Major Gifts Program

Category Archives — Major Gifts Program

Five reasons to enjoy major gift fundraising

Major gift fundraising is about relationships, conversations and opportunities.  

Here are five reasons to enjoy it:

1)      Stimulating conversations with people who share your interest/passion.

2)      Knowledge that the conversation itself brings the donor closer to the organization and has a positive ripple effect—independent of the financial outcome (but you do have to ask).

3)      You are presenting the donor with a gift:  The opportunity to have a high-impact, feel-good experience.

4)      It’s cost-effective.

5)      You have significant control over achieving an annual goal:  The more donors with whom you speak, the more money you will raise.

Major donors are in your midst

How can smaller nonprofitsengage potential major donors?

My mantra is, “pick up the phone.”

Who do you call?

Anyone making an annual fund gift of $1,000 or more.  Don’t have anyone like that?  Then drop down to $500 or even $250.

The nonprofit community has a love affair going with paper. But to engage major donors, you’ve got to get to know them. And they need to know you. So, when I say, “pick up the phone,” it’s not to ask for anything – quite the contrary. It’s to set-up an in-person visit at the donor’s home or office. If your donors are spread across the country, focus on one geographic area at a time and set-up multiple visits.

The corollary mantra to “pick up the phone” is “get on the plane.”

To engage potential major donors, you need to deeply understand their interest in your organization. What prompted the first gift? What does he/she likes best about your programs and services. How does your organization tie into the donor’s life -family, work leisure and school? What other organizations does he/she support? What’s the draw?

Similarly, the donor wants to know more about you. If you’re on the board, why? As staff, what do you see on a day-to-day basis that keeps you motivated? How well your organization’s programs and services resonate with his/her interests. What impact is he/she having?

Board, staff and donors alike want to help build your wonderful organization. An in-person visit is a great time to consider whom else the prospective major donor knows who might be interested in your organization’s work. Do be clear about how the donor can assist as a “connector” and ask how to best involve him/her, e.g., “Are you willing to make an e-intro?” to “Can I use your name?”

Where’s the money, you might be wondering? Nowhere until a relationship is established. And rightly so.

Get on the plane!

You likely know the answer before you call fundraising counsel for advice. “Yes,” get on the plane and complete your major gift solicitation in person.

Fundraising counsel for nonprofits of all sizes share this call in common:

A NY-based client gets on the phone and says, “Well, we have this donor in CA and oh, the travel, I was just out there last month….”

“How much is the gift for?” we inquire.

“$50,000” answers the client, who then adds, “I know. I know.” 

It’s a quick call for us.  We only utter two words, “How much?”

There is no question that it is challenging to maintain relationships with a national donor base.  But if you’ve gone so far as to qualify and cultivate a donor, you don’t want to give up on best practice at the finale. 

That means not only asking for the gift in-person, but also securing the gift in person.

Are you flying from the US to Hong Kong for $10,000?  Probably not, unless the relationship-building opportunity warrants the visit and/or you can combine the trip with other visits. There are travel judgment calls to be made.

Most of the time, you do know the answer before you call:  “Get on the plane!”

That extra plane ride is likely to be rewarding in so many ways.

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.