major donor portfolio

When you’re determining who to cultivate for your major donor portfolio, do you simply look at everyone who gave more than $1,000 (or whatever your major gift amount is) and dump them all into your portfolio for the year?

I confess: I used to do that. I didn’t know any better. No one taught me. I was making it up as I went along. 

My unenlightened “strategy” looked a bit like an Oprah Winfrey car give-away.

Who Gets an Individual Major Donor Portfolio Cultivation Plan? 

You get a plan… and you get a plan… and you get a plan… EVERYBODY gets a plan!

While that might work for an Oprah audience, it doesn’t work that well for a nonprofit with limited resources.

Today I want to help you avoid my mistake by teaching you what I’ve learned. It’s pretty simple. Just two steps. But they are BIG steps that will yield BIG results.


Before you start writing a tailored cultivation and solicitation plan for each major donor prospect – which is something you definitely must do – first you need to:

  1. Qualify your donors.
  2. Tier your donors.

These are steps every nonprofit should take. They’re not just for giant nonprofits. Yet the bigger organizations tend to know this stuff because they have a system in place where staff teach other staff and train their replacements.  

This stuff has to be taught. It’s not intuitive. So there’s nothing wrong with you if you haven’t been doing it this way. 

Time to learn!

Where Do Qualifying and Tiering Donors Fall Within Major Gift Fundraising?

They begin very close to the beginning.

And that’s why these steps are so critical. The work you put in on the front end will save you a lot of work on the back end.

Simply put, the major gift fundraising journey looks like this:

Identify major donor prospects… qualify them so you know they want to build a deeper relationship with you… tier them before you cultivate them so you’re sure to spend the majority of your time with your best prospects … visit with them… listen to them… reflect back to them what you heard… ask them for something specific that resonates with their passions… steward their gift and communicate in an ongoing way to make them feel like the hero they are!

If you start cultivating before you qualify and tier, you will waste precious limited resources. 

Today we’re going to look at the qualification process. Next week we’ll look at the tiering process.

How to Qualify Your Donors

There’s an economic reality inherent in the process of major gift fundraising. There are only so many hours in a day, and you need to spend them with the prospects most likely to boost your net revenue.

The point of cultivation is not to cultivate. It’s to get to the point where a donor with an inclination and capacity to make a major gift is asked to make that gift at a point they’re likely to say “yes.”

Only about one-third of the folks on your preliminary caseload list want to be cultivated. The rest won’t respond to your touches and moves, so continuing the attempts to engage them this way is akin to beating a dead horse. Were you hired to beat a dead horse?

Of course not!

Your job is to winnow your list of major donor prospects – those with linkage, interest and ability to make a major gift — into a more manageable list of folks willing to be cultivated. One full-time person can only handle cultivating a portfolio of 150. Maximum. Assuming they do nothing else.

Too many donors in a portfolio is too many. How many hours do you have, organization-wide, to devote to major gifts development? If it’s 20 hours, you can manage a portfolio of 75. If you’re the executive director, and have no development staff, perhaps you’ve got 7.5 hours. That means you can handle a portfolio of 20. More than that, and you’re only going to have time for “transactions.”  

Sure, you can ask every prospect on your un-qualified list for gifts. But you’ll likely leave a lot of money on the table. Folks may give you $1,000, when they could have given $10,000 if you’d really dedicated time to get to know them better. Or they’ll give you money this one time, but they’re unlikely to repeat their giving. Which is why truly successful major gift fundraisers know you must “qualify” folks to build a carefully honed major donor portfolio.

Some people like to be wined and dined; some don’t. Some really want to be part of a community; others simply want to make a gift and be left alone. You may be “on their list,” but not a top philanthropic priority.

This makes sense, right? Be realistic. The best way to find out where your cause falls on your donor’s list is to take some proactive steps to find out!

This is a process.


Qualification is a bit like cultivation-lite. You make a few preliminary ‘moves’ to see if the donor bites. If they do, you know they’ll likely respond to continued cultivation. This makes them worth including in your portfolio.

Another way to think about this is inviting vs. knighting. Don’t simply dub every donor above a certain amount as “Sir Major Donor Prospect.” Rather, invite them to receive this honor. 

I like to begin with something known in marketing as the ‘Rule of 7 – in most cases it will take 7 tries to get a conversation with a potential donor. [This may occur within a three month period]. If you make a good faith effort, and your prospect doesn’t ‘bite,’ move on.  This prospect doesn’t belong in your major donor portfolio for cultivation. Here’s what to do to get the answers you need: 

  1. Send a letter or email introducing yourself, thanking them and telling them they’re important. Let them know you’d like to meet them and learn more about what drew them to your cause.
  2. Follow up with a phone call. See if you can set up a meeting. If not now, ask for permission to spend a few minutes now on the phone. Endeavor to learn more about their passions. Find out their preferred method of communication. If you miss them, leave contact information and follow up with an email.
  3. Wait a week to hear back; try again.
  4. Try again a week later.
  5. Send a survey. Send via snail or email, depending on what you know about the donor’s preferences. Make it brief – just a few questions about their key areas of interest and how they prefer to receive communications. Make responding to you easy (e.g., one click or SASE).
  6. Send a handwritten card if you’ve still received no response. Mention you’re sorry you’ve been unable to connect. Ask their preferred method of communication. Give them lots of ways to contact you (e.g., mail, email, phone, text, social media).
  7. Send an invitation to an upcoming free 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.
  8. Try a final bonus phone call, email or text to top prospects you’re still not willing to give up on.

If a donor seems receptive, add them to your portfolio. If they fail to respond at all, you’ll know adding them to your portfolio will bear no fruit. Keep them where they are, assuring they continue to receive a regular flow of information from your organization.

CAVEAT: The problem with “knighting” rather than inviting is some donors who ‘graduate’ to major donor prospect status end up languishing in your portfolio. They actually end up getting less TLC. Whereas they were getting 12 – 24 touches a year in the regular annual giving cohort, they’re now getting just two to four as the person in charge of cultivating them puts them on the back burner while going after “bigger fish.”

Now that I’ve told you to qualify and tier, I want to go back a step to major donor identification.

Who Goes on the List of Donors to Be Qualified?

If you’ve been looking only at donors already giving what you consider to be a major gift, you may be overlooking potential major donors who would really like to be cultivated. There is a lot of treasure hiding in plain sight in your own database!

If a donor is making a $1,000+ gift (not a $10,000 gift which is what you consider ‘major’), or perhaps they’ve made a first-time gift of $500, they’re generally indicating all the prerequisites to include them in your preliminary portfolio. 

  • LINKAGE – They already made a gift
  • INTEREST – They made a gift to you
  • CAPACITY – They made more than a token gift

Some of these donors are just waiting for you to notice them!

Here’s what Jeff Brooks recently wrote in his blog about his own experience making a new, but not insignificant, gift to an organization he’d discovered through researching a cause he cared about:

“Now I’m wondering if my choice of organizations was a good one. I clearly signaled my interest in their work, and an above-average capacity for giving. And they did almost nothing about it. It felt like I hit the ball over the net and it never came back… 

Maybe I was put in the portfolio of a major donor rep who has way too many donors to steward, including some of a lot more potential than me… 

Should I try to tell them it’s okay — even necessary — to communicate with me and hope they’ll give me a reason to give again? Or just move on and find someone else to donate to?”

— Jeff Brooks, on his experience as a new ‘mid-level’ donor

If this charity had gone through the process of qualification, they would have discovered Jeff’s willingness to become an ongoing supporter – perhaps at a higher level of investment. They would perhaps have initially put him into a lower-level tier based on the level of his donation. As they learned more about him, they could have (1) moved him to a higher tier, or (2) moved him into a mid-level donor portfolio as they discovered more about his giving capacity. Either way, they’d have come out ahead.

Remember, strategic major donor portfolios and programs are for qualified donors. They don’t begin with a list of all the non-donor richest people in your community. The folks in your portfolio are not cold calls. You don’t want to find yourself putting a tremendous amount of effort into someone highly unlikely to become a major donor to your organization.

Rather, endeavor to put 80 % of your effort into the prospects and strategies that will give you 80%+ of your fundraising goal.  In the next article we’ll look at how you’ll allocate your limited time among these promising prospects.

If you can’t wait, you may want to download this free White Paper: Tiering Your Donors: The Key to a Focused Caseload.”   

Download our free guide of 42 Questions to Ask Major Donor Prospects Before You Ask for a Gift to inform what questions you should ask to get to know and identify major donor prospects before you make the ask.

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.