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Aug 22, 2016 BY A Mighty Citizen Branding, Fundraising

Cultivating Major Gifts

Development officers of the world, what does a major gift look like to you? $1,000? $10,000? $10,000,000? How about none of the above? When your organization has a significant need, it’s easy to forget that first and foremost, your major gifts are people. Not losing sight of this simple fact is the key to a healthy major-gifts program.

Cultivating People, Not Donors

At Mighty Citizen, we’re always reminding clients that real people are at the end of our campaigns, websites, and emails. Living, breathing people. That’s why we stress authenticity when promoting client causes—real stories + real pictures = engaged people. Speaking to major donors is no different, but the end-goal is much more valuable than a donation: a human to human relationship. Identifying major gift prospects means removing the faceless “donor” and instead giving them a name, a face and a purpose.

So who are these people? Where do you find them? Odds are, your best advocates are already in your lists. It’s vital to remember that the 80/20 rule (the Pareto principle) of economics is alive and well in fundraising: Around 80% of a nonprofit’s funding comes from roughly the top 20% of your donors.

That means most nonprofits already solicit a core group of people with the ability to affect immense organizational change. These are your major donors. Fundraisers—you need to target this group to maximize their already proven desire to give. They’re your biggest fans.

So start with your annual fund and get crunching. Analyze your campaigns, identify donors who give year-over-year and at larger amounts. Research their trends for giving and their involvement in the nonprofit community. Do diligent wealth-screening to see who’s capable of doing more and put them into your prospect pool.

One Person at a Time

When building a major gifts program, it’s also important to revisit your solicitation process. Approaches that attract small donations (group appeals, challenges, events) rarely translate to large gifts. Why? They lack the time to build trust between you and your prospect.

Imagine things in terms of human relationships. Direct Mail? The pushy first date. Drip campaign? The Ex that keeps texting. The phone-a-thon? The unwelcome sales call. Cultivating major gifts looks more like friendship, and requires a different sensibility. Friendships are 1-to-1 relationships with 2-way communication. Each friendship is unique and built upon shared experiences. Good friends know how to communicate and most importantly, enjoy helping each other. With this in mind, finding prospects suited to this type of relationship requires following your fundraising cycle:


Use this stage to pinpoint individuals in existing lists and campaign results. Reach out into the community (boards and associations) to identify notable philanthropists and benefactors.


Qualify your leads based upon mission goals, ensuring prospects have shown a willingness to give, have passions aligned with your cause, have previous nonprofit involvement and a frequency of giving.


Begin the friendship! Invite a prospect to a facility tour, a volunteer event or a social gathering. Cater the experience to their interests, and provide them access to see your work first-hand.


Encourage the gift. This is a real balancing act. Experienced Development Officers will rely on tact and the organic process of cultivation. If you’ve done your cultivation well, you might not need to ask at all.


Stewardship is a never-ending process. Recognize the ongoing value of a donor’s gift to your organization, and be transparent about its impact. The goal here is to bring donors even closer to the frontlines of your mission.

Of course there’s always a catch. Friendships take time to solidify, and this cycle is no different. Most organizations report an 18- to 24-month window for major gifts. How you handle the evolution of the relationship dictates whether a friendship will develop at all. So always put your organization’s best foot forward—showcase that you can be trusted, welcoming and relied upon. Those are the hallmarks of friendship, and interestingly enough, the bedrock of good stewardship.

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Stewardship: Where Design and Major Gifts Meet

Let’s get one thing out of the way: stewardship doesn’t start with a gift. It starts the first time someone interacts with your brand. Today’s donor has access to thousands of organizations and are clicks away from your 990 tax filings. That first impression is no longer under your control and prospects who notice an outdated, mismanaged presence will ask themselves “What else is being neglected”?

A professional presence today is now synonymous with good stewardship. The positive impression created by attention to detail, personalized messaging and a commitment to transparency communicates that stewardship is a priority. These traits are fundamental to successful fundraising across the board, and especially for major gifts. Our approach to stewardship mimics the concepts of UX—identifying audiences and predicting needs and desires. Here’s a handful of examples:

  • When sending invites to prospects, know the name of your guest’s spouse (and spell it right)
  • Make nametags for every invited guest, even if they don’t RSVP (they will show up)
  • Make sure your donation forms have the ability to process a few extra zeroes, for those major donors who want to give online
  • Recognize gifts immediately, in-person, and with a personalized follow-up letter
  • Overnight event? Have a personalized greeting waiting for guests at check-in
  • Provide reports tracking a gift’s impact on people, and where dollars were invested
  • Foster connections between prospects and donors (donors like championing your cause!)

You get the idea – experience design allows organizations to demonstrate a level of stewardship that speaks volumes about the care they have for their causes, their supporters and ultimately the people they affect.

Major Gifts are Game-Changing

For nonprofits focused on growth, major gifts are the difference between causes that fail and those that thrive. While they’re less frequent and require more investment, their high value can be transformational, providing the ability to scale impact while providing a runway for planning and operations.

So next time you send an appeal, make sure to keep your donors hearts front and center, and your stewardship communications in tip-top shape, because it just takes one person to be the difference between helping a neighborhood, helping a state or helping the world.


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