Article

Starting A Major Gift Program: 4 Effective Tips

Guest post by Jeff Giannotto, Senior Solutions Advisor at MarketSmart

At the end of the day, whether your organization is for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental, you need one thing to keep the lights on: money. In our industry, major donors represent a crucial cohort of philanthropists that enable your nonprofit to continue working toward its mission. 

Major donors give for a number of reasons, and, as with all donors, one motivational factor is consistent: they all feel passionate and connected to your cause. Your donors, major ones especially, want to see your organization succeed and further its mission. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have donated their hard-earned money to your organization in the first place.

It’s no wonder then that so many nonprofits profess the need to “build a major gifts program.” 

However, many organizations struggle to cultivate long-lasting relationships with major donors. It’s not that they don’t try. Rather, it’s that they find it challenging (because it is) to develop meaningful connections with constituents (especially when you’re most likely wearing many hats and spread yourself too thin). 

Because of this, many organizations determine that they need to create a dedicated major gift program, but executing that is easier said than done.

Going from “no major gifts program” to “full-fledged major gifts operation” doesn’t happen overnight. From developing a major gifts team to creating a personalized experience for donors and prospects, there are several steps your organization needs to consider before investing in a “major gifts” program. 

Consider these tips when contemplating your major gifts program:

  1. Gather and act on major donor feedback through surveys.
  2. Track behavioral data to see who may be an interested major donor.
  3. Develop relationships through automated cultivation.
  4. Consistently provide donors with value.

While major donors may make up less than 1% of your donor base, they almost certainly will represent the majority of your dollars raised. In fact, this free Fundraising Report Card Benchmarks (with data from over 5,000 nonprofits) found that over 70% of all donation revenue comes from donations of $5,000+, while less than 1% of donors eclipse that same mark (giving $5,000 or more). In other words, you don’t really have a choice; you need major donors just like they need you.

Ready to give your major donors the appreciation they deserve? Let’s get started!

1. Gather And Act On Major Donor Feedback Through Surveys

MarketSmart_CauseVox_Starting-a-Major-Gift-Program-4-Effective-Tips-for-Nonprofits-surveys

Surveys give you powerful insights into your donor base. Before diving into why you should conduct surveys, learn the basics with MarketSmart’s comprehensive donor survey guide!

A carefully crafted survey can actually help you more accurately pinpoint major and legacy gift opportunities, as well as learn about your supporters’ passions, interests, and values. To do this, consider asking questions about the following:

  • Why they give. Then, you can make sure you center your communications and interactions with each individual donor around this.
  • When they like to give. That way, your organization knows what time of year, or specific events (think liquidity, business sale, etc.) to be aware of that could influence when a major donor will be more willing to make a gift..
  • How they prefer to give. Whether it’s through their time (volunteering), donating from a retirement account, or making a gift in a will, all donations are vital. Understanding your major donors’ giving options (and preferences) should greatly inform the communications you have with them.
  • Suggestions for improvement. Everyone has an opinion. The old saying, “Ask for money, and you’ll get advice. Ask for advice, and you’ll get money,” holds true in major gift programs!  Make sure your donors (especially your major donors) can express theirs, and equally as important, be willing and able to listen to what they share.

Surveys also represent an engagement opportunity for donors. Think about the communications you receive from nonprofits yourself. Most if not all fall into two categories: solicitations or information about the nonprofit.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone asked you to share your story and connection with their nonprofit? That’s what you’re doing with your survey. In most cases, donors will complete it so long as it’s easily accessible, relatively quick, and about them.

However, if your completion rates are low, take the time to explain the benefits of completing the survey for the donor and for the organization. For instance, saying things like, “we value your feedback, and learning more about your preferences will help us better serve you,” can go a long way.

Once you conduct your donor survey, don’t let it go to waste; do something with the information you capture! For instance, if donors gave you a feasible improvement suggestion, act on it, or at a minimum, pick up the phone, call them, and thank them for their suggestion. This is especially true if they told you to contact them via phone rather than email. Take what your constituents tell you, and leverage it!

Remember, we’re building a major gifts program from scratch here, and our first step is to engage our existing constituents. As we learn about their preferences, interests, and values, it’s important we act on it!

2. Track Behavioral Data To See Who May Be An Interested Major Donor

MarketSmart_CauseVox_Starting-a-Major-Gift-Program-4-Effective-Tips-for-Nonprofits-behavorial-data

Odds are, if you’re starting a major gifts program from scratch, you probably don’t have robust “prospect research” resources at your disposal. Don’t fret; you still have options to perfect the donor experience!

One of the most powerful and relatively easy things you can do is to track and consider donors’ online behavior and interactivity with your website. Use this data as an indicator of their interest in meeting or talking with you about a major gift.

By gauging your donors’ interests online, you can pinpoint areas for increased engagement. For instance, learn what areas of your site interest particular users. Fortunately, most website back-ends allow you to place “cookies” on a user’s browser to identify them.

Then, leverage that insight to have a more personalized and meaningful conversation with a prospect. For example, Jane keeps clicking on the “how to support our campaign” webpage, so you should mention ways to do this in your conversations with her.

It’s of the utmost importance to track:

  • What pages an individual donor visits;
  • Which videos they watch; and
  • What resources they download from the website.

Then, take this information into consideration when conducting outreach. For example, if you’ve noticed that a particular prospect keeps visiting a page for a certain program, you can and should absolutely lead with that information. 

A great first step would be to engage with the prospect and inquire about their interest in it. You can also leverage the recency of their engagement as an indicator to reach out. If you see that the prospect has visited the same page three days in a row, that should be an indicator that today would be the right time to try and contact them.

This may feel a bit complex at the moment, but see if any of your volunteers or existing team members can help you implement this type of tracking. And, regardless of what donor data you capture, make sure to actually act on it in some way, shape, or form. Otherwise, it’s all for naught.

3. Develop Relationships Through Automated Cultivation

MarketSmart_CauseVox_Starting-a-Major-Gift-Program-4-Effective-Tips-for-Nonprofits-automated-cultivation

When pairing what you learn in a survey with users’ behavioral insights, you can create a cultivation process that’s highly effective. By learning more about your donors, you enable a more tailored experience. In the “new donor acquisition” world this practice (of automating communications to donors) is incredibly popular. There are applications for the same concepts when building your major gifts program too.

Although it may not be a primary concern on day one of building your program, part of your responsibility in developing a complete major gifts operation is building structure and systems. This is where automated cultivation comes into play. 

Right now you might have the bandwidth to engage all your major donors, but what if you could streamline the process so that the most important constituents receive the right communications from you at the right time, with the right messages, even when you’re on vacation or at a kids soccer match? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Well, you can, and you should. 

An effective automation system can make communications more effective, relevant, and consistent than the manual approach. After all, we all get busy and forget to do things that we know we should (i.e. emailing that major donor).

If there was one thing every nonprofit professional wishes they had more of, it’s most certainly time. In our sector, time means everything.

On one hand, you want to leverage technology to cultivate relationships. However, on the other hand, you don’t want to negatively impact building donor relationships to simply save a few extra minutes.

With the data we captured above, you can mitigate your fears, and create effective automated cultivation that gets you the best of both worlds. In fact, you actually learn more about donors while also saving time.

Using the information you gather on each donor, you can prioritize your next steps. For instance, a comprehensive system will analyze donors’ digital body language (i.e. the actions they’re taking on your website) and psychographics (i.e. aspirations, values, interests, what we learn in the survey) to determine what the appropriate next engagement should be (e.g. solicit for a gift, provide a free resource, share a donor story, etc.). 

Remember, in nearly every case, an in-person meeting is a necessary step in securing major donations. Although, some major donors genuinely don’t want you to be involved, and that’s okay. We need to respect that. Disregarding their wants and needs means you won’t retain these major donors. No matter what, saving time via automation allows you to centralize your focus on landing meetings, while also learning more about which donors are interested and engaged.

Leveraging the information you’ve gathered doesn’t stop here! If you land the meeting with a prospect, be sure to make a personalized appeal based on the individuals’ interests and preferences.

Since you know how their aspirations align with your nonprofit’s mission, help show them how a major donation can enable your organization to reach those specific goals. While all of this occurs, ensure your other prospects stay warm by continuously conducting outreach. Better yet, choose or develop a system that does this for you automatically!

Human beings are human beings, and no matter how hard we try, some things (no matter how important!) may still fall through the cracks. When it comes to cultivating relationships with major donor prospects and showing donors the appreciation they deserve, we don’t want to leave this to chance. As you scope out your major donor program, keep automated cultivation top of mind.

4. Consistently Provide Donors With Value

MarketSmart_CauseVox_Starting-a-Major-Gift-Program-4-Effective-Tips-for-Nonprofits-value

At its core, fundraising, and major gifts fundraising especially, is about providing value to donors and allowing them to feel like the “hero” in their own life story. Sure, it’s also about relationships, raising funds, and myriad other things, but at the end of the day, we’re uniquely equipped to provide individuals with an outlet to let them express themselves in a way they otherwise cannot. That’s special.

Oftentimes, we see nonprofit professionals misinterpret “fundraising” as “we need to conduct constant grand gestures to raise more money.” This is a common misconception that isn’t actually the case. In fact, it often takes perfectly timed small gestures to build truly meaningful rapport with a donor.

To provide donors with value, implement the engagement fundraising approach. There are several steps your team should take to accomplish this:

  1. Understand people’s motivations to give. To start, know that it makes them feel good. Then, recognize that donors are motivated to give when they know their contributions are making a difference. This is again why we survey, survey, survey!
  2. Listen to supporters. Look at verbatims (i.e. self-reported information) and digital body language (i.e.their online engagement). This way, you can build trusting, committed relationships that are more meaningful to the donor.
  3. Be respectful and authentic. An important part of this is to make sure communication is wanted. Forcing donor engagement doesn’t get your nonprofit anywhere, especially when it comes to major giving.
  4. Invest time into cultivation. No matter how badly we want someone to make a major gift today, they simply might not be ready to. That’s a-okay. Continuously re-engaging donors with valuable offers helps keep you and your organization top of mind, and when a donor is ready, they’ll let you know.

Many nonprofits make the mistake of over-soliciting their donors, driving them away. Have you taken a look at your mailbox recently? You too probably experience this. In short, don’t do that. Instead, build a system that helps you understand when individual major donors are ready to give.

Then, personalize each ask. And ultimately, enjoy the success you and your organization experience from setting up a major gifts program the “right way.”

For more tips on building a major gifts program, visit DonorSearch’s list of major donor fundraising strategies.


Although it’s not comprehensive, it’s my hope that this post has gotten your brain thinking about how to most effectively design your major gifts program. By implementing these suggestions, you’ll be able to better predict the appropriate time to ask individuals for a major gift and steward a relationship with them during the process.

Remember, starting a major gift program is no easy feat. Rather, it’s a series of complicated steps that no organization should overlook.

When launching your program, remember to analyze donors’ digital body language and inquire about their preferences via surveys. Then, take it a step further by automating the cultivation process and establishing an open line of respectful and authentic communication with donors.

Finally, always put “value” first, and instill that culture in your organization. Be patient with the process. Stick to these tenets and your major donor program will come to fruition!

Now that you know the essential tips for major gift programs, start giving your major donors the attention they deserve!

Simplify and grow your fundraising

It honestly felt like using CauseVox expanded our team by another member.

    Easy-to-use Free to get started Cancel anytime