Obtaining Major Gifts for Your Org: 3 Strategies

Defining Major Gifts

Before we start talking about obtaining major gifts, let’s define what they are. We’ll first talk about what major gifts are not.

Major gifts are not solicited by mail, email, or social media. These media are great for communication and to solicit giving for operating funds or special projects at a lower level, but for someone to make a commitment that is significant to them and you, you need a closer connection.

Major gifts are not recurring. It would be nice if they were, but typically, receiving a major gift is a once-in-a-while event. They’re special because of their size and focus, which is why sometimes they’re called “special gifts.”

Major gifts are not scary. One of the big reasons that people don’t solicit major gifts is that they are scared of them, and maybe more to the point, they’re scared of the people who can give them and the act of asking for them. More on this below.

So, what are major gifts?

$1,000? $10,000? $100,000? More? It’s impossible to name a universally agreed-upon major gift amount. What is a major gift for one organization may be either huge or tiny to another, depending on how long they’ve had a fundraising program, the size of the nonprofit’s budget, and the experience of the fundraisers, among lots of other conditions.

The best way to define a major gift may not be numerically, but emotionally. If you were to come in today with a check or signed pledge form, what amount would you need on that piece of paper for everybody to get excited and the boss to say, “This calls for a celebration!”? 

That defines “major.” Whether you pop open a bottle of champagne or not, if it’s big enough for the boss to beam ear-to-ear, then that’s a “major gift,” emotionally and numerically.

By the way, it’s important to know that today’s major gift will not be tomorrow’s major gift. If you get good at this, you’ll start getting more gifts at whatever amount you initially declared was “major.” Eventually, for somebody to exclaim “This calls for a celebration,” you’ll need larger gifts, or more of them. That’s a good thing. Moving up that major gift definition means you’re making great progress.

3 Strategies for Pulling in Major Gifts

Regardless of whether a major gift for your organization is $100 or $100,000, there are some basic strategies necessary to start making major gifts a regular part of your nonprofit’s life.

Be Fearless In Connecting With People Who Are Different From You

To start, it’s essential that you’re not afraid. Afraid? Who could be afraid of getting a big gift? Not you, of course, but you’d be surprised. 

Before you start soliciting anybody for their major gift, it’s important that you understand your own relationship with money, and how others may see their relationship with money. If you come from a household where money was always a problem, you may be envious of the donor in front of you who seems to have all the money they need, and more. If you grew up never having a problem with money, you may not understand the person in front of you who came from nothing and did well, but may be reluctant to part with their assets without gaining something in return. Before starting out on your journey of major gift fundraising, check out Prince and File’s classic, The Seven Faces of Philanthropy, to get a better understanding of why donors give.

Then there’s a reticence to engage people who seem like they’re of a different social class than you. Our media outlets and others perpetuate a mythology that business owners, highly successful corporate executives, or people who inherited their wealth all live in big houses, spend time at country clubs, and never bother with the riff-raff of the underclasses. 

In fact, this is almost word-for-word untrue. In his series of eye-opening books centered around the theme “the millionaire next door,” Dr. Thomas Stanley showed that a lot of people with means live everyday, middle class-style lives, with middle class values that you may feel very comfortable with. 

As you work with major gift donors, you’ll find that while they may have more means, they often have the same kinds of problems that everybody has. They’re worried about their health. Retirement scares them. Their children may have substance abuse issues, or learning difficulties, and so much more. You’ll be tempted to think “Yes, but they have the resources to address these issues.” That may be true, but none of these problems take any less toll on them emotionally than it does most of us. Check out Henri Nouwen’s The Spirituality of Fundraising for an interesting reflection on fundraising as a ministry to those who have wealth.

Embrace Systemization With the Fundraising Cycle 

Once you say “Yes, I can engage people with major gift potential,” you need to make a commitment to systemization. Being systematic is the key to being able to handle multiple, even hundreds of possible major gift donors.

What is the fundraising cycle? Some folks compare it to dating. It’s a broad outline of sequential steps that you take just about every donor through. 

It starts with identifying your possible donor. Then, you, a trained major gift officer, or a volunteer engages the prospect by making contact about a specific interest of theirs as it relates to your nonprofit. For example, if you’re a lung cancer recovery charity, a board member might ask a friend whose father died of lung cancer to have lunch with your executive director. Once they’re engaged, you’ll want to cultivate that relationship through a series of contacts, such as tours, events, one-to-one meetings and more—all highlighting the common interest between you and your prospect. At some point, you decide that it’s time to ask (solicitation). Regardless of whether they say yes or no, you steward the relationship with your eye on starting the cycle again for another gift, beginning with re-engagement. For more tips on fine-tuning your work with the fundraising cycle, check out Nonprofit.Courses’ guide to building a better fundraising strategy

Focus Continually on Finding Major Donors With the Right Conditions

But how do you find a donor in the first place?

I won’t say that it’s easy, but it’s not as hard as you might think. 

The most common and effective way is for you, your staff, and your volunteers to network. Chances are that someone who is connected to your nonprofit knows someone else who has the means to help. You can also search the directories of business and social clubs. Also, don’t forget about LinkedIn. It may be that someone you know is connected to someone who should be a major donor to your cause.

Once you have a name, or better yet, a list of names, start with their CIA. No, not that CIA, but Capacity, Interest, and Access! Without all three conditions, you can’t get any gift, especially a major gift. If a prospective donor has the capacity to make the gift that you have declared as “major,” they are interested in your nonprofit’s mission, and you can get access to them personally through your own network or that of a board member or volunteer, then they’re a real prospect for a major gift.  If they’re missing even one condition, they’re not. 

CIA is where fundraising prospect research comes in. It can mean anything from an internet search or interviewing board members and volunteers, to engaging professional prospect researchers who have access to proprietary databases. Companies like boodleAI have perfected the use of data to deliver insights and predictions about your donors, allowing you to target your donors with personalized messaging using their preferred channels. 

Well started is well done, right? If someone on your list passes the CIA test, you’re ready to start them through the fundraising cycle—and on your way to a major gift!

So, examine your own relationship to money and people with means, commit to systemization, like using the fundraising cycle, and start with assessing a potential donor’s CIA. 

From the outside, a major gifts program and the donors they are made up of can look intimidating. Look under the hood, and you’ll find it’s not. It’s about finding people with the means to help, building relationships with them, and enlisting them in your mutual passion—your cause! 

Good luck!


About the Author

Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work. 

He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers, and a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.

Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. In these positions, Matt raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.

Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Mr. Hugg has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia and several nonprofits.

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