Major Gifts Major Gifts Program Smaller nonprofits

We’re small. Can we really launch a major gifts program?

Let’s start with the basics: What is a major gifts program?  At the end of the day, it’s simply in-person meetings with carefully chosen prospects with the ultimate goal of securing sizably larger gifts.

No donors?  Stop right here. 

Your major gift prospects are:

  1. Enamored with your cause and engaged with your organization, e.g., attend programs/events, volunteer and/or otherwise connect to your nonprofit. 
  2. Have enough money to make what your organization decides is a major gift.  Notice that I didn’t say “rich” or “wealthy.” Enough is, in fact, enough—an important distinction for smaller organizations, in particular, where major giving levels do not have to be in the stratosphere to have significant impact.

For smaller organizations, a major gift may be $2,500 per year for four years for a total of $10,000.  If your operating budget is $250,000, ten of these donors produce $25,000 annually—that’s 10% of your budget! (Yes, I do have a bias for multi-year gifts, especially for smaller organizations.)  Or, maybe your operating budget is $2M and you have donors capable of making gifts of $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000+.

What do you need to launch a major gifts program? 

  1. Existing donors, e.g., annual fund, membership
  2. Program parameters, e.g., minimum gift amount and donor recognition plan
  3. Your story, told in a compelling way
  4. Additional information about the donors you identify as prospects (prospect research)
  5. Techniques to “set-up the meeting” and “make the ask”
  6. Willingness to pick up the phone
  7. A system to record donor information and track progress
  8. Passion/enthusiasm about your organization

How do you identify your major gift prospects?

You are looking for your actively engaged, financially capable donors (this includes board members!) It is possible to have your donor list “screened” to identify prospects you may not be aware of. It’s a valuable service, but it adds expense. You may well be able to launch your program with the donors you identify internally.

How do you learn more about your major gift prospects?

  • By talking to them:  A visit to a prospect’s home or office is the picture worth 1,000 words. This is an information-gathering visit, not an asking visit. You are getting to know the prospect better and vice versa. You’re asking lots of questions.  You’ll write-up meeting notes.  You’ll assess if the prospect is ready to be asked or needs more “cultivation.”
  • By researching publicly available information. Welcome to the world of “prospect research,” or learning everything you can about your prospective major gift donors. The idea is to assemble a comprehensive picture of your prospects: financial position, inclination to give and degree of connection to your nonprofit.

Prospect research resources include:

Many organizations have moved ahead with cursory research. It is not “best practice” and there is the risk of leaving money on the table. That said, do the best you can. 

Where do you learn the techniques for making the “ask”?

  • Google—you’ll find lots of information and training programs
  • AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) conferences, workshops and trainings
  • At, we know a thing or two

To launch a successful major gift program, you must be trained and willing to meet with your prospective major donors. There is no escaping this!

Major Gifts Program bottom line: 

Know your prospects, meet with your prospects, ask your prospects. You’ll need some time, some research, some training and lots of enthusiasm.

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