23 Things Great Fund Development Officers Know about Winning Major Gifts

Major gifts make up a substantial portion of total giving at most organizations. They’re of a different magnitude from the typical gifts received; and they have the potential to make a significant impact.

Institutional advancement professionals and development officers must not only cultivate prospective relationships with major donors, they must also provide ongoing stewardship of donations, past and present. It is a massive responsibility to balance needs and priorities of your organization’s donor base.

This blog outlines the top 23 things great fund development officers keep in mind every day, but especially as they enter into their first days on a new job. (Please feel free to add your own wisdom to this working checklist to help you manage new major gift officers in your institution.)

#1 – Know your audience
You must be able to successfully identify potential major donors. These are individuals who have both a personal interest in your organization and the financial means to give.

Finding the right prospects takes research and time. Development officers for smaller organizations might want to poll board members for their lists of prospects. Larger institutions typically have massive databases, and must strategically segment their lists to target the prospects most likely to give.

You can start with your favorite search engine for some brute-force researching or utilize some of the in-depth wealth research tools available in your constituent management system or online. Accessing the right web sites can provide insight on capacity, inclination, and motivation, so you can seek out the intersection of capacity and interest.

#2 – Use your scarce resources wisely
Just because an individual has a high affinity for your organization doesn’t necessarily mean they will have capacity to give immediately. Recent graduates, for example, usually fit into the high affinity/low capacity category when it comes to alumni giving. They are fiercely loyal, but cash poor, for now. Keeping them engaged is critical to long-term loyalty and interest in giving back.

#3 – Keep your pipeline full
Experienced fundraisers actively pursue prospects more likely to give immediately, while also cultivating potential future donors. It’s important to have prospects in every stage of the development cycle to ensure stable long-term funding.

#4 – Knowledge is a powerful ally
Every prospect has a story and it’s up to you to find that story. There are some important things to know about a prospect that may not seem obvious, for example:

  • Who was their roommate in college?
  • What sorority or fraternity were they in?
  • Have they just gotten a new job? (Linked in would tell you that.)
  • What are their kids’ interests?
  • Do they give to other charities such as their local hospital, theater, etc.?

Understanding your prospects’ background builds stronger relationships and knowledge about your targets helps focus priorities. The more you know about a prospect, the better you’ll be able to identify high capacity targets for major gifts.

#5 – Understand their motives
What is the prospect’s affinity to your organization? What will motivate them to give? Better yet, what will motivate them to want to have a long-term relationship involving investment into your programs?

#6 – Nurture first, then solicit
The development cycle starts with getting the prospect’s attention; providing something that piques their interest; creating desire; and then motivating them to take action.

  • Consider these top conversation starters for discussing a major gift:
  • Being asked by someone you know
  • Volunteering with the institution
  • Being asked by clergy
  • Reading or hearing a news story
  • Being asked at work
  • Receiving a letter asking you to give
  • Receiving a phone call
  • Viewing an advertisement, in a printed publication or online
  • Seeing a TV commercial

#7 – Get their attention
Your prospective donors are being bombarded by noise–from their business, from other charities clamoring for their attention, from the trials of everyday life, and more. Amplify your voice and your cause above the din of tweets, beeps, and emails by being personal and creating an exceptional donor experience.

#8 – Communicate benefits
What value does your organization bring to the potential donor? How does your organization differ from others? The key to successful engagement is demonstrating benefit, either directly to the donor, or indirectly via goodwill created by donation. Provide donors with reasons to champion your cause above others.

#9 – Be a great storyteller
Once you have the prospect’s attention, you must get their interest. Create a story showing the benefit of giving. Showcase your organization’s accomplishments and goals for the future, and create a connection linking your prospect’s past to the institution. Take the time to remind prospective donors of their history with your organization.

#10 – Create a sense of community
Highlight your ties to the community and what you’re doing on the home front. Demonstrate the benefits your cause brings to a donor’s community. And remember, community doesn’t have to be tied to location. Create a community based on interest; for example, sports, military veterans, or cancer survivors and their family members, etc.

#11 – Motivate giving
Major donors truly want to help the community, but they also want acknowledgement for their support. Recognize and reward them for their actions by establishing defined recognition plateaus. It’s possible a particular reward or incentive could “push” a donor into the next level of engagement. But, remember to be flexible, too. Never force a major donor into a prescribed giving campaign when it may limit the overall lifetime giving potential of that donor.

#12 – Cultivate interest in low affinity, high capacity prospects
It’s your job to find these types of donors and convince them to send a little piece of their money in your direction. This is a three-step process:

  • Find the high net worth individuals.
  • Learn which of these individuals make charitable donations.
  • Create the story that flows their charitable dollars to your cause.

# 13 – Communicate need
Clearly communicate how you will use the funding for which you are asking. Answer this question: “What will donors’ money accomplish?” Provide the facts of what you do with a $1,000 donation, a $10,000 donation, and a $100,000 donation.

#14 – Don’t be sloppy
Savvy donors respond to careful attention to detail and a professional presentation. Even the formatting on your envelope can make a difference. Be a stickler for grammar, punctuation and appropriates titles.

#15 – Make it personal
Cultivate major gift prospects by involving them in the activities of the organization or inviting them to visit the organization. Don’t forget to show your appreciation with a small token or personal note.

#16 – Make the right ask
Be specific and actionable when you finally solicit your prospective major donor. If you’ve done your research on the individual, you should be able to push them right to their limit of giving, without scaring them away. Provide reasons why you’re asking for the specific amount and why you need it. Be flexible in both the type and timing of the donations you accept and always, always be gracious – whether or not the person agrees to give. You never want to burn bridges because the “no” of today might be tomorrow’s “yes.”

#17 – Discover untapped sources of support
Consider all the people who, over the years, have benefited from your organization (as students, alumni, educators, community supporters, etc.). Those people may now be in a position to give, but they simply haven’t been effectively asked to contribute in a way that‘s meaningful for them.

#18 – Thank your donors
Make your donors feel special by recognizing their gift personally, openly, and honestly. It’s important for your donors to feel a sense of pride and satisfaction in supporting your cause – so recognize and thank each one. The options are endless: from press releases to tweets to plaques. You can’t thank your major donors enough.

#19 – Cultivate the ongoing relationship
Help your donors feel good about their donations. Regularly update them on your progress in the community. Invite them to special events, such as graduations and opening night galas.

#20 – Go full circle
Stewardship is one of the most important aspects of a fundraising professional’s career. Always keep prospects informed about what their donation accomplished. You must have concrete answers for where money is going and why it’s needed. Establish and maintain credibility with your donors by demonstrating the return you are getting on their investment. Specificity and clarity will help get major gift givers on board with your campaign.

#21 – Track your contact efforts
It’s important to maintain accurate records of who you’ve asked, what you asked them for and how they responded. Some institutions will say “if it’s not in the donor database, it didn’t really happen.” Although keeping track of every communication involves more effort on your part, it allows you to create a clear record of your interactions with the prospect. This is especially helpful when another development officer moves to a new job and you “inherit” their prospects. Having a full history of all their previous interactions with your team is a powerful asset.

#22 – Create raving fans
References from major donors, detailing their satisfaction in the results of their donations, can help turn skeptics into potential givers.

#23 – Stay positive
Despite a struggling economy, giving is at near-record levels, and the wealthiest individuals still tend to give the most. According to recent survey by Fidelity Charitable, “the majority of American donors (72 percent) plan to maintain or increase their level of charitable giving this year compared to last year. This number is up from 63 percent in 2010.”

Your major donors are your partners. Treat your major donors the way you would treat any great business partner. Provide tangible, local results from the work of your organization. Communicate with your major donors often about your organization and when they give, recognize them publicly. These basic, tried-and-true steps will lead to success.

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