Rachel Muir, CFRE and VP of Training at Pursuant recently joined us for an episode of Bloomerang TV in which she shared her best practices for cultivating and asking for major gifts. You can watch the full episode below:
Steven: All right. Hello. Thanks for joining us for this week’s episode
of Bloomerang TV. I’m Steven Shattuck. I’m the VP of Marketing
here at Bloomerang and today I’m really excited to be joined by
Rachel Muir. She is the VP of Training over at Pursuant. Hey
there, Rachel. How’s it going?
Rachel: Hi there. It’s good to be here.
Steven: Yeah, it’s awesome for you to be here. Wow, you’ve had a
nonprofit background since you were in your early 20s in
addition to your gig at Pursuant. Maybe you could talk a little
bit about your early history of starting your own nonprofit and
a little bit about what you do at Pursuant now.
Rachel: Perfect. I started a nonprofit organization called Girlstart to
empower girls in math, science, engineering and technology in
the living room of my apartment when I was 26 years old, with
$500 and a credit card. And I started Girlstart because I was
always really discouraged in math and science when I was growing
up and I got the message that being a girl, I was missing some
kind of a math gene and I was just naturally not good at math.
And I missed out on a lot of opportunities in my life because of
that. And my hometown is Austin, Texas and we were having a
complete technology revolution and girls were completely being
left out of the equation.
So I started Girlstart to inspire girls and increase their confidence
in math, science, engineering and technology. It grew from an
idea to a $1.5 million organization with over $10 million and
successfully empowered hundreds of thousands of girls. Girlstart
in so many ways was a great organization and I was proud to have
started it and run it for 12 years.
Steven: You were featured on Oprah, right? That was a big part of the
Rachel: Yes. Yeah. Three years after starting Girlstart we were
featured on Oprah and we had the honor of winning Oprah’s Use
Your Life award, which was a $100,000 grant and we used that to
really expand Girlstart and grow Girlstart and grow Girlstart to
other cities and kind of fit Girlstart in a box so that other
girls in other communities could get empowered in math, science,
engineering and technology.
Steven: So what about Pursuant? What do you do from a day-to-day basis
there? I know you do a lot of blogging and writing and you are a
VP of Training there. Maybe you could talk a little bit about
Rachel: Absolutely. Pursuant is a full service fundraising agency and
our mission is re-defining fundraising. We have clients from all
over and we help them with everything from online marketing to
major gifts to mid-level gifts to capital campaigns.
What I have the pleasure of doing at Pursuant Group is serving as
Vice President of Training. So I get to train nonprofit
professionals and help transform them into confident, successful
I absolutely love helping people increase their confidence going into
making an ask and increase their success with their strategy and
their overall fundraising programs. That’s what I get to do at
Pursuant. We do classroom trainings and I also do custom
trainings where I go to an organization and work directly with
them on-site with their staff and even sometimes their board of
directors as well.
Steven: Cool. And I know a lot of those trainings focus on major gifts,
so major gifts obviously is a hot topic, a really important
issue. Maybe we could talk a little bit about that and focus on
that today. What can a group who maybe doesn’t have a small
gifts program or a focus do to get that started? What advice and
coaching would you give to an organization like that?
Rachel: Sure. Absolutely. I would tell anyone who was looking at
starting a major gifts program is really start with who knows
you already. I tell people shop in your own closet. Start with
the donors who are already giving to you and really look at who
they are and what’s happening with those donors.
So what I would recommend as like a step-by-step guide is for an
organization to pool a list of all their donors and pick one
dollar amount. Maybe you’ve found an organization, if that
organization defines a major gift as $1,000 or $5,000; maybe
they want us to keep it there.
We’ll recommend that they pick an amount cumulative because we may
have a donor who’s actually giving to you pretty significantly
when you look at it from a cumulative amount. But if you just
looked at their individual gifts, they might not hit your radar.
So pick your dollar amount, whether it’s $1,000 or $5,000 cumulative
and run a report of donors who might have been giving to you for
the past three years. What you want to be looking at is what we
call in the industry RFM or recency, frequency monetary value.
Another way of looking at that is who are largest gifts? Who are your
most loyal gifts? Who is continuing to give to you over time?
Maybe they’re giving the same amount but they’re giving to you
very steadily over time. You might not notice it because it’s a
smaller amount. Who is upgrading their gifts? Who is increasing
their gifts to you over time?
So I recommend starting with that. It can be really distracting for
folks to look at and a lot of times as fundraisers we have so
many things competing for our attention. There’s so many bright,
shiny toys that we can be looking at and get distracted by. The
opportunities are really endless but if you just look at your
files, look at those patterns of your gifts and then you can
start to analyze who should be in my portfolio. From running
that and looking at that recency and frequency and monetary
value, that can help you determine who should be in your
portfolio, who you should start with to build this program.
Steven: Okay. So you go through your data. You make some good
decisions. You put that list together. What do you do next? Do
you just go down the list and call people and ask them out for
coffee? What’s that step to actually start that asking process?
Rachel: Absolutely. The next step is you really want to know how well
do you know these donors that you pulled this list from? Do you
know what they care about, do you know why they gave to your
organization, do you know why they’re passionate about your
organization? Why are they passionate about philanthropy?
The more you know about your donors, the better you can position your
ask, the more you know how much to ask for, the more you know
what to ask for. That all comes from really intimately knowing
your donors well.
So what I recommend people do is look at that list and ask yourself
how well do I know these donors? Do I need to find out more? If
you’re new in your organization-and I would consider new being
if you’ve been in your position for 12 months or less-you can
really play the new card with those donors and contact them.
I do recommend contacting them and you can contact them by mail. You
can contact them through phone calls. You can definitely ask for
a visit and really get to know them. With any touch point that
you have with your donor you want to be extremely thoughtful and
You know when you’re on a flight and you see those ads in the
magazine, in the in-flight magazine that say it’s just lunch?
Well, it’s not just lunch. Every minute with that donor is a
really strategic opportunity for you to get to know them and
their interests but it really starts with why did you choose us?
What made you give to us, what are you passionate about? The
more you can position your programs to them based on their
interests the more successful you’ll be.
There’s a lot of really great free tools that are out there for you
to find out more about your donors as well. I would tell anyone
start with setting up a Google alert for the donors that you
have in your file. That way any time something happens with them
you’re notified about it.
I also recommend adding them to your network on LinkedIn and I would
write something more than just the automatic pre-filled script
that LinkedIn gives you. Write something personal to them. But
adding them in your network at LinkedIn is really, really
helpful because then you’ll be notified of any changes. If they
change jobs, which is something you’d really want to know about,
if they’ve added a new project they’ve worked on or something
significant you’ll be notified. It’s also a great tool for
seeing who else is in their network. You can segue an
introduction through that.
Twitter of course, following someone on Twitter. I recommend liking
their company on Facebook so that you get instant updates on
anything that’s happening with their company: a new product
launch or anything else. Pinterest is a really great tool as
well. It’s extremely revealing in terms of you understanding
more about your donor’s interests.
All these things about our donors, I mean little things like where
their kids go to school, if their kids are getting ready to
graduate, what their summer plans are, all these things can give
us a lot of insight into their preferences and their interests
and help us deepen our relationship with them and connect them
more to our cause.
Steven: It seems like knowing all the stuff them can really inform the
decision of not just where they focus their money but how much,
right? Figuring out how much to ask for seems like a really
tricky subject. You know, if someone asks me for a major gift, a
major gift to me is going to be a different dollar amount than
maybe Jay Love, who’s maybe at a different point in his
financial life. So how can you kind of decide what that dollar
amount is? How do you go about discerning that?
Rachel: That’s a great question. And when I talk about that question
first off is that you ask specifically what dollar amount
because that’s the first step. I would coach anyone during face-
to-face fundraising-Jay started out in face-to-face fundraising-
you want to be specific. You want to have a specific dollar
amount that you know is appropriate for this donor.
So right, for you and for Jay you’re at different life stages. You
have a young child. Your focus and your disposable income is
much different than someone who’s older and whose kids are grown
up and out at college. And so, paying attention to our donor’s
life stages is certainly important.
We want to go in with a specific ask amount for any face-to-face
fundraising visit and there’s some information, of course there
are paid tools you can use. Tools like WealthEngine, that will
actually screen your donors for capacity and give you more
insight into their giving, how much they’re giving, what their
income is, what their assets are. It will give them a rating.
You can also use just a basic measurable guide post and markers, so
of course knowing what that person’s title is and where they
work you can look up what their income is on Salary.com so that
you can have a sense. Americans typically give two to three
percent of their income to charity so that can be a really good
marker for if I was going to be asking you, Steven, for a first-
time gift. I would be looking at what your income is and I might
just go with that and what a certain percentage of your income
What I’m going to be asking you, if you’ve been giving to me pretty
generously, if I pulled you in my file and I’ve seen that you
are very loyal and you’ve been upgrading your giving and I
wanted to target you a major gift for our organization, that’s
going to be larger. A major gift is going to be anywhere from 10
to 20 times what your annual gift might be.
Steven: Okay, cool.
Rachel: So that’s a good marker as well.
So if you’ve got a donor and their first gift is $50 and they make
$100,000 a year, then asking them for a $1,000 gift is a good
strategy going in. But if they’ve been giving you $1,000
steadily, then you’re going to ask them for a major gift and you
might ask them for $10,000 as a major gift. All this information
and the fact that we have a value, what we think your income
might be, what we know about you personally, if you’ve got a
child that you’re sending to college, that you’re saving to send
to college, if your kids are out of the house, all of these
things can definitely influence and make a big impact.
If we know your other gifts to charity, maybe I know that you’ve just
made a really significant multi-year stretch gift to another
organization’s capital campaign. That might help inform me going
into an ask with you that I might be prepared to split up my ask
over time, maybe ask if you could give more of a gift in the
second year or the third year when you’ve finished out that
Steven: I like you making that distinction between the amount of the
annual gift because it opens the door to almost everyone in your
database, right? It seems like when people talk about major
gifts, it has to be a million dollar gift or above? It has to be
to fund a building and you’re only going to be able to talk to
maybe people who are a little older, who are wealthy but you can
really ask anyone for a major gift if you’ve cultivated them,
right? You could ask a 30 year old just the same as you could
ask a 70 year old, right?
Rachel: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I love that you brought this up, we
have a few different terms and a lot of times in fundraising,
you see this pyramid of giving, right? And at the bottom of the
pyramid are like your annual fund gifts and those are all gifts
that are like under $1,000 and then in the middle of the pyramid
are your mid-level gifts and those are from and organization and
might be anywhere from $1,000-let’s say the organization
considers $10,000 a major gift-so the mid-level gifts will be
anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. And then a major gift would be
anything over $10,000.
So people might start out with a year-end $50 gift. Those are all
really great targets to move up to a mid-level gift to
ultimately turn into a major gift and we’ve done some really
interesting research on this at Pursuant group because we’ve
found some really interesting facts about mid-level giving.
Aside from the obvious ones, is that that pyramid that I just showed,
people see lots of examples of this pyramid. They might see it
at a training that they go to or at a conference and people just
assume oh, well my giving looks like this and my file looks like
this because you never see something, you never see a different
But at Pursuant, we actually refer to it that it looks more like a
sombrero, where you’ve got a lot of donors giving at the bottom
and then you’ve got donors giving at the top. But we don’t have
a lot of mid-level donors specifically.
Kind of like Jan Brady, the middle child can be ignored and the
fascinating thing that we see at Pursuant is that the middle
isn’t ignored because of our donor’s behavior. The middle is
kept empty because of our actions. We don’t often do enough to
identify those donors that are giving at lower amounts and what
their capacity is to give at higher amounts.
If we just identified them and we just gave them the appropriate
cultivation and appropriate personalization and as you said the
appropriate ask because what we’ve seen at Pursuant is a lot of
those donors, those mid-level donors will give a generous first
gift on the first ask. It’s really just a matter of plucking
them out of your file and learning more about them, taking the
time to learn more about them and their interests and start them
on a cultivation path to get to know you and your organization.
Steven: That’s good. You know I’m 30 years and my wife and I have given
to organizations for a number of years regularly and we’ve never
been asked for a major gift. And I feel like if somebody asked
us we would definitely consider it. So your advice is good
because maybe people are a little wary to ask that age group or
that level of the pyramid but they might be surprised if they
actually do it, so that’s really good advice.
So, everyone’s going to either follow your advice, all those awesome
things you’ve just suggested. They’re at lunch or coffee, at a
nice lunch and they ask and the donor says yes. Then what
happens? What happens next? Do you dance up and down? Do you ask
them to get their checkbook right out right there at the table?
What’s your actual procedure after you’ve gotten that successful
Rachel: Absolutely. Well, whether it’s successful or not, the same
procedure really I recommend for everyone and that is two words,
“thank you”. Even if that donor said I can’t make that gift
right now, Steven. I’m completely tapped out. I can’t do that.
You can still say thank you for responding to my request or
thank you for considering my request so the very first words out
of your mouth are “thank you”.
And if they’ve agreed to give your gift in full this is absolutely a
time for rejoicing and not just in that moment but when you go
back to the office as well. I really encourage folks to have
your CEO call the donor to thank them, have a board member call
the donor and thank them.
This is really a time for rejoicing and don’t stop after you’ve
gotten the gift because knowing their gift made a difference is
where donors return our investments. Having tangible knowledge
of how their gift is changing lives, that’s what makes them want
to give again.
I encourage folks to have a revenue file and a cultivation plan for
every donor in their caseload. Like, after you’ve pulled that
file and you’ve analyzed your donor’s giving and you’ve learned
about their interests, put them in an Excel spreadsheet and
decide on how much you want to ask them for and when you want to
make that ask so that you know, you can see that you’ve got some
plans stacked to cultivate them over time.
When people do get a no, it’s typically for like one of four reasons.
Either the timing wasn’t right, the amount wasn’t right, it
wasn’t the right project, or the fourth reason could be that it
wasn’t the right person that asked them for money. Maybe they
wanted to be asked by a board member or maybe they wanted their
spouse to be present with them. Maybe the spouse makes giving
decisions with them. Maybe they want their child present. They
want to introduce their child to philanthropy.
I once had a donor who wanted her child present for the ask. So, I
would tell anyone who got a no, or anyone who is afraid of
getting a no, we all get no’s. It takes no’s to get a yes and
those are really your friend because the great thing about a no
is that it tells you what you need to fix in order to get to the
yes. And if it’s a matter of the timing or the amount, that can
easily be addressed with splitting their gift up over time.
Maybe you asked them for $10,000 and they can’t do that, that feels
like too much, but they could do $5,000 this year and $5,000
next year or maybe they’ve got a big pledge they’re paying out
this year and they could make $2,000 this year and $8,000 next
So timing an amount is something you can negotiate. Of course, if
it’s the program or if it’s the person, then that’s going to be
another visit where you really need to correct those things. But
those are just opportunities. Those are really your friend and
those are just opportunities for you to get it right the next
Maybe you asked someone to give to a breast cancer ward and you
really thought that that was what they cared about at the
hospital but since then their nephew has been born and he was
born prematurely and now the NICU seems like a better gift for
them. These things can happen.
Or I’ve had cases where I found out early on in the cultivation cycle
that the person I was cultivating made giving decisions with
their spouse. That was good to know, and that’s a great question
to ask when you’re asking these donors about their interests, to
ask how do you make giving decisions in your household? Do you
have your own budget and your partner has their budget? Or do
you commingle your budgets and make decisions together? Are
there other people in your family that you want involved in your
philanthropic decisions? These are all completely respectful and
appropriate questions to ask.
Steven: Cool. Well this is great. We’re about out of time. I feel like
Rachel, you know I could talk about this all day and we actually
have before, which is fine. But I do want to give you the last
word and let people know where they can find out more about you,
where they can follow you online, or for any other advice.
Rachel: Great. Yeah. Pursuant.com and my Twitter handle is @RachelMuir,
M-U-I-R. I really encourage anybody listening to check out our
website. I’ve got trainings that I do every month. We’ve got
some fantastic white papers on a lot of the topics that we
talked about today, specifically about managing a major gifts
portfolio and we’ve also got a really fantastic white paper on
So anyone who wants to learn a little bit more about those topics, I
encourage them to visit Pursuant.com and also come to a training
because spending the whole day is a great opportunity for you to
really transform yourself as a fundraiser and take your
confidence and your skills to the next level to bring even more
success to your organization.
Steven: Cool. I’ll definitely do all that and we’ll link to everything
that Rachel mentioned here on where the post for this video is.
So as soon as you’re done watching, click to all of that stuff,
follow Rachel on Twitter. You definitely won’t regret it, I
promise. So Rachel, this has been a whole lot of fun. Thanks for
hanging out with us for 20 minutes or so and thanks to everyone
who was watching and listening at home. We will catch you next
week. Talk to you then. Thanks, Rachel.