As a nonprofit fundraising professional, you are undoubtedly well aware of the importance of major gifts. The statistics speak for themselves—in the last five years, major gifts of more than $1,000 have grown to make up 85% of the revenue at the average nonprofit.
That’s why you spend a significant amount of time thinking about finding potential major donors, acquiring larger donations, and retaining this type of support for the long term. But the major gift acquisition process is easier said than done. After all, it’s much easier to convince someone to contribute $5 or $10 to your mission, rather than thousands of dollars.
But just because major gift acquisition is challenging, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible! By following best practices and keeping donor relationships at the forefront of your strategy, you can successfully retain and grow the support of major donors. Here are a few top tips for making more effective major gift requests:
- Conduct thorough prospect research.
- Bring in expert help when necessary.
- Create a strategic donor stewardship approach.
- Effectively prepare to make your ask.
As you pursue potential major donation opportunities, keep in mind the changing nonprofit landscape. Whereas you might have hosted large gatherings or in-person meetings with potential major donors in the past, your supporters may be more comfortable with virtual meetings going forward. We’ll offer a few tips for pivoting your donor stewardship activities to the virtual space throughout this post. Now, let’s get started!
Conduct thorough prospect research.
You can’t just approach any random person and ask for a multi-thousand-dollar gift. Well, you can, but we’re guessing you won’t have much success with that approach.
Instead, use a data-driven research strategy to identify potential major donors with the capacity and willingness to contribute a large gift to your organization. This process is called prospect research.
When conducting prospect research, you’ll use a combination of your nonprofit’s internal supporter database and external sources to identify potential major donors. Donorly’s prospect research guide describes the two types of characteristics you should look for when identifying prospects:
- Affinity indicators: Affinity indicators are data points or characteristics that demonstrate that an individual has an emotional or personal connection to your mission or cause. Affinity indicators include an existing relationship or involvement with your nonprofit or similar organizations with aligned missions.
- Wealth markers: Wealth indicators reveal an individual’s financial capacity to contribute a large donation. These include real estate holdings, stock ownership, employer and job title, and overall net worth.
Remember, it’s important to focus your prospect research attention on finding individuals who exhibit both wealth and affinity indicators. If you find an individual with a high giving capacity but no particular affinity for your cause, it will take more work to convince them to contribute a major gift. However, individuals who have both wealth and empathy for your cause are much more likely to support your mission from the get-go.
So, what strategies and tools can you use to identify prospective major donors? You can use a variety of prospect research tools, such as nonprofit databases with financial records, wealth screening tools, SEC and FEC filings, and real estate property records. You can also solicit the assistance of a prospect research consultant to provide a helping hand.
Bring in expert help when necessary.
Your organization may have a small staff, with team members who each wear many hats. But there are certain times when your nonprofit could benefit from the help of a dedicated specialist. As one of your most important fundraising pursuits, major gift acquisition is definitely one of those times.
You have a couple of options for bringing on a major gift expert to help push your strategy forward:
Hire a major gift officer
If your organization has the resources and capacity to bring on a new full-time team member, a major gift officer might be the right investment. A major gift officer takes charge of your major gift solicitation efforts, helping you identify and build strong relationships with potential major donors.
Re:Charity’s major gifts guide highlights effective traits to look for in a potential major gift officer, such as:
- Strong communication and interpersonal skills.
- Experience working with donor data.
- Fundraising experience.
- Leadership abilities.
Your major gift officer can provide the dedicated attention and work that your major gift acquisition strategy needs to succeed. This individual will take on a large amount of responsibility, so be sure to bring on someone with lots of experience working with similar organizations and/or in similar roles.
Work with a prospect research consultant
If you’re looking for short-term assistance to give your prospect research efforts a boost, you can work with a third-party prospect research consultant. Prospect researchers offer services such as:
- Screening your existing donor database for prospective major donors.
- Helping you build a more sustainable, diversified major giving stream.
- Improving your in-house prospect research processes and training your research team on best practices.
When researching potential consultants, look for a firm that has experience working with other organizations with similar missions and goals. This allows you to benefit from relevant expert advice.
Whether you choose to work with a prospect research consultant or bring on a full-time team member, be sure to choose someone that meshes well with your organization’s culture. You’ll be working closely with this individual for an extended period of time, so this will help to ensure that your collaboration is most effective.
Create a strategic donor stewardship approach.
Once you’ve identified prospective major donors, don’t immediately send a major gift request out of the blue. That’s an easy way to confuse or even offend your prospects.
Create a donor stewardship strategy to introduce prospects to your mission, get to know them as individuals, and build a genuine relationship. Then, only after you’ve completed sufficient stewardship efforts, should you send your donation request.
Follow these best practices when crafting your stewardship strategy:
- Set up face-to-face meetings. Give your organization a friendly face by setting up meetings with your prospective major donors. The meetings can be in-person or virtual, using a platform like Zoom. Introduce yourself, describe your position on the team, and provide background information on your nonprofit’s mission. Give your prospective donors plenty of opportunities to ask questions and provide them with your contact information to set the stage for ongoing communication.
- Personalize outreach. Make sure any emails or phone calls you use to connect with prospects are personalized with their preferred names and references to past interactions. For instance, you might send a follow-up question about something you discussed in your face-to-face meeting, such as your prospect’s upcoming 5K race or their child’s birthday party. You might also express gratitude for their past involvement in your volunteer opportunities or fundraising campaigns.
- Offer multiple ways to get involved. You want to show your prospective donors that your organization is thriving, with multiple projects or programs happening at any given time. This shows them that their donations will be put to good use, as well as giving them the option to get involved in the specific initiatives with which they connect most strongly. Showcase various involvement opportunities, whether that includes volunteer experiences, advocacy opportunities, or awareness campaigns. Prospective donors will appreciate your efforts to involve them in multiple non-donation opportunities.
Throughout these stewardship activities, refrain from making any fundraising requests. Keep the focus on getting to know your prospective donors and allowing them to get to know your organization. This can help launch your relationship from a place of emotional connection, which can lead to greater donor loyalty down the line.
Effectively prepare to make your ask.
The actual fundraising ask is one of the most important steps in the major gift acquisition process. After you’ve spent time getting to know your prospects and they’ve learned more about your organization, you’re ready to send a well-thought-out donation request.
The process for requesting large donations is slightly different from general donation appeals. Follow these steps to increase your chances of success when it comes to major gift cultivation:
Use your prospect research to determine the right ask amount.
During your prospect research process, you will explore your prospects’ financial backgrounds using public records. This allows you to come up with an approximate donation amount to request. You can also base your request on past donations the prospect has contributed. Think carefully about this number— it shouldn’t be so high that it causes your prospect to turn you down, or so low that it causes you to miss out on substantial support.
Thoroughly explain how you’ll use the donation.
Your prospective major donors are curious about and deserve to know how their donations will be used. As you make your major gift ask, explain the various ways that contributions impact your organization’s work, whether it’s to fund your youth program or to help build a new office for your organization’s headquarters. Also, explain what donors receive in return, such as a plaque with their name on it in your new building or exclusive access to events and performances.
Your prospective major donor will likely have follow-up questions or want some time to think about your request. Think ahead of time about what questions might come up and have compelling answers prepared in advance. You can even get ahead by including frequently asked questions and answers in your initial ask letter. Also, you should clearly state that someone from your organization, such as your executive director or major gift officer, is available for further conversation. This helps make the donor’s experience as personalized as possible.
Whether your prospect agrees to your request or turns you down, be sure to follow up with a thank-you message. Thank your prospect for taking the time to hear you out.
Also, keep in mind that even if a prospect says “no” right now, that doesn’t mean it will always be a “no.” Stay in touch by sharing volunteer and event opportunities and ongoing updates on your organization’s activities. Make sure these invitations and updates are customized, based upon the personal information you learned during the stewardship process. This will keep your nonprofit on your prospects’ radars and could potentially lead to future financial support.
Successful fundraising campaigns rely on your nonprofit’s ability to connect with prospective major donors and craft thoughtful donation requests. If you’re creating or looking to optimize your major gift acquisition process, be sure to keep supporter relationships at the forefront and use a data-driven approach to set you on the right path. Good luck!