Fundraising Best Practice Series: Volume 8, Cultivating Major Donors

Regardless of everything you’re hearing or reading these days, major gift fundraising is where transformational philanthropy happens.  Not Twitter and Facebook.  If you want to accomplish big goals in your organization and impact the world in bold ways as a fundraiser, you need to understand how to cultivate major gifts.

But even before that – before you can cultivate a major gift, you’ve got to be able to identify your best major donor prospects.  For most organizations, your best major donor prospects are those who are already making major gifts to your organization.  They know you, have trust in your organization, and have shown their willingness to make significant investments in your cause.

What do you do if your organization has never asked for or received a major gift?  Or maybe you have major donors, but need many more to reach your strategic goals for the coming year(s).  Then what? (Hint: The answer isn’t to add Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to your donor list).

Scour your donor data.  You can begin a major gift program without conducting an extensive wealth screening of your donors (I’m not advising against this – in fact, in most cases I’d recommend you do it – just letting you know you don’t have to wait for this to start).  If you’ve been capturing good data and understand how to analyze it, you can look for patterns of behavior that indicate greater potential.  Things like frequency of giving, cumulative annual gift amounts above certain levels, large single gifts, or consistent upgrading over short periods of time all indicate the potential to make larger gifts.  Consistent event attendance, table sponsorship and auction buying should also be factored into the equation, as they indicate loyalty.  You can use these data points to organize your donors into categories, and to segment that top category (by single largest gift, or highest annual cumulative giving) for personal qualification calls.  This is also a good time to talk more about the data you are (or may not yet be) collecting.

Gift transaction data isn’t the only information that can indicate major gift potential.  If a donor mails in a check in response to your direct mail campaign and that check is drawn on a trust, family foundation, wealth management, money market or private client group account, chances are they have the ability to give larger gifts.  Similarly, if you find out your donor is a patent holder, business owner, chief executive at a publicly held company, or member of a corporate board of directors, there’s a good chance there may be additional wealth there that you weren’t previously aware of.  These data points will at least let you know that it would be worth your time to further explore the potential through research and discussion with these donors.

Once you’ve completed this level of data screening, then you should consider investing in professional wealth screening services.  There are many options on the market, but the two best known options are Blackbaud’s Target Analytics and Wealth Engine.

Don’t take major gift prospects out of your mail stream.  This is huge, and can lead to dramatic shifts in your revenue and donor retention rates.  There will always be a desire to take these people out of the direct mail stream.  Should you reduce their mail frequency? Probably (though if you’re only mailing 4x’s per year, then no.  If you’re mailing 12-18x’s, then yes).  Should they get a much different creative and offer treatment than the rest of your donors?  Absolutely.  But if you pull them completely (even with good intentions) out of the mail program, you risk losing thousands (or millions) of dollars in revenue.

The one exception to this would be when a donor specifically asks to be removed. 

Don’t rush things.  There is always a tendency to rush into major gift solicitations.  Your board wants to see results, for sure.  You’re under pressure to hit your annual performance goals.  The organization has real needs.  And all that stuff is important.  Just not necessarily to your donor.  If you rush the relationship and force an ask before your prospect is ready, you might still get a gift.  Chances are it will be smaller than what you would have received from her if you hadn’t rushed things.  Oh, and good luck ever getting another meeting.  Rushing a donor says that your needs are more important than hers.  And most donors won’t consider that a positive experience with your organization.  So slow down.  Build the relationship first.  Explore with your prospect why she loves your organization, what it is you do that she’s passionate about, and how she sees herself playing a larger role in the work you do.  Seek to understand fully before you move toward the ask.  This allows you to make the ask in the spirit of partnership, identifying ways that you and she can work together to ensure her philanthropic goals are accomplished.

Note: Cultivating a major gift prospect can (and typically will) take many months.  Sometimes even years.  This is normal.  For you CEO’s and board members reading this, please, please understand this.  You can’t turn a $250 donor into a $50,000 donor in three short months – or anything like that.  You should expect the cultivation cycle to take anywhere from six months to two years on average.

Face-to-face meetings build relationship.  Think back with me to the last truly strong relationship you had that only existed via telephone, e-mail and postal mail.  Can you?  Probably not.  Neither can I.  That’s because key elements of communication (non-verbal cues, body language, etc.) are missing.  And that personal interaction is important in building trust-based relationships.  This is critical in major gift cultivation.  I’m sure you’re busy with your 150+ prospects/suspects, and “other duties as assigned,” but if you aren’t making time to actually sit down with potential donors and build lasting relationships, you’ll never close gifts.  Sure, you can close $250 – $500 gifts over the phone.  Heck, you might even be able to close some $1,000 – $5,000 gifts if you’re good.  But there’s virtually no way for you to close significant major gifts without face-to-face interaction.  And I’m not just talking about making the ask in person.  In-person meetings allow you to build trust and familiarity that helps move your discussions forward at every stage.  Without it, you’re a shadowy figure that does not inspire trust or loyalty.

Getting that face-to-face meeting.  This can be the toughest part of the cultivation process.  Getting that all-important face-to-face meeting.  But you’ve got to do it.  One of the best ways to get people to meet with you is to ask for their advice.  Everyone loves to share their opinions – especially on issues that are important to them. So in your initial visits, rather than asking to “stop by and get to know you” or “just come by for a chat” (fyi, donors are busy people too – they probably don’t have the time – or desire – just to get to know you), ask your prospect for an hour of her time to share some information about a new project and get her advice.  This is not a solicitation call.  This is a cultivation step to advance the relationship toward a solicitation.  You might be tempted, but don’t pull a bait and switch here.  If you tell the donor you’re coming to ask her advice on something and instead turn it into a gift solicitation, you run the real and significant risk of offending her and never having another opportunity to solicit this donor.  Instead, ask for her input.  Then listen.  Chances are she’ll provide you with some great feedback that you can incorporate into future discussions and use to build a customized ask down the road.

Have an agenda.  Don’t ask to meet with a prospect without having an agenda for the meeting.  And don’t keep it to yourself either.  When was the last time you took a meeting with someone who wouldn’t tell you ahead of time what to expect?  Be honest and clear with your prospect.  You’re either meeting to discuss something (get her advice, say thank you, provide information she requested, etc.), or you’re meeting to make an ask.  Either way, be upfront about your intentions and provide her with an agenda for the meeting.  It doesn’t have to be complex.  Just enough so she’s not left wondering what you want up until the minute you tell her.

Do what you say you’ll do.  Nothing derails a relationship like failing to make good on your commitments.  If you tell a potential donor that you’ll do something, you’d better make darn sure you do it.  Extra points if you do it early.  Again, this validates your claim to the donor that you are interested in relationship with her and not just in getting her to part with her money.  And if she knows she can trust you with the small things, she’ll be more inclined to trust you with the big things too.

Involve the right people.  You might be tempted to go it alone in your cultivation efforts.  Heck, you might feel like you have to because your boss and board don’t like fundraising.  Tell them to suck it up.  If you want to land big gifts, you’ve got to involve the entire team.  Involving your board, CEO, program staff and key volunteers shows your prospect that she’s important.  It also allows her to build multi-layered relationships with your organization.  This means deeper, more meaningful engagement.  And that’s pretty much always a good thing.

Involving the right people isn’t just about your staff though.  If your donor tells you she has a grown child that she wants involved in the process (or a financial or legal advisor), you’d best be sure they are in the loop.  If you don’t include them, she’ll feel like you didn’t listen or didn’t care enough to do what she asked.  Neither of those are a good place to be with a prospect.  And the last thing you want is to have your solicitation derailed because you didn’t know who the outside influencers or secondary decision makers were in her process.  In fact, if your prospect doesn’t share this information with you, it might be a good idea for you to come right out and ask her if there is anyone else she thinks should be involved in your discussions.

Go make the ask.  The culmination of all your hard work and painstaking effort during the cultivation process is the ask.  You’ve put months, maybe even years into preparing for this one moment.  You didn’t cultivate this relationship just to build a new friendship.  And your prospect knows this just as well as you do.  So do it.  In person.  And in a way that invites participation and respects what your donor has shared with you during the cultivation process.  Be specific in what you ask her to do (i.e., don’t say, “we’d like you to give at an amount you’re comfortable with).  After all, you’ve spent a considerable amount of time getting to know this person.  What makes her tick.  What motivates her.  Why she loves your organization, and how she wants to be involved.  Now just package that into a concise opportunity for her to change the world in her own special way.

I like to use the following structures when I’m asking for a gift:

Example #1: Mary, I’m here today because for several months now you’ve told me how important our work with at-risk youth is to you.  And since it is so important to you, I’d like you to consider making a $25,000 investment in the new home for at-risk children that we’re building next year. [Then I shut up and wait for a response].

Example #2: Emilia, you’ve told me how important it is for you that you honor Jim’s memory and continue the valuable work he started while he was here on earth with us.  We both know how important education was to Jim.  And how he believed that everyone should have the kind of educational opportunities he had growing up.  That’s why I’d like you to consider making a $500,000 contribution to endow the James A. Martinez scholarship fund here at the University.  This would ensure that Jim’s legacy lives on while making it possible for deserving students to obtain a quality education.   [And then I shut up again].

Say thank you.  Whether your ask results in a gift or not, you’ve got to thank your prospect.  Thank her for her time.  For her partnership.  For listening and sharing with you.  Thank her for considering your proposal.  And certainly thank her for the gift if she says yes to your request.  In the event she says no, your grateful response will leave her with a positive memory of your interaction and set the stage for another solicitation down the road.

Review the game tape.  In major league sports, the best players always review the game tape.  They look for things they did wrong or could do better in the future, and then practice with that goal in mind.   If your donor doesn’t come right out and tell you why she said no to your request, then find an appropriate time and place to ask her that question.  Don’t be adverserial about it.  Simply ask something like, “tell me more about your feelings about this opportunity.”  That is open ended, and gives her yet another chance to be heard.  And it gives you another chance to gather valuable information you can use during your next approach.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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