Getting Started with Major Gifts—What Nonprofits Need to Know

February 22, 2022
5 minutes
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How many times have you been at a board meeting when a superduper well-meaning board member says, “We should reach out to Bill and Melinda Gates about donating to our organization.”

You can replace the Gates’ with Oprah or Beyoncé or any other wealthy person’s name, but chances are you’ve heard this suggestion before. Many of our non-fundraising nonprofit friends think that because your organization is awesome and because someone is super wealthy, that’s an automatic match made in philanthropy heaven for a major gift. But you likely know, fundraiser, it’s not quite that simple.

Sure, a major gifts program tends to offer nonprofits some of the best return on investment for their fundraising program. You work with a smaller group of donors and generally get much higher gift amounts than you would if you were to send out a round of direct mail. Seeing other organizations like hospital foundations and universities announcing five, six and seven-figure mega gifts makes it all the more enticing.

Do you have to be a large nonprofit or a major name brand to benefit from major gifts? Absolutely not! Nonprofits of all shapes and sizes can benefit from having a major gifts program. If your nonprofit wants to kickstart its major gift program, read on for our tips for getting started with major gifts.

It Takes Time

Let’s start with a reality check about starting a major gifts program. It takes time! Seriously, it could be 9 to 12 months before you’re out there making your first ask. We’re telling you this because we want you to have the right mindset going into this process. You need to remember that you're playing a long game. There’s probably not going to be some overnight success story for your major gifts program, but it’s totally worth it to stay consistent and be in it for the long haul. Just think about what your major gifts and fundraising program could look like in 2 to 5 years if you consistently take action to cultivate major donors. That’s a pretty picture, right?

It Takes Resources

The second thing you need to know about starting a major gifts program is that it does take some resources. We’re not talking a mega bucks investment, but you'll need a few basic resources to make it work. For starters, you’ll need a donor CRM to manage your major gifts prospects; a spreadsheet just won’t cut it! When building relationships with major donors, you’ll want to track all of your outreach to them including meetings and phone calls, as well as anything you mail them. It gets messy real fast when you try to keep track of everything in a spreadsheet.

You’ll also need some people power to start your major gifts program. That could just be you if you’re an awesome team of one. It could be you, your ED, or even a board member or two if you want to make this a team effort. Once you decide who will be involved in your major gifts program, take some time to clarify a few things like how many hours you’ll dedicate to major gifts each week and what everyone’s role is in supporting major gifts.

Your Best Prospects are Already in Your Database

Starting a major gifts program means that you’ll need to put together a prospect list. Depending on the resources you plan to dedicate to major gifts, you may want to cap your prospect list at 20 donors to keep it manageable. As you build your prospect list, our best advice is to remember that your best prospects are already in your database. That’s right! You don’t need to start with cold outreach to people who aren’t yet connected to your nonprofit (save those for down the road).

You can start building your prospect list by pulling a few basic reports inside your donor CRM to look at highest lifetime gift and largest one time gifts. Once you have a few names, do some basic prospect research and wealth screenings: you’ll want to see if they donate to any other organizations and at what amounts, what kind of job they have, what area of town they live in, and so on. All of these data points can give you useful information about the prospect’s capacity to give.

Set Your Major Gift Threshold

As you get your major gift program set up, define what a major gift is for your organization. Many small nonprofits who are just getting started with major gifts set their threshold at $1,000, where as a large university may set their major gifts level at $25,000 or more. Setting a lower major gifts threshold doesn’t mean anything about the long-term success of your effort—it’s about setting realistic expectations and starting where you are.

Give Yourself Some Goals

Like all good things in fundraising, you need goals! When you’re just starting your major gifts program, it might feel suuuper intimidating to say that you’ll raise $25,000 in major gifts in a year. You’ve never done this before so how do you know what’s possible? Answer—you don’t! Sometimes it takes a few years of data to be able to set realistic benchmarks and goals for your major gifts program.

What can you do in the meantime? There are many types of goals you can set for your major gifts program that aren’t about the total amount of money you want to raise. Goals could include:

  • Number of donor contacts you’ll have in a year
  • Number of asks you’ll make
  • Number of prospects identified
  • Number of gifts closed

Create Cultivation Plans for Your Prospects

The meat and potatoes of a major gifts program is moves management. This is your game plan for moving someone through the steps of prospect, qualified prospect, cultivation, ask, and stewardship. Unlike your annual giving program, you get to have one-on-one relationships with your major donors and you’ll be leading them through this process. That means you’ll need to be strategically thinking a few steps ahead and to do that you’ll want to have a cultivation plan in place.

A cultivation plan for major donors is essentially your playbook for how you’ll take them through the moves management process. Here’s a sample plan for a prospect.

  • Make initial call to donor to introduce yourself. Goal: to establish contact.
  • Set up a tour or meeting with donor. Goal: to establish their interests.
  • Follow up after meeting. Goal: to provide the donor with more information and set the stage for an ask
  • Set up an ask meeting. Goal: to make an ask
  • Send impact report after gift has been made. Goal: provide accountability to the donor

Going through these steps could take you anywhere from 6 months to over a year. Plus, as you get to know a donor you may amend your cultivation plan to be more tailored to the donor’s interests.

It’s go time, fundraiser! We know you’re enthusiastic about major gifts, so let’s roll up those sleeves and get started. Be consistent, set good goals, and start planning your money moves!

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