What is a major gift?

Major gifts are the largest gifts an organization receives. Some larger organizations consider gifts over $100,000 to be major, while others consider $2,000 to be a major contribution.

Studies have shown that, on average, over 88% of all funds come from just 12% of donors. That 12% constitutes the donations from your major gift contributors. Given their respective impact on your fundraising total, it’s clear to see why having a robust major giving program should be a priority.

What is a major gift officer?

Major gift officers (MGOs) lead all things major giving for nonprofits and fundraising organizations.

From identification to cultivation to solicitation to stewardship, they build relationships with prospects who have the capacity and affinity to donate a major gift. The role is partly tied to organization size. An MGO at a large nonprofit is likely to be part of a team of officers, whereas a smaller organization might have an existing staff member take on the responsibilities.

The Major Gift Process

Phase One: Prospect Identification

Prospect identification is exactly as it sounds: it’s the process of identifying possible major gift prospects.

A large part of prospect identification involves conducting prospect research. Within prospect research, major gift officers (or whoever does prospect research for high-level donors within your organization) focus primarily on wealth markers and philanthropic indicators.

A combined examination of wealth markers and philanthropic indicators will reveal both a prospect’s financial capacity to make a major contribution and their openness to doing so.

Philanthropic Indicators

Philanthropic indicators speak to a prospect’s affinity for charitable work and your organization. Logically, a donor who has given in the past, who has been involved recently and frequently, and who has donated large sums over time is highly likely to donate a major gift in the future.

Past Giving

Donors who have given between $5k and $10k to a nonprofit are 5 times more likely to make a charitable donation than the average person.

Nonprofit Involvement

Whether as a foundation trustee, a director, a board member, or as a volunteer, someone who has been directly involved with your organization is miles ahead of anyone else on your list, given that they have the capacity to make a substantial gift.

RFM Score

RFM scores speak to the recency, frequency, and monetary value of the gifts that have been made by a prospect. The more recent, the higher the frequency, and the greater the value of past gifts, the more likely that donor is to be an ideal prospect.

Learn more about philanthropic indicators.

Wealth Markers

These indicators are what people typically think of when they consider prime candidates for major giving. Above all else, wealth markers are simply signals of someone’s financial capacity to give–just as philanthropic markers are a good indication of a prospect’s willingness to donate to charity.

Real Estate Ownership

An individual that owns $2+ million worth of real estate is 17 times more likely to give philanthropically than the average person.

Stock Ownership

Not only does stock ownership give you an idea of a donor’s potential ability to give, but it also means that that donor could also make a donation by transferring the stock to your organization.

Political Giving

Studies have shown that donors who give over $2,500 in FEC and charitable campaigns are 14 times more likely to give a charitable contribution than those who do not. Their track records demonstrate a clear openness to giving.

Learn more about wealth markers.

Phase Two: Prospect Cultivation

Cultivation is your major gift officer’s time to not only connect with a prospect but learn more about that prospect so their eventual solicitation is more informed.

Get-to-Know-You Visit

The get-to-know-you visit is one of the most crucial steps in the prospect cultivation phase. Major giving is a very personal process, and in-person meetings build the foundation for a meaningful relationship with your potential major gift donors.

Tour of the Office

Showing potential donors what you’re all about, what you’re doing on the ground, and what you’re operating with on a day-to-day basis is a great and proven way to solidify a donor’s interest in giving a substantial gift to your nonprofit.

Invitation to a VIP Event

Small, exclusive, and personal. That’s the level of event you want to bring your major gift donors to. Show them that they’re not only a donor, they’re also a very important part of your organization.

Meeting with Your Executive Director

Hosting a dinner or other sort of exclusive meet-and-greet with your executive director is a great way to court and ultimately cultivate potential major gift donors. Let them see that leadership is invested in them.

Phase Three: Donor Solicitation

Donor Solicitation: Making the Ask

Donor solicitation is possibly the most difficult–but arguably the most important–phase in the major gift process. It all hinges on the ask, which, let’s face it, is just plain hard to do.

No one, no matter how bold, enjoys asking for money, especially not when it’s tens of thousands of dollars (or more!). But in the end, the solicitation is what brings your nonprofit to the next level.

1. Account for information you've already learned.

If you’ve done your due diligence, you will have amassed quite a bit of information on your prospects over the course of your relationship. Not just the concrete info that you’ve gleaned from prospect research, but also that intangible sense for who a person is and what makes them tick.

This is the sort of knowledge that will help you make your ask personal.

2. Prepare a suggested ask and backup options.

Again, by this point you will have performed wealth screenings and taken an in-depth look at past giving and other philanthropic indicators.

These prospect research findings will ultimately help you decide on a reasonable amount to ask for.

Of course, as with any other deal–and make no mistake, asking for a donation is a form of deal–you’ll want to start out with your highest request (within reason!) and whittle down to your ideal amount.

Find a happy medium where your donor feels comfortable and capable and you feel content.

3. Bring support documents.

A strong case comes along with strong support documents.

When you’re making your major gift ask, it’s important to have these pieces of collateral at your disposal. A fantastic example would be your one-page case for support.

Give potential donors evidentiary reasons to give to your cause. Let them know how their contributions could positively impact your mission.

4. Map out the conversation ahead of time.

In order to be truly successful in making the ask, it’s always a good idea to have a plan for what you’re going to say ahead of time.

In addition to mapping out your half of the conversation, you might also want to anticipate what the donor could say. You never want to enter into a major gift conversation unprepared for any eventuality.

Learn more about setting up a solicitation meeting from the Fundraising Coach.

Phase Four: Donor Stewardship

What is major donor stewardship?

Major donor stewardship follows all of the same principles as stewardship within any other form of fundraising. It centers around acknowledging, recognizing, and thanking your donors. Where it differs from the rest is in the execution.

Major gift donor acknowledgments should be commensurate with the level of the contribution. Their gifts are game-changers, and your stewardship should match that.

Why is stewardship so important?

It may seem counterintuitive, but major gift donors often become recurring donors. One might think that if a donor has already contributed a significant sum, they would no longer be interested in giving any further.

But this actually hasn’t shown to be the case. And that’s part of why stewardship is so vital. It’s proper stewardship that ensures the retention of a major gift donor in the long run. Build on all the effort you’ve already put in!

What are the stewardship best practices?

More than just streamlining the process of donating and sending out personalized acknowledgements, the best practices for crafting a successful stewardship strategy are about matching the level of commitment and enthusiasm that a major gift signifies.

Practically, this means curating experiences and opportunities to thank and celebrate your major gift donors. Again, a lot of the same principles apply, just on a grander scale.

Launching a Major Gift Program

Steps to Getting Started

Eight steps to getting started with major gifts.

1. Get leadership on board.

Major gift efforts require everyone on your team to be involved in some way, shape, or form.

As we mentioned earlier, a great technique for courting major donors is to introduce them to your organization’s executive director. Aside from that, you’ll need to have all the support from the leadership that you can get.

2. Recruit your fundraising team.

In addition to having your leadership on board, you’ll also want to have board members, fundraisers, prospect researchers, and even some marketers on your team.

The success of your major gifts effort relies on having all hands on deck at any given time.

3. Determine what qualifies as a major gift at your organization.

What qualifies as a major gift will fluctuate not only from organization to organization, but also within your organization.

As you grow, your standards will naturally change. It’s important to update your standards every so often, as this standard will dictate the level of strategy given to cultivating and soliciting certain prospects over others.

4. Perform prospect research.

You might be surprised by the number of major gift prospects that you already have within your existing donor base. Prospect research is the best way to find out who among them is likely to give a major gift.

Keep in mind that you should be scouting out prospects who have:

  • A proven willingness to give (a history of giving to nonprofits).
  • A demonstrated capacity to give (tangible wealth markers).

If those two key factors are in alignment, there’s a high likelihood that that person could be a major gift donor.

5. Establish tangible outcomes.

When a major gift donor gives to your organization, they expect to see tangible results from that contribution.

This means that they want to see how their gifts are effecting real change.

They also might expect some kind of program perks. Incentives for donating never hurt.

For instance, if a major gift donor gives a significant contribution to your capital campaign, they may want to have the opportunity to name the building they’re helping to fund.

In either case, your donors want to know that their major gifts are being used effectively.

6. Create a solicitation strategy.

Have your prospect researchers put together profiles on your candidates with recommended asks. Then divide the profiles among your fundraisers.

Each fundraiser should work in conjunction with your board and marketers to create the ultimate presentation for each of the prospects.

The next step is to begin the solicitation process. It’s time to make the ask!

7. Implement a stewardship program.

Major gift donors are investing a lot in your organization. It only makes sense to reciprocate.

Because there likely aren’t an overwhelming number of major gift donors within your donor pool, you can absolutely take the time to cultivate meaningful relationships with each and every one of them.

You should, of course, send out acknowledgements as you would with any other donor. But you can also take it a step further with your major gift donors by:

  • Scheduling check-in calls.
  • Taking the time to really get to know them.
  • Finding creative ways to recognize them.
  • Sending them thank yous occasionally throughout the year, even when they haven’t donated recently.
  • Corresponding about topics outside of asks and acknowledgements.
  • And more!

Stewardship is one of the most important steps in the entire process. Make sure you have a firm plan in place for how you maintain relationships after the gift has been made.

8. Assess your results.

It’s always a good idea to evaluate key performance metrics when implementing any sort of fundraising strategy.

It’s especially important to do so when you’re going through the major gift acquisition process.

You may want to pay particular attention to:

  • ROI.
  • Gifts secured.
  • Average major gift size.
  • Average giving capacity (of top donors).
  • And more.

With these metrics in mind, you can assess your existing campaign and plan to improve your strategy in the future.

Best Practices

…For Cultivating the Relationship

Host events catered to major donors.

If you’re still in the earlier stages of the cultivation process, it’s a good idea to host an event with the intention of getting to know potential major donors a bit better.

Typically, these events are galas or large live auctions.

Events like this, by nature, get a lot of people capable of making a large donation in one room together.

They can then learn more about your organization, the cause you serve, and the kind of impact their gifts could have, all while your fundraisers get to know the prospects.

Getting to know these donors a little better gives your fundraisers a clearer picture of who would be the top of the top prospects to pursue.

Leverage the connections of your board.

Your board members often have the kind of connections you need to reach out to certain prospects.

Don’t overlook the people who are already within your organization. That personal connection goes a long way when you’re courting major gift donors.

Consider including the board member who introduced you to the major donor in the entire process.

Show major donors their ROI.

Before a donor commits to a major gift, they’ll likely want to know what their return on investment would be.

Not every major gift donor will want to donate to every facet of your organization. Let the prospect’s interests inform the project that you pitch to them to support.

As you present the project, communicate how much you would need, what that money would accomplish realistically, and what the goal means on a grander scale.

…For Continuing Engagement

Start a major donor society.

Major donor societies are essentially members-only clubs for your most generous contributors.

They’re beneficial for many reasons, including:

  • The exclusivity makes donors donors feel as though they’re a part of something special–because they are!
  • Setting a minimum donation amount for acceptance to the society encourages donors to give more than they otherwise might have.
  • Having a major gift society allows your organization to put an excellent stewardship process in place across the board.

Think of your major gift society as a chance to build a close-knit community of major donors.

Engage donors as volunteers.

Nothing gets donors (of all sizes) as excited or invested in giving to your organization as getting hands-on with your work.

Host a volunteer day or create special opportunities for your major gift prospects to see what it is that you really do.

From there, they’ll have a greater sense of just how much their contributions could mean.

Always share specific results.

Because they’re giving a substantial sum to your organization, your major gift donors understandably want transparency for how their money is going to be used.

In addition to showing them the nitty-gritty, day-to-day details of the work their contribution is doing, you should also make it a priority to zoom out and look at the big picture.

Show them that their gift has made a large and lasting impact on your mission and the cause you serve.

Integrating Across Other Fundraising Efforts

Annual Giving

Your list of annual gift donors should be one of the first places you look for new major gift prospects. Anyone who regularly donates to your annual fund has already demonstrated a willingness to contribute to your cause. Find someone on that list who also has the financial capacity to upgrade to major giving, and you’ll be in good shape.

Click to learn more about annual giving.

Capital Campaigns

During a capital campaign’s quiet phase (before the fundraising effort is publicly promoted), the whole team works diligently to secure major gifts. Approximately 60% of the average campaign’s total is raised during that major-gift-centric phase. As such, major gift know-how is a capital campaign must-have.

Learn more about capital campaigns.

Planned Giving

Planned gift and major gift prospects share some DNA. Both often have a history with the organization and a proven connection to philanthropic work. They also often have similar giving capacities from a financial perspective. Because of those shared predictors, it’s important to compare respective donor pools for the giving types.

Learn more about planned giving.

Growing Your Major Gift Program

Hiring a Major Gift Officer

What are the key responsibilities?

In essence, a major gift officer leads all things major gifts related. The duties involved typically include but are not limited to:

  • Coordinating the major gift program.
  • Determining the direction of your major giving program.
  • Selecting major gift prospects for cultivation.
  • Building relationships with major donor prospects.
  • Soliciting donations from major gift donors.
  • Designing a major gift donor stewardship program.

What experience is recommended?

Education level is important in determining the caliber of the candidate, but at the end of the day, finding someone with the right experience should be your number one priority.

For the most part, the only educational experience that is truly necessary is a bachelor’s degree.

There are graduate degrees and certificates in fundraising that a person can obtain, but the most useful knowledge comes not from academic curricula but from being hands-on with the process for a number of years.

What skills are necessary?

Some concrete skills a major gifts officer needs to have are:

  • An extensive familiarity with fundraising. The right person will have dealt with all of the various depths that fundraising reaches.
  • Excellent communication skills. Long story short, they need to be able to communicate not only with your donors, but also with the other team members in your organization.
  • A willingness to power through challenges. Major gift fundraising is tough; make sure you pick someone who’s up to the challenge.

Investing in Tools

Prospect Research Tools

The higher you aim with major giving, the more extensive your prospect research efforts will need to be. The more extensive your prospect research efforts, the more you’ll need support to maximize your efforts. Luckily, with the help of a screening tool, you can drastically cut down on the time your team spends researching, freeing them up to focus on cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship.

Test out a demo.

Marketing Materials

Between all the meetings and interactions leading up to the ask and the final solicitation presentation itself, you’re going to require the support of highly informative documentation.

Once you’ve created templates for the various required materials (brochures, leave behinds, cases for support, proposals), you’ll be able to personalize each template for the needs of every specific major gift prospect.

Major Gift Calculator

Helpful in mapping out the gift amount you’re aiming for, major gift calculators offer a great way to visually represent how your team should approach your fundraising goal.

Presented as a chart, the gift calculator will tell you how many gifts you need to acquire at various giving levels to reach your goal. They give fundraisers exact targets to aim for.

Donor Database Software

It is imperative that your team has an effective and efficient way of tracking and managing the various types of donor data that you encounter throughout the different stages of major giving.

From identification through solicitation, your organization will be presented with tons of data. Those who know how to manage that data are the ones whose major gift programs truly take off.

How to determine donor giving capacity

What can the data tell you?

Data is key in the major gifts world. The more you know about your prospects, the better equipped you’ll be to make an ask. And the more you know about your existing donors, the better equipped you’ll be to keep them engaged.

If you know where to look, the data tells you who is most likely to make a donation and how they’d like you to handle cultivation and stewardship. Sophisticated handling of donor data will give your program a big leg up.

How do you determine giving capacity?

As a part of your data analysis for major giving, you’ll need to zero in on the information that determines donor giving capacity. At the end of the day, a donor’s wealth plays a major role in major giving.

You can estimate giving capacity scores by looking at a donor’s wealth markers like real estate. Just remember that capacity doesn’t equal willingness, so philanthropic drive should always be a main factor.

Major Gift Whitepaper