If you’ve been fundraising for a while, you already know how important your major donors are. Many fundraising professionals often say that around 88% of all nonprofit funds come from just 12% of donors— your major donors.
As we progress further into 2021, unprecedented events have already caused your organization to restrategize your fundraising approach since March of 2021. The pandemic changed a lot of expectations and capabilities when it came to fundraising. This sudden need to pivot and the changes that resulted are likely to impact fundraising strategies for years to come.
One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic had was to remind us of the importance of planning for the unexpected and not relying too heavily on one plan. When it comes to fundraising, this means being prepared if you can no longer host your traditional events and recruit new donors. Instead of focusing on acquiring new donors in the future, it’s more beneficial and cost-effective to retain and prioritize your current donors and those relationships. Even if your major donors can’t make a gift at this time, you are still setting the foundation for future engagement. Then, when they do feel ready to contribute, your organization is at the forefront of their minds.
In order to maximize your major donor fundraising efforts, we’ve put together this guide to ensure you understand the basics as well as some best practices and top strategies. Follow along with us from the top or click through the navigation links below to jump to the sections that most interest you:
Learning to properly leverage your major donors can be a great asset to your organization and your fundraising efforts. Ready to learn more? Let’s begin.
MAJOR DONOR FUNDRAISING: THE BASICS
To go over the basics of major donor fundraising and what it entails, we’ll be walking through some of the commonly asked questions we’ve encountered about the topic.
WHO ARE YOUR MAJOR DONORS?
Put simply, your major donors are those who give a significant amount to your organization. Though who your major donors are and what amount is considered “significant” will look different depending on the size and scope of your organization. Here’s an easy way to get an initial idea of who your major donors likely are:
- Start with generating a list of all donors and donations in the past year, with the biggest gifts being on the top.
- From the largest gift, start going down your list of donors until you make up about 75% of your total funds.
- If the list seems too long, you can trim it down.
This is an efficient way to get a sense of who your major donors are. From there, you can look at factors like how long they’ve been donating and how often.
WHY ARE YOUR MAJOR GIFT DONORS SO IMPORTANT?
Your major donors are so important because their gifts make up a large chunk of your overall fundraising revenue. Without them, you likely wouldn’t have been able nearly as much for your mission. That’s why it’s so crucial to prioritize your relationships with them. Major donors are more inclined to give to nonprofits that have dedicated a stewardship strategy to cultivate their relationships. Ensure that you maintain consistent communication with your major donors and always show appreciation for their support!
WHAT ARE THE COMPONENTS OF A MAJOR DONOR FUNDRAISING STRATEGY?
In order to develop your own major donor fundraising strategy, you need to understand the components involved. Make sure you determine what amount qualifies as a major gift and invest in a dedicated prospect research tool. From there, depending on the size of your organization, you can assign a couple of team members to dedicate themselves to soliciting major gifts. Once you have these components down, you can start planning any major donor outreach efforts and marketing tactics.
WHO IS INVOLVED WITH MAJOR DONOR FUNDRAISING?
Some of the top players in your major donor fundraising strategy are going to be your major gift officers (MGO). Major gift officers are the leaders in all things major giving for your nonprofit. They can help your nonprofit with major gift efforts like identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship. Depending on the size of your organization, you can either assign a single person to this role or an entire task force.
Keep in mind that smaller organizations may not have the manpower to designate an entire position for the duties of an MGO. They may, instead, ask their executive directors or other managers at the organization to fulfill the duties of the role. This will suffice until the organization grows large enough to justify creating the designated position.
Additionally, modern technology can streamline the prospecting process and significantly reduce the logistical challenges of development for organizations of all sizes. AI algorithms trained to detect potential mid-level or major donors in your database, for instance, can give you lists of top prospects to compare against your own developed in-house by your MGO or other team members. Learn more about AI for nonprofits with this overview.
TOP EFFECTIVE MAJOR DONOR STRATEGIES
To complete our guide about major donor fundraising, we’ll be going over some of the most effective strategies that your nonprofit can try to boost your own strategies. However, remember that local laws and regulations are changing every day, so it might be best to stick with digital strategies and virtual alternatives.
1. CREATE A DONOR RECOGNITION WALL
Donor recognition walls allow you to honor your major donors in a permanent, meaningful way. Today’s modern recognition displays (including both digital and physical options) are a huge leap forward from the impersonal brass plaques of the past. By building a lasting testament to your major donors, you’ll be able to convey the depth and longevity of their impact—and of your appreciation.
Other benefits of a donor recognition wall include:
- Permanently acknowledging donors at various contribution levels
- Providing a modern, interactive experience to encourage engagement
- Displaying a well-designed focal point that carries your organization’s brand
- Conveying the narrative of your mission and fundraising efforts
Whether you want to acknowledge major contributions to a specific campaign or your overall mission, a donor recognition wall is a perfect way to say thank you and cultivate continued relationships.
For a forward-thinking and creative donor recognition wall:
Seek the expertise of an industry-leading provider that will focus on your organization’s unique needs. Eleven Fifty Seven will collaborate with your nonprofit to plan, design, and install a display that honors your supporters and tells your story.
Throughout the process, Eleven Fifty Seven can help you think strategically about how to create the most meaningful experience for donors.
2. PERFORM A PROSPECT SCREENING
Prospect research is a method that many fundraisers use to determine who is most likely to become a major donor in their existing supporter base. This is usually done through a prospect screening. Screening your prospects allows you to run your list of potential donors through a database and determine if they have key characteristics that most commonly point to a major gift prospect.
Those characteristics include:
- Philanthropic indicators like past giving to your nonprofit, past giving to other charitable organizations, political giving.
- Wealth factors like real estate ownership, stock ownership, business affiliations.
Those characteristics each either speak to a donor’s giving affinity and capacity. Donors with both a high giving affinity and capacity are your highest major giver prospects.
3. CULTIVATE MAJOR DONORS WITH DIRECT MAILINGS.
While you’ll likely want to make your major gift requests face-to-face, direct mail is an effective strategy for getting donors acquainted with your organization ahead of time. For example, you might send out a communication package with detailed information about the types of programs you offer and their impact on your community.
Then, when you have your sit-down meeting with a major donor prospect, it helps if they already have a basic understanding of what you do and why your work is so important!
Once they’ve made their gift, you can send an additional thank you message in the mail (along with an annual report, newsletter, postcard, or other engagement tactics).
Just remember, when sending out direct mail appeals to your highest value donors, it’s important that you invest the time, effort, and resources into making them the best quality possible. This way, you show your prospective supporters that you’re serious about getting them on board. To ensure top-of-the-line mailings, we suggest working with a direct mail fundraising platform like GivingMail.
4. LOOK INTO PLANNED GIVING POTENTIAL.
Planned giving is a common way for nonprofits to receive a major gift-sized donation, even when a donor does not have the present financial flexibility to do so.
Put simply, planned gifts are donations that are decided on in the present and then allocated to the nonprofit in the future. This type of contribution is often made when donors leave charitable donations as a part of their wills after they’ve passed away. Historically, most planned gifts are usually of equal size to major gifts, sometimes even larger. However, they’re also less prevalent.
Perhaps your current donors might be more comfortable promising a planned gift for the future instead of making one now, so this is a worthwhile avenue to explore.
5. START A MAJOR DONOR SOCIETY.
When you request a major gift, you’re asking for a big commitment. Major donors need to be carefully cultivated leading up to the solicitation and just as carefully stewarded after the gift has been made. If you want to secure a substantial donation in the first place and want that donor to stick around, you have to take the right steps to make the donor feel like they are a part of something bigger.
One way to do that is to create a branded major donor society. Your major donor society will draw new major gifts in for a multitude of reasons, including:
- Exclusivity/inclusion: People like to be part of something unique and recognized as special. A branded major donor society has that kind of cache that many look for. This same logic applies to branding a monthly giving program. Supporters enjoy feeling like they are part of something.
- Encourages donations of a certain amount: If your major donor society is defined by the same parameters as major gifts, it will encourage your mid-tier donors to increase their gift size to hit these larger donation amounts. Imagine your major gifts are classified as anything over $20,000. A donor who wants to leave a large donation and is thinking in the $18,000 range will be more inclined to upgrade his or her gift to cross that $20,000 major gift threshold so that they can join the major donor society.
- Gives your organization opportunities for excellent stewardship: With a branded major donor society, you have a preset group to receive a series of major gift-related communications. You can have a certain drip email stream and send specific direct mailings. You can even host appreciation luncheons with the members and key leaders in your organization. To make donors feel more acknowledged, you can also throw in additional perks, like smaller giveaways.
Essentially, the concept of a major donor society gives you a chance to build a community of major donors through exclusivity and incentives.
6. HIRE A MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER AND/OR TEAM.
If you are going to make major gifts a priority, you need to hire or appoint a major gifts officer. As your program grows even more, you can develop an entire major gifts team.
Major gifts officers take the baton from the prospect researchers and help shepherd the donors from acquisition to stewardship and, ultimately, to contributing.
A major gifts officer will likely be responsible for:
- Handling major donor prospect files.
- Preparing educational materials.
- Working with the marketing team to make promotional materials.
- Corresponding with the board and other supporters to build the prospect base.
- Presenting major gift appeals to prospects.
- Making the major gift proposal.
- Following up with major donors to continue the relationship.
- Seeking upgrade opportunities when appropriate.
The role of a major gifts officer is not to be taken lightly so you’ll want an experienced fundraiser in the role. You need someone who is comfortable with taking the lead on projects and excels in a team environment.
7. HOST EVENTS CATERED TO MAJOR DONOR ACQUISITION.
An event catered to major donors is a great idea for many reasons. It gets a lot of people capable of making a large gift together so that they can learn more about your organization, the constituents you serve, and the kind of impact their gifts could have, all while your fundraisers simultaneously get to know the prospects.
While, typically, these types of events are galas or live auctions, you can also consider hosting a virtual gathering. Just make sure you have the right tools and virtual event platform to pull it off! It’s a great way to engage your major donors while they’re safely at home.
Make sure your organization has the tools to manage:
- Registration and RSVPs.
- Speakers, vendors, and venues.
- Event marketing.
- Data tracking and reports.
With a smoothly run event, your major gift prospects are more likely to have an enjoyable time and will be more motivated to support your mission. During the event, get a sense of how open participants are to making a major contribution. Then your fundraisers can focus on the very top candidates with the highest likelihood of becoming donors.
8. LEVERAGE THE CONNECTIONS OF YOUR BOARD.
When it comes to major donors, don’t overlook your board of directors. Even if they’re not major donors themselves, your board members often have the kind of connections you need to reach out to certain prospects.
An introduction from a trusted ally is going to get your major gifts officer in the door with donors faster than starting from scratch with cold calls. People give to organizations they trust and you want to build the foundation for that as early as possible.
You might even consider including a specific board member throughout the entire cultivation and solicitation process if they already have a connection with the prospect.
9. ALWAYS SHARE SPECIFIC RESULTS
Donors always want to hear about the tangible results of their gift. They deserve it, too. Your donors are giving you their hard-earned money, so they should know what it’s going to accomplish.
When it comes to major donors, this is even more crucial as the funds they are donating are that much bigger.
As you make your case to major donors, include your nonprofit’s accomplishments and the actual mission-based results of major gifts in the past. Show them that a gift of $XX, XXX helped you accomplish a very action-oriented task. For instance, if someone donated $10,000, let them know that their gift was able to provide education resources for 100 classrooms. Major donors want to know that they are donating to a nonprofit that knows exactly what to do with their gift.
They’re also invested in the big picture, so as you zoom out from the nitty-gritty, talk about the effect that gifts of a certain size have on your organization as a whole. As in, “Since we were able to complete that action-oriented task, this community/group/school was able to…”
You want the path of their funds to be as transparent as possible. This way, major donors know exactly what they’re getting into and are more inclined to give.
10. GET MAJOR DONORS ENGAGED AS VOLUNTEERS AS WELL.
Take your transparency to the next level by inviting major donors into the thick of it. Ask them to volunteer their time so that they can:
- Learn more about your organization.
- Get a better understanding of your mission and your work.
- Meet more of your important staff members.
- See the ground-level impact their funding could have.
Volunteerism helps donors bond with your organization. That is true for all small and mid-level donors as well as major donors. Create fulfilling opportunities for them to gets hands-on with your organization and build that connection.
11. SHOW MAJOR DONORS THEIR RETURN ON INVESTMENT.
Sharing specific results and showing major donors the work of your organization function best in conjunction with a frank discussion of what a set amount of funds will accomplish before the gift is made.
As you pitch your project and campaign to your major donors, remember to communicate how much you would need, what that money would accomplish in a tactile sense (with as much detail as you are capable of providing), and what the overall end result would be.
12. STUDY YOUR MAJOR GIFT METRICS.
Is your organization good about tracking its performance metrics? It needs to be!
The best way to improve all of your organizational endeavors is to track and evaluate your progress using the data you collect. You need to know what you are doing right and what could use some improvement. This idea can be applied straight to your major giving efforts!
Consider tracking the following data points:
- Asks made
- Gifts secured
- Average major gift size
- Major donor retention rate
Once you’re able to gain a comprehensive view of all of your major donor fundraising data, you can better determine how you can improve.
13. PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE LONG-HAUL.
You cannot rush major gift solicitations. Sure, you might occasionally encounter a prospect who is okay with jumping right into the gift without asking questions, but those situations will be few and far between.
Instead, enter into each cultivation with the knowledge that you’re in it for the long haul. Even after you secure the gift, if you want to keep that donor returning and incrementally upping their gift size, your stewardship will have to be just as meticulous as your cultivation and solicitation.
This is even more important during times of crisis. Your major donors might not be able to make a gift at this time, but if you continue the relationship and show that you still value their support, they may make one later down the line. You just have to be patient!
14. INTEGRATE CORPORATE MATCHING GIFTS INTO YOUR DONATION PROCESS.
Did you know that $4-$7 billion in matching gift funds go unclaimed each year? This happens simply because supporters of nonprofits don’t know that these programs exist and nonprofits don’t advertise them enough. Corporate matching gifts programs describe a form of corporate social responsibility where employers match charitable gifts made from their employees to eligible organizations. Each corporation likely has its own guidelines, including gift maximum/minimum and a deadline for submitting the request.
Taking advantage of these programs can be a lucrative opportunity for nonprofits because they have the ability to double or even triple the impact of a donor’s gift without relying on the donor to provide the additional funds. This benefit is even amplified when the gift matched was from a major donor. However, the gift match likely depends on the company and how your nonprofit designs a major gift. Even if the company doesn’t match the entire gift, they’ll likely match a large portion of it and still drastically increase the size.
When conducting your prospect research, take into account where the prospect works and what that company’s matching gifts policy is. If that prospect does make a donation, follow up with them with the resources necessary to complete the matching gift.
Imagine the impact your nonprofit could have if you could double the amount of major gifts you received during the same fundraising effort. Invest in a platform like 360MatchPro for an easy way to incorporate matching gifts into your fundraising strategy! You can provide donors with everything they need to find out about their matching gifts eligibility and initiate the match.
BEST PRACTICES FOR MAJOR DONOR FUNDRAISING IN A CRISIS
COVID-19 left many nonprofit organizations scrambling to figure out the best next steps in their fundraising initiatives. A global pandemic is not the only kind of crisis that can throw a wrench in people’s ability and willingness to give. It might be worthwhile to take a step back and revise your major giving strategy. Instead of focusing on major gift solicitation as the end goal, your best bet is to focus on relationship building instead.
In order to put you in the best position going forward, consider these top practices for major donor fundraising during a crisis:
- Increase non-fundraising communications. While your organization may be feeling pressure to increase fundraising efforts to make up for any lost revenue, it’s worth it to brainstorm some non-fundraising communications with your supporters as well. They likely won’t appreciate a gift solicitation without some reference to the hardships that they’re facing and how that affects your organization. Instead of giving them updates solely regarding your nonprofit, consider providing any helpful resources regarding the situation and take the time to genuinely ask your donors how they’re holding up.
- Optimize communication strategy with donor segmentation. Ensure you have effective donor segmentation tools so you can create targeted communications and provide value to your supporters. Take major gifts appeals, for instance: if some of your major donors indicate that they’d like you to pause fundraising asks for the time being, don’t accidentally invite them to give to your next online campaign.
- Offer alternative opportunities and events. As face-to-face interactions came to a pause, so too did many fundraising and volunteer events. Many organizations were left scrambling to figure out how to keep their donors engaged. When it comes to a crisis like COVID that left us all at home, virtual events are a great option. However, you’ll want to be prepared for other possibilities as well. Consider how you can effectively communicate with your donors and make a compelling case for why they should offer support to your organization during a difficult time for everyone. Communicating during a crisis, particularly about money, takes a lot of tact and careful thought.
- Increase the number of giving channels. Effective fundraising for nonprofits is dependent upon the opportunities you provide for your supporters. By adding more ways to give to your mission, you increase convenience and accessibility for all of your donors. This is especially important now, as your supporters themselves are probably going through difficult times. If you’re already rethinking your major donor strategy, try promoting other ways to give, even if it’s by making a smaller donation than usual. You should also provide giving options on your online giving page, via mobile phone, or even text fundraising!
- Show increased donor appreciation if a gift is made. Even if donors can’t give right now, it’s a good idea to show appreciation for the support they’ve given in the past. If a major donor can make a gift, make sure to amplify your appreciation. It’s more important now than ever to show your supporters just how much they matter and what their support means to your mission during this tough time. Consider sending a handwritten letter with some token of gratitude or making a phone call so you can personally express your thanks to them.
In times of instability, it’s worth putting an even greater prioritization on your most important relationships. Follow these best practices to show your supporters how much they genuinely mean to you, even if they can’t give a major gift at this time.
As you can see, there’s no one-size-fits-all way of going about your major donor fundraising efforts. Instead, vary your approach and practice a collection of strategies to make the most of your high-quality prospects and donors.
Want more information on major gift donors? Discover some of our other fantastic resources:
- Affinity to Give: 3 Essentials for Prospect Research. Learn about the essentials to prospect research with this guide. Soon you’ll become an expert and be able to pinpoint prospects with ease.
- The Ultimate Guide to Alumni Giving. If your organization is education-based, prospect research and major gifts are likely one of your top goals regarding fundraising. Check out our guide to alumni giving for the top tips!
- Top 11 Prospect Research Tools. If you’re interested in investing in some prospect research tools to help you maximize your major donor fundraising, this list of top tools is your best bet.