Major Gifts Series Part 2: The Four Steps of Major Gifts Fundraising

Last updated: December 15, 2016

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Last week, we defined major gifts and explored their huge positive impact on nonprofits of every size and cause. This week, we are going to cover major gifts fundraising and the best practices of actually acquiring large gifts for your organization.

So you’re convinced your organization needs to invest time and energy in major gifts fundraising. You’ve set a goal that suits the unique needs and aims of your organization. Now what?

Consultant Amy Eisenstein is a leading authority on major gifts fundraising. This article from her blog identifies four key steps to secure your next (or first) major gift: Identification, Curation, Solicitation, and Stewardship.

The 4 Steps Of Major Gift Fundraising

Step 1: Identification

To begin the major gift fundraising process, you must first know who to look for. This is the step where prospect research is vital. We touched on this briefly in last week’s post, but it deserves repeating. More often than not, your most loyal donors with the most to give already exist in your database. However, if you are not organizing and segmenting prospects, you are at a disadvantage.

A wealth screening identifies and segments your database according to set criteria and applies ratings or scores to your top potential donors. Be sure your screening tool offers maximum customization and transparency. This means it gives you control over personalizing the screen to your organization’s specifications and it clearly shows you how and with which records the scores were generated.


You could prioritize your internal donors with a recency, frequency, and monetary (RFM) score.

  • Recency – What was the date of the last gift given?
  • Frequency – How often did the donor give over the past year?
  • Monetary – What was the donation amount(s)? Does it align with your goal?

Furthermore, don’t forget to screen and research outside your organization! With a prospect research tool, you may uncover new prospects who are closely connected with current donors or your board of directors. You can search for public records on prospects at home and abroad across various indicators of capacity, propensity, and affinity, including (but not limited to): real estate holdings; charitable giving history; stock information; and political giving history. You can create profiles for each external prospect and generate scores based on their suitability as a major gift donor.

The next three steps depend on your due diligence in this first step. Prospect research is all about establishing context. The questions and answers you seek all lie in the data.

Step 2: Cultivation

The next step is about establishing and building relationships. Just like you wouldn’t walk up to a complete stranger and ask them to marry you (the chances of success are unfortunately slim), asking a prospect for a large donation out of the blue is unlikely to work out. That’s why this step is called cultivation.

Amy Eisenstein suggests designing a cultivation strategy for each individual prospect.  You may already have in place a range of similar strategies based on different donor profiles. Sift through the research you or your team members compiled on the person.  Consult others on your team and draw conclusions.  What characteristics or behaviors make this donor different? How will that impact your interactions with them and your eventual ask amount?

Donor Centered Relationship

Eisenstein stresses the importance of building a “donor-centered relationship.” Broadly speaking, this means opening a two-way conversation. It’s definitely not about pushing your organization, its mission, and its success stories without giving your prospect a chance to respond or share their own story. Eisenstein’s first tip is learning to listen. By listening, you can learn valuable insight into your prospect’s needs, motivations, and concerns. Ask questions like:

  • Why do you feel our mission is important to support?
  • What do you love about our organization? What would you like to see improved?
  • If you could fix or improve one thing about our organization, community, or the world, what would it be?

These days, the prospect you just reached out to might know more about your organization than some current donors. The proliferation of information, especially when shared on social media, has changed the way companies do business with customers. It’s also changed the way nonprofit fundraisers interact with prospects. A prospect may have made up her mind about whether to give to your organization or not before you’ve even met. Major gift donors are looking for honest and open communication about your organization’s mission, operations, and impact. Donors want to help nonprofits that are truly making a positive difference in today’s complex world.

Step 3: Solicitation

You’ve learned everything you need to know about your prospect, and you’ve exchanged emails, phone calls, or perhaps held a face-to-face meeting. Now you’re on the road, and you need to ensure your next series of prospect meetings justify the time, energy, and expense you’ve invested. It’s cause for diligence, but not cause for panic. One of the keys to ensuring a smooth solicitation process is making your prospect feel as comfortable as possible.

Schedule meetings with the top major gift prospects first, and remember to clearly explain the nature of your next meeting. As Eisenstein says, this is the time to “follow up on your previous discussions and talk specifically about how they might be able to help your organization, project or program.” Nobody likes to be blindsided; ensure your prospect understands the conversation she’s about to have with you.

Meeting the Prospect

Eisenstein suggests having a team of one or two individuals from your organization meet with the prospect. It’s important that the prospect already know these individuals from previous conversations. Meet somewhere quiet, such as a closed office or meeting space convenient for the prospect. Avoid restaurants and cafes when possible, especially if they are hubs for busy, distracting crowds.

Your meeting should flow organically if you’ve prepared ahead of time. Most of all, if you are working in a team, establish beforehand who will open the meeting, make the ask, and close the meeting, respectively. The ask itself should be very specific: a specific amount for a specific purpose, even if that purpose is for operating costs – “the overall support of the organization.”

Step 4: Stewardship

Start thinking about stewardship even before solicitation. A nice mantra to keep in mind: “Donors make the important work of your organization possible.” Thank you is not enough; let your donors know about the good work they’ve impacted.

Humans are social beings, and each of us aspires to be part of “the club,” whatever club that means. We crave meaning and fulfillment in our relationships and in the work we do. Something as simple as a handwritten, personalized thank you note or a quick follow-up meeting could make all the difference for your donor. Be sure to not disappear just because you “got what you came for”, rather make them feel like they’re part of the club. A simple stewardship plan can be an excellent complement to your major gift fundraising process.  Start by answering these questions:

  • Who will follow up with your donors?
  • When will they follow up?
  • How (specifically) will they follow up?

It’s Not a Process – It’s a Cycle

After you’ve secured a major gift from a prospect, the work is not over. As Eisenstein says, you will want to have at least three meetings per year with your major gift prospects:

  • The initial cultivation meeting;
  • The solicitation meeting; and
  • The stewardship meeting

You’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and resources into securing a major gift donor. To encourage regular giving, you will need to return to the start of the fundraising cycle: research. What has your major gift donor been up to since your last meeting?

Now that you have established a major gifts fundraising strategy, it will be up to you and your team to maintain it and even expand it. Some of the most successful nonprofits hold weekly development team meetings.

These meetings should include anyone involved in major gifts fundraising – the executive director, development staff, administrative assistants, and key board members. Set aside time for discussion of your fundraising strategy and delegate assignments to be completed for next week’s meeting or further into the future.

In conclusion, fundraising major gifts may seem like a daunting task because of the tremendous impact these gifts have on organizations of all sizes. But, like any great thing, it can be broken down into a series of specific, actionable steps.

For more information on major gifts fundraising, check out these great resources and request a demo of our fundraising software.

Major Gift Fundraising – Everything You Need to Know by Amy Eisenstein

How to Get Organized to Approach Major Donors by Gail Perry

It’s Not the Donation Amount that Matters by Dave Sternberg and Nick Parkevich


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