The Whole Major Gift Fundraising Shebang – Get Started

start major gift fundraising

Today we continue with a 3-part series about the most cost-effective way to fundraise — major gifts from individuals. In Part 1 we covered the basics, including the reason you really should do this.

Why? Because studies show over 88% of all funds raised come from just 12% of donors.

If you’ve been putting this strategy on the back burner, make 2018 the year you say “time’s up.” Especially in light of recent tax changes, major gifts will become a more important fundraising strategy than ever.

Why? Because the lion’s share of philanthropy will be coming from an even smaller slice of donors at the top. For those donors who are most blessed, why not rev up to talk with them about how they intend to spend their after-tax windfall? Why not get them thinking about the fact they’ve just been given a gift worth more than the value of their past tax deductions. Net/net, they won’t come out worse this year if they repeat or increase their gift to you. The more flush donors feel, the more likely they are to spend their wealth – philanthropically or otherwise. It’s worth noting the government just made a huge statement about its role in funding the social benefit sector. They’re abdicating. That means the onus falls more and more to socially-conscious philanthropists.

One of the keys to getting started with major gift fundraising is understanding your job. Simply put, it’s this: Make your donors feel they’re the ‘good guys.’

The best way to do this is to build personal relationships. There’s a 5-step basic process involved in doing this effectively, and we looked at the first step, “identification,” in Part 1. Today we’ll look at steps (2) qualification and (3) cultivation.

Get Ready to Build Relationships with the Right People

You no doubt know you can’t really cold call folks and ask them to make a major gift. Any more than you’d ask someone you just met on a date to run away with you to Vegas to get married that same day. You must build the relationship first, right?

Before you get married there’s some wooing to be done. Then, if it’s a good match, you get engaged. Then, when you’re pretty sure the answer will be “yes,” you make the proposal.

In fundraising we often call the road to the proposal major donor “cultivation.” Cultivation is often likened to gardening. You plant a seed, nurture it with water, soil and fertilizer, oversee its growth and blossoming and, when the time is right, you pluck the blossom from the stem and allow it to spread its seeds to grow new plants.

It’s an apt metaphor because, just like the seeds you plant, not all of your prospects will yield fruit. Some of the prospects, like seeds, will be stick-in-the-muds. They don’t want to be nurtured. They don’t want to grow. They’re content exactly as they are. (Or in dating terms, they just want to be friends).

In fact, did you know only about a third of the prospects on your list will respond to your attempts to cultivate them? That’s right. Not everyone wants to build a deeper relationship with you. Not everyone wants to be wined and dined. Not everyone wants their name in lights. If you try to bond with folks who prefer to be hermits (at least vis a vis your organization) you’ll waste your time.

Qualification – Assessing Who Wants a Relationship

Qualification is an essential, too often overlooked, step to determine who you’ll ultimately cultivate. One of the biggest rookie mistakes I see is what I call “knighting, not inviting.” And, full confession, I’m made this mistake more than once! It happens when you assume that just because someone made a gift at your major gift level they are ripe for being thrown into your major donor cultivation pipeline. In essence, you “knight” them by dubbing them a “major gift prospect” – whether they want to be treated this way or not. Then you add them to your major donor portfolio, and pull them out of the annual giving manager’s portfolio.

This is a mistake. Just because someone gives a one-time $1,000 gift, or scores high on Wealth Engine or some other predictive modeling tool you’ve purchased, is not a reason to add them to your major donor portfolio. Here are the reasons this may be a bad idea:

  • They aren’t really prospects for a larger gift.
  • They won’t respond to your attempts to cultivate them (only one-third will).
  • You don’t have resources to cultivate them; paradoxically they’ll end up getting less TLC rather than more(e.g., perhaps they were getting 12 -22 touches a year on the regular annual giving track; now they end up getting just 2-4 because the person in charge of their cultivation forgets about them while going after “bigger fish.“)
  • Everyone on your caseload has a cost to your organization. You don’t want to spend too much time with folks where your ROI will be low.

Instead… “invite” these folks into your portfolio by going through some qualifying actions to see if they want to relate on a deeper, more personal basis.

You can’t lead horses to water if they don’t want to drink.

How do you find out who’s thirsty?

Here are recommended qualification steps:

  1. Send a letter or email introducing yourself to your prospect.
  • Thank them
  • Tell them they’re important

Sample: Hello! Thanks so much for your generous past support. I’m writing to let you know I’ve been assigned as your contact person moving forward. Your support means so much to us! We want to make sure you always have a direct contact if you ever have questions or require any assistance. I’m your person! I’d love to meet you, get to know you better, and learn more about what draws you to our Charity.

Please feel free to email me at … or call my direct line at ….  Let me know a convenient time to get together. If I don’t hear back, I’ll give you a call in a week. 

Note: Tell them you want to pick their brain because they have a perspective you don’t have sitting inside your organization. People LOVE to give advice!

  1. Make a follow-up phone call.

Too often organizations think they can secure major gifts just by sending out a series of mailings. This won’t work. Period. A major gift decision is bigger than that. It requires you to get up close and personal. So set aside time to pick up your phone and call your prospects to see how they’d like to become more engaged.

  • If you get them, endeavor to learn more about their passions.
  • If you miss them, leave a warm friendly message with contact info.

To-Do: Prepare some open-ended questions, so the conversation is about them. Your goal is to get them to begin to tell you their story. Ask what got them involved. Find out what other charities they support. Ask how they’d prefer to be communicated with. Leave a warm message if you don’t get them. Mention you’d love to find a time to set up a quick in-person meeting to get to know them even better. Tell them they can call or email a good time to chat, and you’ll try again.

  1. Try phoning again a week later.

Remember, the phone is one of your best major donor qualification and cultivation tools!

  1. Try phoning again a week later.
  2. If you get no response to your call or letter, send a survey.
  • Ask just a few questions about the donor’s passions. For example: what he likes about your organization; what programs she likes most; how he wants to be communicated with, etc. Basically, all you were going to ask in the phone call. Don’t ask too many questions or response will be depressed. Try to think from the donor’s perspective. What might they want you to know? What questions might they have fun answering?
  • Make sure you send a self-addressed stamped envelope to make it easy to respond.
  1. If you get no response to the survey, send a handwritten note card.

To-Do: Mention you’re sorry you’ve been unable to connect, and ask your donor to let you know their preferred method of communication. Tell them you really want to hear their story! Assure them you’re not going to ask them for money; you want to thank them and get their valuable perspective. Give them lots of ways to contact you: email, phone number, mailing address and even social media accounts. Mention again how important they are to you, and how appreciated their feedback will be in helping you fulfill your mission.

  1. Send an invite to an upcoming event, tour or volunteer activity.
  • Follow up with a call or email to let them know the invitation has been sent.
  • Ask them to RSVP to you directly.
  1. For top prospects who’ve eluded you, try a final phone call.

If after all these good-faith attempts your prospect doesn’t “bite,” call a spade a spade. They simply don’t want to be cultivated or build a closer relationship with you. They just want to give, and not be bothered. That’s their right. Respect it.

Remember: The objective of qualification is not to get a gift. Not yet. The objective is to identify those folks with whom you’ll have the best chance of developing a meaningful relationship. One that will translate into significance – for you and your donor — through ensuing passionate philanthropy.

Okay, you’ve laid the essential groundwork and now have a good, qualified list of folks most likely to respond to cultivation.

Prospect Cultivation – Making the ‘Moves’

Set an annual revenue goal for each major donor prospect on your qualified list. Combined, this should get you to your overall major giving goal. If it doesn’t, you may have to add more prospects, increase your ask amounts or decrease your goal.

Develop an individualized cultivation plan for each prospect — with steps along the way. [In Part 1 we discussed brainstorming different cultivation strategies that make sense for your organization]. The steps you choose will vary from donor to donor. Go back to your research and to what floats your particular donor’s boat. Build their plan accordingly.

You’ll want to tier your prospect list, putting the folks with the greatest capacity and likelihood at the top.

Print a report from your database, or create an Excel spreadsheet, to set forth monthly actions designed to create deeper engagement.

Use a mix of engagement strategies, understanding that different folks learn differently. Some will respond best in person. Others like to read. Others like to listen. Others like to see, feel and touch. Some of the strategies will be higher touch; others, lower touch. You don’t have to visit each prospect personally every month. Generally about 5 – 10 medium – high touch moves/year will do the trick. In between, you’ll continue to send mailings and emails that are lower touch.

The plans can contain similar activities, but should be personally tailored. Just as you did during the qualification phase, continue to include opportunities to ask donors open-ended questions that will enable them to tell their story while helping you learn more about them.

  • What led you to get involved with us?
  • What inspires you most about our mission?
  • What legacy would you like to leave?

Work your plan!

Nothing will happen if you don’t make it happen. So be sure to schedule ‘major gifts time’ on your calendar. And if you’re working with a team (e.g., executive director, board president, and development committee) make sure they schedule time on their calendars.

Have someone on your team hold you accountable to assure you follow through.

Don’t rush things. The old Paul Masson Winery had a great campaign that stated: “We will sell no wine before its time.” Make no ask before the donor has been properly cultivated.

Major gifts development requires patience. recent major gift study found that, on average, the major donor journey requires 18-24 personalized ‘moves’ or ‘touches’ to get to the point where the prospect is ready to be asked. 

Build the relationship first.

Really work your individualized cultivation plan. One major donor prospect at a time.

  • Track and manage your ‘moves’ and ‘touches.’
  • Create trust by following through and doing what you say you’ll do.
  • Listen to your prospect. Don’t make it all about you.

When you’ve sufficiently built the relationship, and your donor is feeling bonded to you, you’re ready to make the ask. We’ll discuss how to approach solicitation in Part 3.

The Good News:

If you want major gifts enough, you can secure them.

Interested in learning more about building a winning major gifts fundraising plan?

Enroll in the Clairification Winning Major Gifts Strategies 8-week e-Course commencing January 23rd, 2018. No matter the size of your organization, you need to get serious about investing in major gifts development. They aren’t just for behemoths; they’re for everyone. It’s a commitment that will really be worth your time and effort.

Major gift fundraising

Claire Axelrad
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.
Claire Axelrad
By | 2018-01-17T09:09:39+00:00 January 18th, 2018|Fundraising, Major Gifts|

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