Did you know that, on average, 88% of total nonprofit donations come from just 12% of donors? This small portion of your nonprofit’s supporter base is known as your major donors. To secure the support of these crucial donors, your nonprofit needs to build a robust major gifts fundraising strategy.
Because major gifts are so large, it requires time and dedication to cultivate and acquire more of these donations. In this guide, we’ll cover the need-to-know information and steps of creating a major gift fundraising strategy, including:
- What is a major gift?
- Why are major gifts so important for nonprofits?
- 7 steps to start a major gift program
- Major gift fundraising tools
Let’s start by reviewing the basics of what these key donations are.
What is a major gift?
Major gifts are the largest donations your nonprofit receives. The exact donation amount that you consider to be a major gift will depend on the highest donation amounts your organization typically receives. For example, if your largest donations tend to be between $25,000 and $50,000, you might designate that range as your major gift range.
Some larger organizations may consider major donations to be donations of $100,000 or more, while smaller nonprofits might consider $1,000 donations to be major gifts.
Why are major gifts so important for nonprofits?
Major gifts make up the bulk of a nonprofit’s annual fund. They allow your nonprofit to remain in operation and tackle major projects such as renovations or establishing new programs.
Creating a major gift program or fundraising strategy is essential because these gifts will not just appear out of thin air. They require careful planning, cultivation, and stewardship to acquire a major gift and turn major donors into recurring supporters.
According to Giving USA 2023, mega-gift amounts are growing significantly, reaching $13.96 billion in 2022. A major gift fundraising strategy helps ensure that more of these massive donations are coming your nonprofit’s way.
7 steps to start a major gift program
A donor will rarely make a major donation out of the blue. Therefore, one of the best ways to encourage donors to make major gifts is by building relationships with supporters and focusing on donor retention and stewardship.
Let’s review the key steps of finding major donor prospects, building relationships, and retaining their support for the long term:
1. Determine what major gifts look like for your organization
To kick off your major gift fundraising strategy, you should first identify your nonprofit’s unique major gift range. This allows you to understand who your major donors are, what leads them to give at a high level, and how you can build relationships with them and potential major donors to foster a sustainable giving stream.
Follow these steps to outline your organization’s definition of major gifts:
- Assess your previous largest donations to determine your major gift threshold. Consider the gift amounts that have a significant impact on your organization’s ability to work toward your mission. You may choose to assess the top 10% or 15% of your donation amounts and take the average of those gift sizes to determine your major gift range.
- Create a gift range chart. A gift range chart helps determine how many gifts you’ll need to acquire at each giving level to meet your campaign or annual giving goals. For example, to reach your annual giving goals, you might determine that you need to receive at least five donations of $10,000 each, 10 donations of $5,000 each, 15 donations of $2,500 each, and so on. Remember: the higher the donation amount, the fewer donors who have the giving capacity and willingness to make a gift of that size.
- Evaluate external threats and opportunities. Determine whether external factors like economic changes or global events may have an impact on your major giving strategy. For example, economic downturns may mean that your major donors will not be able to give as much this year. On the other hand, recent global events that impact your cause might generate greater passion for your mission, leading to increased donations.
- Set ambitious but achievable goals. Your major giving targets should be higher than past year’s objectives, but still achievable. Consider your nonprofit’s current fundraising strategies and staff capacity to determine whether your goals are realistic based on your resources and available time.
As you set goals for your major giving efforts, be realistic, but optimistic. Understand your nonprofit’s limitations and challenges, but show your team that you believe that they can take your major giving program to new heights.
2. Assign major giving team members
Who will be responsible for acquiring and building relationships with major donors? Assigning responsibilities ensures that everyone is clear on their role in the major giving process.
Your major giving efforts may be supported by these team members:
- Executive director. Your executive director leads your nonprofit from the highest level, ensuring all of your fundraising efforts are aligned with your mission and values. They can step in to support multiple major giving efforts, such as meeting with top prospective donors to build relationships.
- Development director. Your development director leads your fundraising team, which includes your major gifts activities. They help ensure that your major giving initiatives are aligned with your overarching fundraising goals.
- Major gifts officer. Your major gifts office is a fundraising professional who specializes in major gift cultivation and stewardship. They’ll play a significant, hands-on role in finding prospective donors and building relationships with them.
These core team members may also interact with other staff members to push certain initiatives forward. For example, they may collaborate with your donor recognition team, event planner, volunteer coordinator, and marketing manager.
3. Identify major gift prospects
One of the most common major giving challenges nonprofits face is trying to engage with lukewarm or cold prospects. That’s why it’s important to approach the right donors at the right time. Here’s how to identify the best major gift prospects for your organization.
Generally, donors with a history of giving, high engagement with your organization, and a high generosity score (capacity for donating) will be the best major gift candidates.
When you start searching your donor database for potential major donors, you’ll want to look at the three C’s of major prospects: the depth of their connection to your nonprofit, the concern they have demonstrated for your mission, and their capacity to give.
Let’s review some specific identification factors to look for in a compelling prospect. In order of importance, these include:
- Donors who gave 90% of your funds over the last 12-24 months
- Donors who rank highly on “major gift likelihood” or “planned gift likelihood” in donor prospecting software
- Donors who’ve made multiple gifts over a year
- Donors who’ve already demonstrated loyalty by giving each year
- Prospects rated highly (based on connection, concern, and capacity) by volunteer-conducted peer screenings
- Current and former board members
- Current and former staff members
- Committee members
- Beneficiaries (i.e., clients, members, subscribers, students, patients, program attendees, ticket purchasers)
- Families of beneficiaries
Once you’ve identified these prospects in your donor database, move them through your major gifts pipeline. If you find yourself with too many prospects for limited staff members to build relationships with them all, you could organize prospects into tiers based on each prospect’s overall likelihood to become a major donor to make prioritizing donors easier.
On the other hand, if you don’t have a lot of prospects, strategize how to find more options both within and outside your existing records. As you expand your major prospect list, ask your current major donors if they have any referrals. This not only helps grow your list of prospective donors but also shows the strength of your relationship with the referring donor.
Prioritize potential prospects
While you care about every donor, you probably don’t have the resources to reach out to all of them individually in the hopes of earning a major gift. That’s why it’s important to follow advice like the Pareto principle, which advises putting 80% of your resources into cultivating the top 20% of prospective donors who are likely to give you 80% of your funding.
When you first reach out to supporters and donors, ask them if they want to build a deeper relationship with your organization. Donors who say they do want a deeper relationship will be possible prospects. Then, consider other qualifications such as if they’ve made past donations that are larger than your average gift amount, if a major donor or board member referred them to your organization, or if they’ve otherwise demonstrated a passion for your mission.
If you’re looking inside your donor database for major donor prospects, take the following steps to understand which supporters to prioritize in your outreach efforts:
- Conduct wealth screenings to find top prospects. Prospect research software like DonorSearch provides tools that will automate analyzing wealth information for each prospect. You can also take the DIY approach and analyze Zillow, real estate records, Google searches, and other public records to get an idea of your donors’ wealth capacity.
- Look at each supporter’s giving history and identify trends. Who is giving year after year or multiple times per year? The longer and richer the history of giving with your organization, the higher on your prioritization list these supporters will likely fall.
- Consider your mid-level donors who haven’t changed their giving level in some time. Many of these supporters could quickly become your next major donors.
While you’re most likely to find your major prospects within your database, don’t discount new supporters’ potential to become major donors. If you need to acquire new supporters and prospects, sit down with board members and stakeholders to see if they have any new donor referrals.
Qualify your prospects
The qualification process is all about getting to know your prospects and building a deeper relationship with them.
In the for-profit world, it takes an average of eight touchpoints with a person to make a sale. In the nonprofit world, we can expect something similar, which is why we recommend trying to reach out to a potential donor eight times to get a conversation. If you make an effort, reach out eight times, and your prospect doesn’t respond, move on to other donors who might.
These eight steps might look like this:
- Start by sending an introductory letter.
- Follow up with a phone call, thanking them for past engagement and discussing what they love about your mission.
- Send a follow-up email.
- Send an event invite for an upcoming opportunity, such as a volunteer initiative or stewardship event.
- Write them a letter to show further appreciation for their support and invite them to have another conversation.
- Send a survey if you don’t hear back.
- Follow up on a different marketing channel, such as social media.
- Make one last phone call.
You likely don’t have the time or energy to chase every one of your major prospects. Qualifying them is a great way to make sure they’re interested in maintaining a relationship with you and your organization before you launch into the rest of the gift cultivation process.
4. Cultivate major gifts
Start the cultivation process by developing a concrete case for support that you can share with donors. Keep in mind that donors give because they’re passionate about your mission. In fact, 42% of donors said that hearing personal stories from a nonprofit’s beneficiaries impacted their decision to give. Explaining why you need their support and how they’ll make an impact is key for obtaining gifts.
Start by creating opportunities that allow you to get to know your supporters on an intimate level. For instance, you might decide to create opportunities such as:
- Hosting intimate and exclusive events. Allow your major gift officer and support staff to mingle and interact with supporters personally at events like luncheons or tours of your nonprofit’s facilities.
- Communicating regularly through email and social media. Ensuring a constant presence on these platforms will help you establish your brand, provide mission updates, and show prospects that you’re actively engaging with your community
- Asking for help and opinions about various strategies at your organization. By showing your prospects and stakeholders that you care about their opinions, you’ll be able to establish a trusting relationship with them.
- Setting up one-on-one meetings. Allow supporters to get to know your team members and ask questions about your mission.
- Inviting prospects to volunteer. Empower prospects to see your mission in action and understand exactly how your organization operates and creates the most significant impact possible.
As you use these opportunities to build your relationships with your major donors, you’ll want to gather some specific information about them, including:
- Why they give to your organization rather than to a different nonprofit
- The depth of their connection is to your cause. For example, they may have had a family member impacted by an issue that your mission addresses or perhaps they benefited from your programs
- What their favorite projects and programs are
- How they feel about your organization and their impressions of your effectiveness
Track each interaction you have with your supporters and prospects in your CRM to understand how far along in the cultivation process each prospect is and how the relationship is evolving.
5. Ask for major gifts
So, you’ve started building relationships and cultivating prospects. Cultivate by definition means that you’re leading up to something—and that something is a solicitation. In this case, you’re leading up to making the ask for a major contribution.
There are two primary parts of a solicitation to keep in mind: the meeting setting and the language you use to ask for a donation.
The meeting setting
When scheduling a meeting with donors, ask if they have a preference as to whether they’d like to meet virtually or in person.
Virtual meetings are convenient for many individuals with tight schedules and allow organizations to reach donors who don’t live nearby. However, they generally don’t allow for the same level of personal interaction as the in-person alternative.
When you schedule meetings with prospective major donors, make sure to choose an environment set up for intimate conversation. It’s ideal for these meetings to occur in quiet spaces such as a home or office rather than a public setting, allowing for additional privacy and fewer distractions for both parties.
Generally, it’s best to limit the number of attendees. You don’t want your prospects to feel as though they’re being ganged up on by your team. Your executive director, major gift officer, or another team member with whom they’ve developed a relationship are the best choices for the meeting’s importance and personal nature.
Language to ask for major gifts
If you feel uncomfortable asking prospects for major donations, you’re not alone. We often hear from fundraisers that they feel awkward making such an ask. The good news is that you’re reaching out to people you’ve researched and who you’ve determined are interested in helping your mission. Take comfort in the fact that you’re making an informed ask.
When it comes to making your ask, the first step is to show appreciation for the prospect’s past contributions. As mentioned, it’s unlikely that this person is brand new to your organization and your mission. They’ve gotten involved in several other ways, whether through donations, volunteer work, or event attendance. Tell them about the impact they’ve made and how much you appreciate their support.
Then, when you make the ask, frame it as something for them to consider and provide a specific amount. You should also include the specific program that would benefit from the gift. For instance, you might say something like: “Would you consider contributing a gift of $5,000 for the Save Our Farm program?”
In the best-case scenario, they agree right away. However, you should go into the meeting prepared for them to say no, whether that’s because they don’t have those funds on hand or because they’re not interested in contributing more at this time. If your prospect says no, decide whether it’s appropriate to ask for a smaller gift at that time or if you should just resolve to make another ask in the future.
6. Thank major donors
After you solicit and secure a major gift, you need to follow up and thank your donor for their generosity. Stewardship starts with two simple words: thank you. Show your appreciation for everything your major donors do for your organization and give concrete examples of how you used their donations to help you achieve your mission. This helps cement the relationship you’ve built with them and encourages future involvement with your organization.
Here are a few things you can do to thank your major donors:
- Create a donor recognition wall. Donor recognition walls provide a visual sign of appreciation for your major supporters. With their permission, you can add their name to a physical or virtual board that highlights their support for your organization.
- Make phone calls. We recommend calling all of your donors, and especially your major donors. It’s a great stewardship opportunity to say thank you and provide updates on the impact of donors’ gifts.
- Host appreciation events. Invite your major donors to an appreciation event where they can mingle with one another and with your team members. This allows you to say a collective “thank you” to your supporters while also developing relationships with them.
- Send handwritten letters. Sending handwritten letters is a thoughtful way to show your appreciation. Ask someone on your team like your major gift officer or executive director to write and sign these letters so the donors know that you took the time to thank them personally.
Ideally, you will use several of these strategies to show appreciation. If you successfully steward your donors, you’ll likely receive additional financial support from them in the future.
7. Review major gift results
Assess your major giving program results to determine how well the program works and identify opportunities for improvement. Use your CRM to develop a report template to measure your program’s impact.
This report should list metrics such as:
- Program ROI
- Retention rate
- Number of gifts secured
- Average donation size
- Average giving capacity
- Number of asks
By reviewing these metrics, you can identify opportunities to continue improving your major gift program. For example, if your retention rate for your major gift program is low, you might consider revamping your major donor stewardship and appreciation program.
You should also see specific trends in these numbers over time. For instance, your average donation size and giving capacity will likely increase as your nonprofit grows. If it doesn’t, then consider conducting additional prospect research or increasing your ask amounts.
Major gift fundraising tools
You can leverage several tools to support your major gift fundraising efforts. Here are three of the most helpful options:
Your CRM is your nonprofit’s hub for supporter data. It allows you to keep donor touchpoints organized and maintain consistency in your relationship-building efforts. Use your CRM to:
- Track supporter interactions and giving history.
- Identify prospective major donors based on wealth and engagement metrics.
- Create supporter segments for personalized outreach.
Look for a platform that helps automate many steps of the major donor cultivation and stewardship process. For example, Bloomerang’s donor management system offers built-in wealth screening tools through a DonorSearch partnership, an engagement meter to identify donors who are most likely to give, and user-friendly filtering and segmentation tools to develop targeted major donor groups.
Marketing platforms help keep your outreach activities consistent and organized. These solutions include email marketing platforms, social media scheduling tools, and direct mail platforms. Your marketing tools can support your major gift strategy by allowing you to:
- Create a communications cadence to ensure you’re planning enough donor touchpoints.
- Personalize outreach with donors’ names, giving histories, event involvement, and other interactions.
- Track marketing metrics such as email open and click-through rates and social media engagement analytics.
Recognition tools can support your gratitude strategy by making it easier to thank donors using a variety of outreach methods. For example, you might invest in recognition platforms such as:
Donors will appreciate unique gratitude touchpoints that feel genuine and personal.
Additional resources for major gifts fundraising
A strong major giving program will serve your nonprofit for years to come. Taking the time now to build relationships with major donors will be worth it in the long run when you can not only retain their support but encourage them to spread the word about your organization, bringing new supporters on board.
If you’re looking for additional support for soliciting major gifts, check out these resources:
- Major Donors: Who Are They And Where Do You Find Them? Identifying potential major donors is critical to maintaining a healthy major giving program. Use the tips in this guide to find more prospective major donors.
- The 9 Best Nonprofit CRM Solutions (Updated for 2023). Major donor relationships are built on data and your CRM is where you store this information. Check out this buyer’s guide.
- Effective Donor Management: 7 Best Practices for Nonprofits. Earning recurring support from major donors relies on your ability to manage major donor relationships. Review these seven best practices to understand how to manage major donors effectively.