Major Donor Fundraising: How to Strengthen Your Strategy
Gifts from major donors are critical for your nonprofit to meet its funding goals and serve its beneficiaries. In fact, fundraising professionals often say that around 80% of your nonprofit’s revenue typically comes from just 20% of your donors.
However, finding major donors and securing major gifts is much easier said than done. The process will require you to have a full picture of your current donors and to thoroughly research your prospective donors. It will also require time and diligence as you cultivate new relationships that can last beyond a one-time donation.
Whether you’re an experienced fundraiser or new to the nonprofit scene, your major donor fundraising strategy could likely use some refining, especially as we emerge from the pandemic era of emergency fundraising and navigate the adjustment to a “new normal.”
This guide will set you on the right track. In it, we’ll cover:
- Frequently Asked Questions About Major Donor Fundraising
- 9 Major Donor Fundraising Strategies Your Organization Should Implement
- Thanking and Stewarding Your Major Donors
As you work to fine-tune your approach to major donor fundraising, you’ll be in a position to create a strong community of donors who are truly invested in your organization’s work and want to ensure you’re able to move your cause forward.
Let’s dive right in!
Frequently Asked Questions About Major Donor Fundraising
To lay a foundation for a strong approach to major donor fundraising, you’ll need to know the basics. Let’s go over some major donor fundraising FAQs.
What is a major donor?
Put simply, your major donors are those who give a significant amount to your organization. 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.
- Take the average of the largest gifts you’ve received in the past year. For example, say your three biggest gifts were $8,000, $9,000, and $10,000. The average would be $9,000.
- The average of these gift amounts ($9,000 in the example above) gives you a major gift threshold to work off of, allowing you to determine the minimum amount your organization considers a major gift.
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. Also, note that you’ll have to revisit your threshold as your nonprofit’s major donations grow!
Why are gifts from major 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 to accomplish 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 a dedicated 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 few team members to dedicate themselves to soliciting major gifts (or hire a major gifts officer to lead the charge). Once you have these components in place, you can start looking through your data and creating prospect profiles. You’ll also need to set aside time for planning any major donor outreach efforts and marketing tactics. One great way to do this is to start by building out a gift range chart.
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. Major gift officers are the leaders in all things major giving for your nonprofit. They can help your nonprofit with efforts like major gift 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 bandwidth to devote all of a team member’s time to the duties of a major gifts officer. They may, instead, ask their executive directors or other managers at the organization to fulfill these duties. This will suffice until the organization grows large enough to justify creating the designated position.
Additionally, technology can streamline the prospecting process and significantly reduce the logistical challenges of development for organizations of all sizes. For instance, AI algorithms trained to detect potential mid-level or major donors in your database can give you lists of top prospects to compare against your own lists developed in-house.
How do you solicit major donors?
It’s one thing to identify major donors in your database or beyond the scope of your current donor community. But it’s another task entirely to make a fundraising ask and hope a major donor says yes.
So, how should you approach asking major donors for gifts? And, maybe more importantly, when should you ask them?
The secret is to take your time. The more time you spend getting to know an individual donor and putting in a genuine effort to build a relationship with them, the easier it will be down the road to ask for a specific donation amount.
In short, focus on relationship building. As you learn about your donor and the more they learn about you and your organization, you’ll be able to find a natural opportunity to ask for a donation.
9 Major Donor Fundraising Strategies Your Organization Should Implement
Now that you’re familiar with the basics of major donor fundraising, let’s look at some of our top strategies that can help your organization strengthen its approach.
1. 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. (Remember, if this is currently out of the question for your nonprofit, you can assign a team member to take on the duties of a major gifts officer.)
Major gifts officers take the baton from the prospect researchers and help take potential donors from the acquisition stage to a point where they’re actively contributing to your organization’s work.
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.
- Collaborating 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.
2. Perform prospect research.
Prospect research is a process that many fundraisers use to determine who is most likely to become a major donor in both their existing supporter base and beyond their current donor community. 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, and political giving.
- Wealth factors like real estate ownership, stock ownership, and 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 most viable major giving prospects.
As you screen your prospects, you should also look into their 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.
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. Usually planned gifts are of equal size to major gifts, sometimes even larger.
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.
3. 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:
- Creates exclusivity and inclusion: People like to be part of something unique and recognized as special. A branded major donor society offers the exclusive kind of experience that many look for. You can host special appreciation luncheons with the members and key leaders in your organization. To make donors feel even more seen and recognized as part of an important group, you can also throw in additional perks, like giveaways.
- 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 give a large donation and is thinking in the $18,000 range will be more inclined to upgrade their 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, like a specific version of your nonprofit’s annual report. You can have a certain drip email stream and send specific direct mailings.
Essentially, the concept of a major donor society gives you a chance to build a community of major donors through exclusivity and incentives.
4. 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, too.
For example, you might send out a communication package with detailed information about the types of programs you offer and their impact on your beneficiaries. Then, when you have your sit-down meeting with a major donor prospect, they’ll already have a basic understanding of what you do and why your work is so important!
Once a major donor has given their gift, you can send an additional thank-you message in the mail (along with an annual report, newsletter, postcard, or other engagement materials).
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.
5. Host events catered to major donor acquisition.
Events catered to prospective 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 beneficiaries you serve, and the kind of impact their gifts could have. Plus, your staff members (including your major gifts officer) get to know your prospects in the process.
While typically these types of events are galas or live auctions, you can also consider hosting a virtual or hybrid gathering. Just make sure you have the right tools and virtual event platform to pull it off!
No matter what format your events take, make sure your organization has the tools to manage:
- Registrations and RSVPs.
- Speakers, vendors, and venues.
- 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 candidates who have the highest likelihood of becoming donors.
6. Leverage the connections of your board.
When it comes to major donors, don’t overlook your board of directors. Your board members often have the kind of connections you need to reach out to certain prospects and begin cultivating them.
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 trust 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.
7. Integrate corporate matching gifts into your donation process.
Did you know that $4-$10 billion in matching gift funds go unclaimed each year? This happens simply because nonprofit supporters 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 given by their employees to eligible organizations. Each corporation typically has its own guidelines, including gift maximum/minimum and a deadline for submitting the request.
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 donate, 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 size of a major gift you received during the same fundraising effort. Invest in a matching gifts database 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.
8. 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. For example, a major donor may give to your annual fund one year and then give to it again a few years later.
Instead, enter into each cultivation process 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!
9. Study your major gift metrics.
Is your organization good at tracking its performance metrics? It should 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 best practice is important for all your fundraising work, but can and should be applied directly 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 in the future.
Thanking and Stewarding Your Major Donors
Once a major donor has given a gift for the first time, it can be tempting to call your work done for a while, until your next funding need arises. After all, the completed gift is likely the result of months of face-to-face meetings, phone calls, emails, and more.
But in order to build a lasting relationship with that new major donor, you have to dig into the donor appreciation and stewardship processes next. Showing your donor your organization’s gratitude and continuing to get to know them and make them feel like part of your nonprofit’s community is the best way to ensure you’ll retain their support down the road.
Let’s dive into a few tips for thanking and stewarding your donors!
Try out different thank-you ideas.
There are a number of different ways to go about thanking your major donors. Whatever you choose, you should aim to personalize your thank-you message so that each donor feels seen as an individual who your organization cares about.
Here are a few of our favorite major donor appreciation strategies:
- 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.
- Send handwritten thank-you letters. Most communication today is fast-moving and fleeting and takes a digital form. Add a personal touch to your donor appreciation efforts by writing a handwritten thank-you letter. Go the extra mile by having one of your nonprofit leaders, such as a board member or your executive director, sign the thank-you letter.
- Host major donor appreciation events. As mentioned above in the major donor society section, donors appreciate exclusivity and inclusion. Lean into this by hosting major donor appreciation events. This might be a catered luncheon or dinner, or a tour of a facility (this is especially fitting for newly-completed building projects that are part of a capital campaign). Show your donors that they’re special by providing them with an exclusive, memorable experience.
- Deliver gift baskets. Who doesn’t like receiving a little something in return for their generosity? Build personalized gift baskets for your major donors and have your team hand-deliver them. You might include gift cards, the donors’ favorite treats, or merchandise branded with your organization’s logo.
- Make a personalized thank-you video. This idea puts a fun spin on the traditional thank-you note or letter. Why not make a thank-you video instead? Get your team members together to film a short video thanking your donor and explaining the impact of their donation. Make sure to use your donor’s name throughout the video. You can get creative with this idea by incorporating music, photos of your beneficiaries, and more into the finished product you send to the donor.
Keep in mind that major donor thank-yous are not one-size-fits-all. One donor may respond well to being included on a public donor recognition wall, while another donor may just prefer a personalized thank-you letter. Use what you know about your donors and their preferences to select the best thank-you strategy for each individual.
Reach out to your major donors on a regular basis.
With any relationship, consistent contact is of utmost importance. You would never neglect to consistently reach out to your best friend, close family member, or trusted professional colleague. But some nonprofit professionals make the mistake of neglecting to reach out to their major donors on a regular basis.
Not contacting your major donors can rub them the wrong way, whether they’ve given their first or fifth major gift. It sends the message that your organization views the donor as an ATM instead of a person who cares about your cause.
Avoid this by creating a regular communication cadence. Set up recurring times to chat with your major donors via email and over the phone, and be sure to meet in person on a regular basis, as well. In addition, your conversations should extend beyond your next fundraising push. Get to know your donors as people by checking in with them about their latest family vacation, birthday, or sports team victory.
Even a small concerted effort to continue to get to know your major donors can pay dividends as you not only secure more gifts but retain that donor’s support for years to come.
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 the second or third time around, include your nonprofit’s accomplishments and the actual mission-based results of their past gifts. Show them that their gift of $XX, XXX helped you accomplish a very action-oriented task. For instance, if they 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 are more inclined to give. Note that 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.
Get major donors engaged in other ways besides donating.
As your major donors become more and more invested in your work, they’ll likely want to get involved in ways that extend beyond writing a check. Here are some ways they might want to get involved:
- Providing pro-bono services to your organization
- Serving on your board
- Joining your legacy giving program
Involvement opportunities like these strengthen your 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 get hands-on experience with your organization and build that connection.
No matter the size of your nonprofit, you need a solid approach to major donor fundraising in order to ensure long-term success for your organization and its cause. As you apply these strategies and best practices to your own nonprofit’s major giving program, make sure to focus on how you’ll build long-lasting relationships with every major donor you find.
Ready to keep learning about how to improve your fundraising strategy? Here are some articles the DonorSearch team recommends you turn to next:
- Major Gifts Guide: The Ultimate Source for Nonprofits. Learn even more about major donors and major gifts in this definitive guide—including how to start a major giving program.
- Nonprofit Annual Reports: Complete Guide and 6 Best Practices. Your nonprofit’s annual report can be a great tool for showing your major donors the impact of their gifts. Learn how to create the best annual report possible!
- Starting a Capital Campaign: 13 Steps Your Org Should Take. Embarking on a capital campaign is no walk in the park. Learn how to set yourself up for success!