4 Major Donor Cultivation Best Practices In Today’s Connected Economy

I have to be honest. In my experience as a fundraiser, cultivating major donors was my least favorite part of the job.

Am I asking too much? Too little? Is it the right time? Should I make the ask, or should our CEO or another board member come along for the meeting?

I questioned myself every step of the way.

But what I learned through years of being, for lack of a better word, uncomfortable, was that I was going about the process all wrong. That unease I felt was because our organization was stuck in the “old ways” of recruitment. We weren’t factoring in how connected we all are in today’s world.

At the time, I didn’t consider that my major donor prospects already had the information they needed to take the metaphorical leap into major donor status. They knew about the organization. They connected with us through email and social media. Many of them knew people who received our services.

What they needed to seal the deal was a hook—a concrete reason to give more.

Because our economy is so connected, we need to go about major donor cultivation differently than in years past. Here are four best practices that you can use to increase the effectiveness of your major donor recruitment efforts.

1. Ask: Are They The Right Fit?

The first step in major donor cultivation is understanding who is the right fit for the role, and who isn’t.

Let’s say you’re on a major donor cultivation call, and you feel the need to start the conversation from ground zero by explaining your organization’s mission and impact. That’s a red flag indicating that this person isn’t necessarily major donor material—yet.

What qualifies a good major donor? For starters, it’s someone who is already giving to you. This shows that they believe in what you’re doing and think it’s worth their money. Another good major donor qualification is that they’re willing to sit down and discuss going above and beyond their current gift level. Again, if they’re giving you their time and attention, you mean something to them.

It’s good to remember that most prospects know that when you call for a meeting, that it’s likely about money. If it’s on your radar, it may be on theirs as well.

Other ways to qualify a major donor include:

  • Understanding how long they’ve been associated with your cause, and in what capacity they’ve shown support
  • Looking at a wealth screening that touches on real estate, job position, family composition, and other philanthropic efforts.
  • The length of time since they made a gift
  • The amount of their last gift

Whatever you do, don’t assume that someone who gives to other organizations or who has the financial capacity is automatically going to throw you $10,000. Major donor cultivation requires a relationship built over time.

2. Create Organization-Wide Buy-In

It’s virtually impossible to create a stellar major giving program without the buy-in of key players, including:

  • Your CEO/Directors
  • Board members
  • Other staff

If your major donor prospects notice a disconnect between what you’re saying as a development professional, and what your organization is doing, then you’re back at square one.

To increase buy-in from your staff, board, and nonprofit leadership, explain your plan. Map out how you plan to reach out to major donor prospects, how you expect to qualify individuals who may be good candidates and your end goal. From there, suggest ways they can help. For example, you can set a standard for referrals and information sharing with the planned giving team.

Then, invite them to participate in the process, such as making a call to a prospect. Everyone on your organization’s team plays a large role, so ask them to share their perspective with the prospective major donor.

At the end of the day, fundraising is everyone’s responsibility. You may be doing to legwork, but it’s your staff, board, and leadership team that fill in the missing pieces.

3. Learn Their Philanthropic Passions

One great way to bring a mid-level donor to major donor status is to know what makes them tick and where their passions lie. The best way to do this is through conversations, either over the phone or in-person, but you can also use targeted surveys and email if your donor prefers these communication methods.

When you’re prospecting major donors, match their philanthropic interests with a program or impact you provide.

Consider an organization that assists survivors of domestic and sexual violence and assault. Let’s say they have a mid-level donor with the capacity for major giving. This donor gives monthly gifts of $50, and the money goes into the general fund. But they learn through conversations that this donor is really passionate about children. The organization could create a specific initiative that this donor could fund, such as funding an expanded playroom for the Safe House or purchasing school supplies for these youngest survivors.

Learn about the passions of your mid-level donors, and create a custom product for them to stand behind.

4. Follow A Path

Prospecting takes a lot of time, which is why every second counts. To stay organized and on-task, send prospects on a set path, aka “moves management.”

To begin, create a major donor prospect list, keep it updated, and do a thorough clean up and reevaluation at least twice a year. Don’t just reference this document once in a while; live and breathe it.

Reference your list as you network with business leaders, mid-level donors, and long-time volunteers. As you note people who may be good prospects, put their names on the list. Then, mark off the boxes as you move them through each level of engagement.

Your major donor cultivation path may look something like this:

1: Qualify Donor– Ensure they meet prospect criteria

2: Research Donor Interests– Research past and current philanthropic affinities, check donor notes in your CRM for any suggestions on passions.

3: Direct Mail Outreach– Acknowledge your donor’s history with your organization, and tell them you’ll be following up to schedule a meeting

4: Phone Call/Email- Schedule the meeting and confirm the donor’s interests

5: Send Targeted Marketing Materials- Use the donor’s preferred communication methods to send heartwarming stories of impact and any other inspirational donor materials.

6: In-Person Meeting- Meet at the donor’s preferred time and location, such as over coffee, at your office, or in their home. Talk about key clients and community impact.

7: Ask-Present major donor with an offer to support a specific program or initiative, either during step 6 or at a later date.

8: Thank- Thank your new major donor.

9: Follow-up Meeting- A month or so after your major donor gives, follow up on their experience. Ask if there are any other ways they’d like to get involved and give them the name and contact information of a point person in your organization who they can reach.

Final Tips

    1. Aim High: Asking a prospective major donor for a small amount is never a good idea. In fact, some major donor prospects may even get offended if you don’t ask them for exactly what you think they can/should give. Always aim high and you’ll wind up meeting at a very reasonable middle ground.
    2. Keep Learning: Continue learning about your donor’s interests beyond that first major gift, and look for new ways to keep them engaged and inspired in your cause. Schedule biannual coffee meetups, invite them to a VIP event or ask if they’re willing to volunteer on a steering committee. The more you know, the stronger the relationship will be.
    3. Don’t Shoot Yourself In The Foot: Fundraising techniques such as giving societies and affinity groups are common, but they have a tendency to keep donations stagnant. Instead of these, customize donation levels based on products your major donors may be interested in supporting.
    4. Stick To The Plan: Major donor cultivation is often a point of stress for fundraisers. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, create a plan, stick to it, and track your data. Over time, you’ll be able to fine-tune your strategy to reap the best results.
    5. Remember The Details: Once you secure a major gift, that doesn’t mean that donor is yours forever. Seemingly small issues like misspelled names and the wrong salutation, or large ones like poor customer service or failure to provide a tax receipt can quickly sever your relationship. Details matter for your organization and they matter to your donors.

When it comes to major donor cultivation, every touchpoint matters. Be smart and deliberate, inquisitive and bold. After you’ve put in the effort and learned all you can about what your prospect may want to support, shoot for the stars.

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