ask for major gifts

At some point in your nonprofit career, you may have heard about a multimillion-dollar gift being given to a charity and thought, “5 million dollars? What a generous gift!” Maybe from where you sat it looked effortless like a big gift fell out of the sky into the fundraiser’s lap unexpectedly (or at least without a lot of effort).

Is there a magic bullet out there to ask for major gifts and cultivate million-dollar donors?  

There’s no magic bullet but there is a winning formula: develop a relationship, find out what people care about, show them they can make the impact they want, and invite them to give. The truth is you cultivate an 8-figure gift just as you would a 5 or even 4 figure gift. The same core relationship building lessons apply: persistence, discovery, relationship building, and asking. 

Persistence pays off. To get through, more than one message will do! You might think you are pestering someone if you call them and email them and they don’t respond. It could easily take 7- 10 tries to get through to a donor. That doesn’t mean you will try 7 times in one day. You’ll space it out and use different channels to get through – phone, email, text message, LinkedIn message, a letter, handwritten card, etc.  

Once you have their attention make the most of it by asking great questions. Every moment with your donor or prospect is a chance to do great donor discovery. Unsure how to make the most it of it? Grab my guide to quickly building rapport with donors and steal my all-time favorite discovery questions! 

Fundraising means constantly building relationships. Today that needs to be 100% virtual. Here’s 21 tools and strategies to virtually cultivate and steward major donors

The next step is the bravest step of all: asking for the gift. Don’t worry, I have some ask scripts to help you know that to say! 

Having guides, tools and scripts are helpful but nothing replaces the hard-won advice of truly great fundraisers in the trenches! So, I asked some of my favorite major gift fundraisers who have successfully solicited multimillion-dollar gifts, to share some of their greatest lessons in fundraising and advice on how to ask for major gifts.

Here’s what Annie Cotten, Major Gifts Officer for the WWII Museum, had to share:    

Q: Is asking for a 20-million-dollar gift the same as a $100,000 gift?

A $20M donor is the same as a $100k donor in their humanity and you are the same in yours, regardless of the size of the ask. $20M or one dollar, all you are doing is making a friend.

Q: What are some of your favorite or memorable experiences asking for a gift?  

In one case, I became aware of a foundation in Pennsylvania and that its founder’s grandfather had served in WWII, so I went about trying to find a contact. At that point, the foundation was new and the website did not list an email address or phone number, so I Googled and Googled and found a Yahoo address possibly connected to its founder. I hurled a cold email into the ether (again, to a Yahoo address, y’all) expecting to hear nothing back (but I was hopeful!), and lo and behold, I received a response within a day, inviting me to meet. The result of that particular meeting led to some excellent colleagues and  working with the foundation to develop a pilot field trip program. In the five years since that email, the foundation has given a total of $650k in program and capital support. Their director is Museum family now, and one of the best friends I have made doing this job.

In the other case, I was introduced to a professional associate and friend of one of my Trustees. Before our meeting, I looked him up and discovered that one of his businesses was a donut shop, and as it happened, one of my favorites in the world, where I have spent more time than I care to admit. I am a donut enthusiast, and had a sugar-high photograph of myself in his shop at the end of a birthday donut crawl several years ago, which I printed and took to the meeting. He looked at me and said, “Kid, I don’t know what you’re selling but I’m buying.” He ended up making a $30k gift honoring the Donut Dollies of the Red Cross in WWII – and he has also become a dear friend with whom I speak frequently. This job is a gift!

Q: Is there anything you do to calm your nerves before you ask for a gift?

When I first started working as a Major Gifts Officer, a colleague said to me, “Just remember, all you are doing is making a friend.” It was the best advice I ever received relative to fundraising and when I find myself feeling nervous before an ask, I say to myself, “All I am doing is making a friend.” Works every time.

Q: If you had to give one piece of advice to major gift fundraisers what would it be?

Remember, all you are doing is making a friend! 

Here’s some advice from Kenneth Sigler, Director of Major Gifts, University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler on making the ask:  

Q: Is there anything you do to calm your nerves before you ask for a gift?

There will always be some nervousness when making an ask, but I have found much of it comes from asking with too many unknowns. Have open and purposeful conversations with the donor from the beginning. You should have a firm grasp of the donor’s interest level and make sure the donor understands the philanthropic need. Then, the ask is a continuation of a conversation you have been having with the donor.

Q: If you had to give one piece of advice to major gift fundraisers what would it be?

Be comfortable with who you are and find your fundraising style. There is not a singular fundraising style. I was recently introduced to Brian Saber who has developed phenomenal material about finding your asking style. I spent years trying to imitate what I thought fundraisers should look and act like. It was exhausting. Once I accepted who I am as a fundraiser, it relieved the mental pressure of trying to be someone else and allowed me to build more genuine relationships with our donors.

Got advice on how to ask for major gifts? Drop them in the comments below!  

Major gift fundraising

Rachel Muir
Rachel Muir, CFRE transforms individuals into confident, successful fundraisers. When she was 26 years old, Rachel Muir launched Girlstart, a non-profit organization to empower girls in math, science, engineering and technology in the living room of her apartment with $500 and a credit card. Several years later she had raised over 10 million dollars and was featured on Oprah, CNN, and the Today show.
Rachel Muir