Leveling Up Your Major Gifts Program

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By Anjali Englund (she/her)

It has been quite a year. As we emerge from the depths of the pandemic, we must remember that never in the history of the United States have we experienced an equitable recovery to a disaster or recession. Instead, such events have intensified race, health, and wealth disparities. As development professionals, many of us see signs of an inequitable recovery in our daily work. We hear stories from donors who have more to give thanks to a booming stock market and see community members who need assistance to soften the ongoing health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

So, what can we do to close these gaps? If the mission of your nonprofit addresses race, health, or wealth disparities, you likely need additional funding to meet increased demand. One way to get more funding is to start or grow your major gifts program to channel resources toward an equitable recovery for all. Here are a few ideas to take your program to the next level.

Start somewhere. Starting a major gifts program can be intimidating. So can overcoming inertia to grow your program. First, define (or revise) what a major gift is at your organization. Sometimes it’s $1,000, sometimes it’s $1 million. For many nonprofits $5,000 is the sweet spot. Finding your number is both an art and science. One approach is to calculate the annual cumulative giving average of the top 10 individual donors. Another idea is to look at your donor pyramid or gift table for a clear threshold that sets the top gifts apart from the rest. Many nonprofits receive 80-90 percent of their funding from 10-20 percent of their donors; the people who make up the 10-20 percent are flagged as major donors. Depending on your organizational culture, you may need to expand your definition of who is a major donor. Start by selecting a gift level and definition for major donor that aligns with your organization’s data and values.

Build your team. Major gifts fundraising is a team sport. Identify a point person to be your team captain. Small and large shops alike benefit from having a variety of stakeholders involved in fundraising. A diverse set of roles, experiences, communication styles, and backgrounds will help you build relationships with a diverse base of supporters. If you already have a program in place, building your roster is an excellent way to add capacity. Ideas for fundraising allies include:

  • Program, operations, finance, and admin staff
  • Faith and community leaders
  • Current donors and volunteers
  • Current and former board members
  • Development committee members

Right-size your strategy. Major gifts programs are not one size fits all. We would all love to have a team of full-time gift officers, prospect researchers, and database specialists. Most nonprofits, however, are lucky to have even one staff person dedicated to major gifts. Manage expectations by setting a strategy that’s compatible with the resources you have. Think about how you can adapt the key components of a strong major gifts program to your organization:

  • Data—from a spreadsheet to an enterprise-level CRM (customer relationship management), you’ll need a way to track and analyze giving history, affinity, capacity, and interactions. What does success look like, and how will you track it?
  • Prospect research—don’t have the budget for prospect research software? It’s amazing what you can unearth with a little detective work. Leverage your team’s social media skills for online research and put networking skills to use in discovery conversations.
  • Fundraising framework—how will you find your donors, build a relationship, make the ask, and say thank you? Choose a framework such as moves management and provide your team with training on the approach. Be sure you are clear on how you will track donors through the cycle.

Remember to ask. As we say in fundraising, if you don’t ask, you won’t get. If your team isn’t ready to make the ask, have them start by being in the (Zoom) room. Use your data and prospect research to inform your ask strategy and amount.

Show gratitude. Adding personal stewardship to your major gifts program is one of the most effective ways to retain donors and engage fundraising allies from outside the development team. Start by creating sample scripts for thank-you calls, emails, and cards and ask your team to thank your major donors.

Keep growing. There’s always room for improvement. Establish a program evaluation cadence and set goals to take your program to the next level.

Many of us are working at or beyond capacity. The nonprofit sector, especially human services organizations, need more people to do the work and more donations to keep pace with growing community needs. Major gifts can be transformative for donors and the organizations they give through. When it comes down to it, a major gift program is about relationships. By leveraging internal relationships, we can expand our capacity to engage major donors more deeply in our work. At a time when people are starved for human connection, we are uniquely positioned to succeed in the business of building relationships.

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