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How to Get Big Donors to Give in Troubled Times

Posted: 10/24/2022

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy

By Lisa Schohl

Individual donors gave a total of $326.9 billion to nonprofits last year — about two-thirds of all charitable giving — according to the latest "Giving USA" report. Much of that came from some of America's wealthiest donors.

Yet it can be difficult to find wealthy people who are interested in your cause, get on their radar, and land big gifts — especially during unpredictable times like these.

The Chronicle spoke with a few top fundraising executives, who shared tips to help you adapt your major-gifts strategy to the current climate and maximize your results. Here are some key takeaways.

Consider reassessing how you define major gifts. If your nonprofit attracted many new donors in response to the crises of the past two years, it could be smart to consider raising your threshold for major giving, says Sarah Fonder-Kristy, chief development officer at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. You may need to re-balance some of your fundraising portfolios and priorities to make sure you spend enough time on supporters who can make the biggest impact.

A key part of deciding what a big gift means to your organization is determining how many wealthy supporters your team can cultivate and manage well, she says.

Connect your work to current events. Donors want to know how your mission relates to what they are seeing in the news, Fonder-Kristy says. "'There is a problem today, and your gift makes a difference today,' is something we're really trying to keep in front of ourselves and our donors," she says. For example, the food bank is focusing on helping donors see the impact that inflation is having on both the organization's operating costs and the community it serves.

Emphasize immediate impact. Fonder-Kristy recalls an old saying that goes something like this: "When times are good, people give. When times are bad, people give. When times are uncertain, people hold on." In other words, in this time of economic unpredictability, if supporters feel like they can wait to give, they might choose that. So focus on driving home the urgent need for your work and how giving will help, she says.

Share results in formal and informal ways. "Try to bring your mission to life," Fonder-Kristy says, and not only through formal reports or presentations. That could mean showing donors pictures or short video clips from a program site or a thank-you note from someone your organization helped. Consider how your donors like to communicate — whether through texting, emailing, or other methods — and adapt to their preferences.

Encourage giving through existing assets. Inflation may be affecting some people's ability to make new gifts, Fonder-Kristy says, so her team is offering the option of contributing through assets such as donor-advised funds, retirement accounts, and planned-giving vehicles, which don't affect their day-to-day budgeting and expenses.

Offer volunteering opportunities. Donors are eager for connection after two and a half years of isolation during the pandemic, Fonder-Kristy says, so it's worth finding safe ways to gather them. While some may not feel ready to attend an in-person event like a luncheon, she says, volunteering in small groups or solo could be a low-risk way for them to engage and feel connected to your work.

Don't make assumptions about supporters' ability to give. "We want to continue to give donors an opportunity to support causes that matter to them, and they've demonstrated that your cause matters to them," Fonder-Kristy says. "So don't make a decision for the donor." For example, don't decide not to ask a supporter for a large gift because you know her company is struggling or because the stock market is down and she usually makes gifts of stock.

Provide helpful and specific guidance when soliciting a gift. Big donors know you plan to ask for money at a solicitation meeting, Fonder-Kristy says. They are looking for your expertise on how they can make an impact. "I think sometimes we think asking for the gift feels awkward, and instead, [it can help to] think of it as directional," she says.

You should already understand what donors care about and why they give before a solicitation meeting, she says. If you can tie a future gift to their motivations, your request should feel like a natural next step in the relationship rather than an imposition.

Ask for a specific amount of money to support a program or general operating expenses so they'll have information to react to, she suggests.

Offer access to your organization. The American Jewish World Service hosts quarterly, hourlong briefings, or "Investor Reports," for top donors. These online gatherings include a brief organizational update from the CEO and a meeting with program representatives, such as a grantee in a country where the group works and a program staff member in the United States.

Major donors often know quite a bit about the group's work, so they often value this "deep dive" into the details more than community-building events such as holiday gatherings, says Margo Bloom, vice president for development.

Stay in touch in personal ways. It's not just about thanking donors for giving, Bloom says, but nurturing the relationship over time. That could mean sharing articles or other materials you think would interest them throughout the year. "But you can't just hit send on that stuff — you also have to include a personal touch," she says. Bloom offers two examples of approaches she says her organization's donors seem to love:

  • Each year the CEO chooses a book that is somehow related to the organization's work — usually by an author from a country where the group works — and sends it to donors who give $50,000 or more.
  • The CEO also sends an email to a broader list of donors in which he talks about a dozen or so books he's read recently and loved — and asks people to share what they've been reading.

Both tactics generate a lot of interest because they feel personal and exclusive, Bloom says.

Don't think you can't solicit a large gift online. "We've seen incredible work being done through screens," says Bob Lasher, senior vice president for advancement at Dartmouth College. You don't necessarily need an in-person meeting to accomplish something of significance like a solicitation.

Don't hesitate to ask a program or organizational leader to join a virtual meeting with a donor. These individuals convey a level of authority and interest that can be powerful, he says. Plus, they may have more time to join a call now than they did during the worst of the pandemic, when many leaders had to focus on operational issues. Specify how much time you'll need, he suggests; 15 to 30 minutes is enough.

Prioritize training and mentoring for gift officers — virtually. As many organizations have shifted to remote or hybrid work in response to Covid, in-person coaching for gift officers on things like body language and the "art of the ask" have gotten lost or deprioritized, Lasher says. "Don't let this be the norm going forward," he says.

Managers need to figure out how to provide this training even if fundraisers are based in different locations, Lasher says. And gift officers should not be shy about asking their organizations to mentor them on solicitation. This is an art that each individual develops, he adds, but it also needs to be shared and passed on from one generation to the next.

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