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By DonorSearch

As a major gift officer, you’re undoubtedly tasked with a lot, least of which is being responsible for raising the largest gifts your organization receives year in and year out. It’s your job to take the reins on major giving. From identification to cultivation and ultimately solicitation, there are a number of steps in the major donor fundraising process, each of which is equally important albeit with their own unique quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Most nonprofits struggle with a common theme; they have a lot of donors but aren’t sure who to target for major gifts. It’s fair to say major donors are often hard to come by. When you do encounter a viable prospect, it’s important to make sure you do everything you can to engage with them, cultivate a relationship, and ultimately solicit a major gift. 

But that begs two questions. First, what does “viable” even mean, and second, how can you develop an organic, friendly, and long-term relationship with a donor? These are worthy questions to address. After all, major donations most likely provide the bulk of your organization’s fundraising revenue!

From the moment prospects initially express interest in your organization, your major gift officers need to be on the alert. By looking at the right data, leveraging that data to modify your communications, conducting outreach, and always putting engagement fundraising principles first, you should see positive impacts on your major gifts strategy’s effectiveness. Ideally, this will result in more major gifts for your organization. For additional context on this process, explore this post on engagement fundraising.

With that in mind, here are six key pieces of information you need to know about each and every major donor prospect in your database:

  1. How to engage with them (including their communications preferences)
  2. What motivates them to give
  3. Their giving history
  4. Their commitment level
  5. Behavioral indicators
  6. Their demographics

In most cases, gathering this data can be done by simply asking prospects (although as with most things in life, it’s much easier said than done!). While capturing other pieces of data may require a more innovative approach. Regardless, each piece of information is vital to your major giving strategy and how you determine your “action plan” with each major donor prospect.

Ready to start learning more about your prospects? Let’s dive right in!

1. How to engage with them (including their communication preferences)

By doing a bit of digging, you can determine the best approach for engaging with prospective major donors. However, each prospect’s preferences will vary. Knowing these key differences is why prospect research is so important. For instance, everyone has different contact preferences. To capture this tidbit of incredibly valuable information you can simply ask constituents what their preferred communication channel is when they visit your website or after completing a donation form. 

Once you know their preferred channel of engagement, you can then communicate most effectively (and respectfully) with that individual. But, what do you “engage them” with? Offers, of course!

To build rapport and a meaningful relationship with a major donor prospect, you need to give them valuable offers to connect and engage with your organization. Test these approaches:

  • Encourage them to participate. When constituents get their hands dirty and help to complete a project, they’ll see how much their support matters.
  • Ask for feedback on a program they support. Take action based on their opinions. This will encourage them to support the program even more. Consider sending them a donor survey, if you haven’t already.
  • Invite them to meet with board and team members. By giving prospects access to “behind-the-scenes” work, they’ll feel even more special, appreciated, and connected to your cause

How your nonprofit engages prospective major donors could mean the difference between successful relationship building and falling short. An effective major donor fundraising strategy means being proactive, and customizing the experience to each and every donor’s unique needs and desires. Do this, and your top prospects will notice your efforts.

2. What motivates them to give

It all starts with “why?” To truly understand your major donors’ and prospective major donors’ connections to your organization, you have to understand why they give to your cause. As a major gift officer, you need to know that Jane likes x, while John likes y. It’s this level of personalization you need to employ in your communications with your prospects to show you truly care about connecting them to your organization’s mission.

There are a number of ways to determine your prospect’s “why.” To kick off your efforts, implement a well-designed donor survey to gauge prospects’ motivations and connections to your organization. The data you gather, known as psychographics, will prove invaluable in helping you craft the most relatable, relevant, and effective communications.

In order to determine a prospect’s connection to your cause, familiarize yourself with a few powerful indicators, such as:

  • Passions. Learn what they care about, and find areas of overlap with your nonprofit’s mission and efforts.
  • Hobbies. Consider what they do in their free time as an indicator of why they support you.
  • Beliefs. Do they feel strongly about a certain cause? If so, that could be the driver for their connection to your organization.
  • Personal stories. Who was the influential person in their life that created their connection to your organization? Emotional connections allow us to deepen our commitment and involvement with an organization. What are your prospects?
  • Social networks. Who do your prospects interact with? Are there overlapping connections? Could that influence their support of your organization?

To take it a step further, nonprofits should know which programs within their organization each prospect cares most deeply about. That way, you can create personalized communications to better appeal to each individual donor.

While the motivation for giving varies from person-to-person, there’s one commonality: every supporter has some sort of connection with your cause. They believe in your mission and want to see the impact they can make by supporting you.

To learn why gathering data like this is essential, check out Double the Donation’s comprehensive major gifts guide.

Takeaway: To fully engage prospective major donors, you have to understand why they give. Then, leverage that information to create a more personalized experience. If you don’t take the time to learn their why, you’ll be stuck with broad, generalized solicitations that don’t appeal to anyone and yield poor results.

3. Their giving history

Whether it’s to your nonprofit or to another organization, a prospect’s giving history is a powerful indicator of their generosity. It can help pinpoint opportunities for larger donations, especially when you analyze the causes donors are supporting.

Plus, you can determine how donors like to give. From credit card contributions made online to in-kind gifts, there are a number of ways major and legacy donor prospects can donate. Make sure you provide supporters with a variety of options. Think charitable IRA rollovers, donor-advised funds, and more. Then, analyze the types of donations you ultimately receive.

For instance, perhaps a prospect has shared with you that they’ve previously considered qualified charitable distributions. By knowing this information, you can tailor your communications to specifically address that giving vehicle or option. 

Even if they’re not interested in giving in that way right now, it still shows you’re listening and aware of their options (one of the core tenets of engagement fundraising!). To learn more about this effective form of giving, visit MarketSmart’s comprehensive QCDs guide.

Takeaway: When checking a prospect’s giving history, don’t just look at donations to your organization, dig a bit deeper; analyze if they designated specific programs, check if they’ve given through unique vehicles in the past, and finally, look at their giving habits with other nonprofits too.

4. Their commitment level

Supporters’ commitment varies on an individual level. Knowing this information can help determine how to communicate and further engage each prospect.

There are a number of ways to gauge a supporter’s commitment level. To determine a prospect’s commitment level, look into the following key indicators:

  • Ask them in a survey. The best way to know how committed a prospect is to your organization is to ask them. A survey question that reads, “Where does our charity rank relative to others you support?” can prove incredibly valuable.
  • Giving amounts and frequency. If you don’t have a survey response on hand, you can look to donation history. As touched on in the previous section, check into these factors for both your nonprofit and similar organizations.
  • Volunteerism. Those who donate their time are often highly committed to your cause, and you can use their volunteer history as a proxy for how “committed” they are to your organization. 
  • Public support. Since it’s much harder to pinpoint word-of-mouth advocacy, you’ll most often run into public support via social media. See if prospects share your nonprofit’s posts, engage with your organization’s “pages,” or generally advocate for your cause online. Typically, this information is gathered via social discovery.
  • Holding a board seat. Even if they sit on the board for a different nonprofit, holding a board seat conveys a certain level of dedication to giving back. This can be used as an indicator for potential commitment to your organization.

Remember, the best and most effective way to truly know an individual’s level of commitment is to ask them. Gather the other information as well, but be sure to ask your donors about their commitment level on a donor survey.

Takeaway: As a major gift officer, you need to know how “committed” your prospects are in an effort to prioritize your time. Gauging a prospect’s devotion is vital to your major giving strategy. 

5. Behavioral indicators

By looking at prospective donors’ digital body language, your nonprofit will be one step closer to more effectively securing major donations. Although relatively untapped in the nonprofit space, this is arguably one of the most powerful indicators major gift officers should act on. 

Major gift officers should know all the different ways their prospects are interacting with their organization’s website. For instance, if you can, get access to and take a look at the following:

  • Web pages visited
  • Emails opened
  • Frequency of visits
  • Time on site
  • Resources downloaded

Take the time to analyze your donors’ digital behavior, because it can give you powerful insight into when to reach out one-on-one to engage with them. For example, if Jane visited the same page on your website for five minutes each of the past three days, that could be a sign to call Jane and engage with her. It may feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but looking at behavioral insights can be incredibly powerful in communicating with donors at the right time about the right subject matter. 

Following these signals gives your organization a better idea of when someone might be interested in engaging with you or even donating. Plus, you can leverage the information you gather from their digital body language to inform your communications strategy.

To take your behavioral insights strategy to the next level, use a system that gathers behavioral insight and conducts automated cultivation, saving your major gift officers time. 

Takeaway: Digital body language is a key indicator of who’s ready to engage with you about a potential major donation and who’s on their way. Your best bet is to invest in technology that gathers this data for you.

6. Their demographics

Chances are, your nonprofit is already gathering all donors’ and prospects’ demographics. If you’re not already doing this, there’s no time like the present!

For instance, major gift officers should have the following data on hand:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Education level
  • Occupation
  • Household income

For more sensitive questions around demographic data, invite supporters to fill out optional survey questions. Gathering this information will help you develop stronger donor personas and more targeted and effective marketing.

From here, you can segment donors and prospects based on this data. Recognizing commonalities among prospective donors saves time while also helping you determine the best outreach strategy. 

For instance, younger prospects may respond more positively to social media outreach, while older prospects may respond more positively to scheduled phone calls. 

Takeaway: Gathering demographic data enables you to create more highly targeted communications. Ensure that your organization is gathering this data and acting on it.

Starting a major giving program is no easy feat. Remember, almost all of the information we addressed above can be gathered in a well-designed donor survey. In most cases, all you have to do is ask! Those who truly feel connected with your cause will be proactive in expressing their interest and answering your questions.

To create the best major giving strategy, consider engagement preferences, why they give (e.g. psychographic data), their giving history, their commitment level, behavioral insights, and their demographics. That way, you can prioritize your time, meet with more of the right donors, and be the fundraiser you always wanted to be!

Jeff Giannotto 

Over the past 6 years, in his role as Senior Solutions Advisor at MarketSmart, Jeff has advised organizations of all sizes on Engagement Fundraising. Leveraging integrated technology and marketing, MarketSmart helps nonprofits generate, qualify, cultivate and prioritize potential donors. Over the years, Jeff has consulted with Salvation Army, City of Hope, Food For The Poor, ASPCA, Girl Scouts of the USA, Special Olympics, and more.


6 Things Major Gift Officers Should Know About Prospects