakened. Or who can be awakened. Some of your ‘sleepers’ may be more or less dead; they don’t want to come out of their slumber. It’s up to you to figure out who’s who! This is a process called major donor prospect qualification.

Which beauties will you kiss today?

Not every beauty is ready to wake up. Only one in every three donors wants to really have face-to-face contact. 

You begin with your list of vetted beauties – they have at minimum two of the three attributes of what I call LIA (Linkage; Interest; Ability) – and you divide your list into tiers. A, B and C. You begin at the top and begin to qualify by reaching out in different ways.

As a guideline, probably after you’ve reached out seven times and been ignored you’re done. You can learn more specifics about how to qualify major donor prospects HERE and HERE.

Goldilocks: A Tale of Prospect Cultivation

Did you know this is really a tale of major gift prospect cultivation? Once you’ve qualified a prospect, and feel fairly certain they want to build a stronger relationship with you, put in place a written plan of cultivation moves and touches.

You need a system to move folks along a continuum from awareness, to interest, to involvement and, ultimately, to investment. However long this takes, the time will be well spent.

major gift fundraising

Your prospect can’t be too cold or too hot, but must be ‘just right.’

You want to engage in just the right amount of strategic cultivation.

To assure you do this thoughtfully, you’ll want to put a personalized cultivation plan in writing for each of your top prospects. Every plan should be slightly different, tailored for the prospect to which it is targeted.

The amount of folks you do this for will depend on the size of your portfolio and the number of staff and volunteers you have in place to work this portfolio. [This is something into which I go into detail in my Winning Major Gifts Fundraising Strategies e-Course].

If you need a gestalt place to begin, consider your top 10 prospects. If you have multiple people who can take this on, consider a top 10 plan for each of them. Make a schedule of moves and touches for each of your targeted prospects. Consider one per month, making them a mix of low (least personal), medium and high (most personal) touches.

If you can’t narrow your list down to 10, tier your list into A, B and C. For example, you might reach out to the top 10 on a monthly basis, the next 10 on a bimonthly basis, and the bottom 10 on a quarterly basis.  As prospects respond, or not, you can move them up or down your priority tiers.

Think about how your actions may affect others.

Goldilocks didn’t think about the bears at all when she sampled their porridge, sat in their chairs and slept in their beds. She thought only of her own needs. Do you do the same when you approach major gift fundraising?

Stop a minute and think.

Every donor is not the same.  Some love to be wined and dined. Others don’t. Some love to receive token gifts. Others don’t. Some want their name in lights. Others don’t. Some love your children’s programs more than your senior’s programs; others, vice-versa. Some love your cat rescue programs more than your dog rescue programs; others, vice-versa. Some love giving locally more than internationally; others, vice-versa.

You absolutely must get into your donor’s mind and heart and stand in their shoes while developing your cultivation plan. A lot of major gift fundraising is a process of discovery. A process of uncovering shared values. Each of your ‘moves’ must be designed to learn more about your donor prospect so you can ultimately make your donor a personalized fundraising offer they won’t be able to refuse.

The Big Bad Wolf and 3 Little Pigs: A Tale of Prospect Preparation

This is a story about creative ways to get in the door. You don’t need to ‘huff and puff and blow the house down.” You do need to adequately prepare your donor prospect so they know they’ve nothing to fear from your visit. You’re not there to take something from them; you’re there to give them an opportunity to do something that will bring them joy.

major gift fundraising

The advice visit is not at all scary.

I wonder if the advice visit would have worked for the big bad wolf [I’m offering a free webinar on getting the visit January 8, 2019]. Could the wolf have persuaded the pigs they had something useful to offer him? If so, rather than being afraid of what he might do to them, this might have made them feel good enough to have let him into their houses – where they could have done something with him.

A lot of times when we schedule ‘appointments’ with people we become apprehensive. Because they can be painful. We have appointments with doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants and so forth. Generally these meetings are dreaded, because they’re seldom fun.

You never want a major donor visit to be about coming from a place of fear and loathing.

Not for you. Certainly not for the donor. This is not an ‘appointment’ to make an ask.  Not yet. It’s a visit! A lovely time. You’ll have a drink and a nosh. You’ll chat. Mostly, you as the fundraiser will listen. You will ask open-ended questions. You will let your donor do most of the talking. You will get to know them and get to know what floats their boat. You’re only going to succeed when you connect their passions and values with the values your organization enacts.

  • How can I pick you your brain?
  • What do you think about… ?
  • I’d really appreciate your opinion about…
  • What problems in our community/world keep you up at night?
  • Can you tell me a bit more about why you find that issue so troubling?
  • How/why did you get involved here?
  • What other causes are you passionate about?
  • What keeps you passionate here?
  • What would you like to see us do more/less of?

How to get a visit with a reluctant donor prospect.

You can lead the horse to a larger pond.  

If they’re reluctant to meet with you one-on-one, you can invite them to a thank-you event. This sometimes seems less threatening to folks, and still gives you the opportunity to pull them aside and ask some of these open-ended questions.  At the end, you can ask if they’d be willing to meet you for coffee to tell you more – because, after all, you were so interested in what they had to say thus far and hearing more would be extremely helpful to the organization!

You can go directly to the mountain.

Why not drop a little thank you gift at their home or office? Just “be in the neighborhood.” I used to drop off home-baked cookies. I had a colleague who took pots of homemade jam, and knew another who brought on-sale holiday plants or discounted chocolates or mints wrapped with festive ribbons (gifts don’t have to be expensive). We always included an appropriate note (e.g., “Sweets for the sweet – your caring generosity means a lot,” or “Thanks for nurturing our growth,” or “Your support last year ‘mint’ a lot!”). They might be there, and they might see you for a few minutes. If not, you’ve done a gracious thing, and they’ll probably call or email you to thank you. At this point you can invite them for a more personal, in-depth visit.

Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs: A Tale of the Case for Support

There are a lot of morals in this fairy tale, but today let’s focus on the dwarfs. And by this I mean each of the components of your case statement family. You’re unlikely to secure a major gift unless you can have a case for support that will resonate with your donor.

Is there a particular dwarf to whom you became attached in the ‘Snow White’ story? I always was drawn to Bashful myself. The point is that each of your donors will be drawn to a different aspect of your programming. So… you want to do the equivalent of giving each of your ‘dwarfs’ a name and a personality!

major gift fundraising

It’s good to work together.

Divide your overall case for support into segments. What are your key strategic initiatives? Make these your major gift cases for support. However many you have, you should be able to memorize them and rattle them off the top of your head. Because you’ll want to match these ‘personalities’ to your donor’s persona.

Describe your different funding initiatives and see when your donor’s eyes light up. This is an indication you’ve found your donor’s funding priority. This is the one you should build upon in your cultivation and solicitation conversations.

Cinderella and Prince Charming: A Tale of Prospect Solicitation

It’s time to let your donor know they’re your ‘perfect fit’ and this is going to be a ‘happily ever after.’ Give them the opportunity to be your hero and give your story its happy ending. Essentially, this is what constitutes a major donor prospect solicitation that’s likely to meet with success.

major gift fundraising

Kindness matters.

Cinderella, the kind one, won while her evil stepmother and sisters lost everything they wanted. If you want to succeed at major gift fundraising you definitely must come from a place of loving kindness. Think about your donor’s story, not your own.

Your goal is to help your donor create a ‘true fit’ – a happy ending for themself as well as for those who rely upon your organization. Sadly, giving is not always its own reward. Simply smashing a foot into a shoe won’t do the trick if it’s a poor fit. You need to help your donor find meaning and purpose through their philanthropy.  

As noted above, this will be different for every donor. For example, don’t offer a naming opportunity to someone who could care less, or who might think that’s playing to selfish motives. Do offer recognition to someone for whom it would be meaningful.

It’s not your place to judge what should/should not be a donor’s rationale for giving. Don’t be an ugly stepsister. Don’t try to jam your donor’s foot into a shoe that doesn’t fit them. In other words, let them find their rightful place by serving up an offer tailored to them and their personal values. You’ll get a more passionate gift if you ask for a specific purpose and amount, rather than simply an unrestricted gift.

It’s about impact, not money.    

Cinderella is a rags to riches story. It wasn’t the money that propelled her to success, it was the impact she made through her goodness to all creatures. She was a servant who helped others and, ultimately, she reaped what she sowed.  

When asking for a major gift, ask in a way your donor prospect can envision the impact they’ll create as a result. Show them how they can transform a pumpkin into a carriage with a little major gifts magic!         

Inside Out: A Tale of Donor Stewardship

In this Pixar film that takes viewers inside the emotions within a girl’s brain, we’re taught about the interplay of feelings human beings experience as they navigate the world. Philanthropists have a lot of feelings about making a major gift, and it’s your job to steward donors so they receive the full measure of happiness they deserve.

major gift fundraising

Happiness is not just about joy.

After someone gives they often feel mixed emotions. Did they do the right thing? Did they give too much/too little? Will their money be used as they intended? Could they have accomplished their goals better elsewhere?

Continue to communicate regularly with major donors to report back on the impact of their giving. Give details. If something goes awry, be transparent. In ‘Inside Out’ the audience learns there is much more to being happy than boundless positivity. In fact, in the film’s final chapter, when Joy cedes control to some of her fellow emotions, particularly Sadness, the girl in question achieves a deeper form of happiness. She’s able to experience joy, contentment and positive well-being while combining this with a sense her life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.

Empathy is vital to wellbeing.

It’s okay to admit the tough stuff. If everything is happy all the time, then why is your donor’s support needed? And how can they empathize with something, or someone, they’d like to help? Giving is an emotional, empathic act, so don’t suppress bad news or tough emotions.

Just strive to prioritize positivity. Be honest when things don’t go as planned, or when new conflicts arise. Be careful, however, not to go into hand-wringing mode. Stress that you’re in control, the sky is not falling, and with your donor’s support you’ll persevere – and continue to justify the trust they’ve placed in you.

In particular, feed back to your donor the experiences they most value. In the film, the main character particularly loved playing ice hockey, hanging out with her friends and goofing around with her parents. When the emotions inside her head realized this they could serve them up to her. Similarly, you can serve up impact reports that emphasize your donor’s favorite things.

Want to Learn More about Major Gift Fundraising?

I’m offering my popular 8-week Winning Major Gifts Strategies e-course again commencing January 22nd. You’ll learn everything you need to know to set up (or accelerate) a strong major gift program. With the reduced tax incentive to give for small and mid-level donors, it makes sense to focus efforts on wealthier donors. Major gift fundraising has always given charities the biggest bang for the buck. Moving forward, this will be truer than ever. If you’re not making many face-to-face visits and asks, you need to start.

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.