4 Tips on Cultivating Major Gifts and Donors

Eric Jokinen
Eric Jokinen

Recently, we had a chat with Ruthellen Rubin, CFRE, a nonprofit consultant and professor at NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy & Fundraising, about the best ways for nonprofits to communicate with major donors.

If you know how to address your biggest donors, you will inspire continued and increasing support. If you don’t, however, you may lose a critical funding source. More tragically, you may turn off someone who wants to support your cause but who no longer wants to support your organization.

Below, we talk about the importance of gratitude, talk about how to find big donors among your small donors, and offer a few tips about meeting with prospective supporters. Here’s what we learned:

It’s Not About the Gift

“One of the biggest mistakes an organization can make is to focus solely on the gift,” said Rubin. Worse yet, if an organization is only communicating with the donor when they need a check, that person probably won’t be a donor for long.

Instead, show appreciation often.

A basic guideline is to communicate gratitude three times for every time you ask for support. How do you do it?  First, send out your official “Thank You” notes immediately after you receive a gift. Then, at other times, send messages that show the positive impact your organization is making. The concept of the message is: “Your support led directly to [insert wonderful outcome] – you’re a hero!”

You can also pass along the wonderful personal messages you get from your beneficiaries that tell their stories and show how your nonprofit helped them out. The idea is to celebrate your donors, especially those who provide a lot of support, instead of making them feel like they carry a burden and nothing more.

Big Donors Come from Small Donors

Not every major contributor starts out that way. Often, a big supporter will start out with small donations but will increase giving as he or she becomes more deeply connected to your organization. Provide opportunities for people to volunteer, meet your team, and become invested in a cause they care about. If they are able, they may want to provide additional support when they realize that they are a part of the cause and its community, instead of being separate from it.

Don’t Check People Off

All right!  You just got a substantial donation!  Time to move on to the next supporter, right?  No way. Rubin advises that “The more a supporter gives, the more you need to communicate with him or her.”  It’s a continuous feedback cycle, and you have to make sure that those who write big checks don’t get ignored while you seek support from others.

Cultivating Big Donors

Rarely is a big donation acquired by sending out a letter. Instead, most large donations are obtained through face-to-face meetings, and this is where your board comes in handy. If their friends, family, and colleagues are willing to meet with you, you’re headed in the right direction.

The goal of the first meeting with a major donor prospect is to inform him or her about the work of your nonprofit, get feedback on your activities, and ask how he or she would like to be involved in the coming year. While some small organizations may feel pressed to ask for money quickly, a more effective strategy is to be patient and to cultivate the relationship over several meetings.

The key to continued success with major donors is to focus on the relationship and to let the rest take care of itself. Keep them informed and show appreciation often.

If you treat them like the heroes of your organization, that’s just what they’ll become.

You can learn more about Ruthellen at, and you can also view her video series on donor acquisition here:

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