Major Gifts: The Complete Guide 

What Is a Major Gift?

Major gifts, which include planned gifts, are the largest gifts an organization receives. What a major gift looks like to your nonprofit will depend on the size of your organization and the average size of gifts it has received in the past. Larger organizations might consider major gifts to be those over $100,000; smaller ones might consider $2,000 a major contribution.

Since about 88% of all charitable giving comes from just 12% of donors, it should be apparent why nonprofits need to prioritize the implementation of a major gifts program.

What Is a Major Gifts Officer (MGO)?

The MGO takes the lead when building relationships with donors who are willing and able to contribute major gifts. An MGO at a large nonprofit is usually part of a team of officers, while smaller organizations may not have enough staff to create a full-time MGO position. In such cases, executive directors or other managers might step in to fulfill the MGO duties.

In essence, an MGO leads your nonprofit’s processes regarding all things related to major gifts. The following duties are typically involved:

  • Coordinating the major gifts fundraising program.
  • Determining the direction of your major giving program.
  • Selecting major gift prospects for cultivation.
  • Building relationships with prospective major donors.
  • Soliciting donations from major gift donors.
  • Designing a major donor stewardship program.

For the most part, the only educational requirement for an MGO is a bachelor’s degree, though graduate degrees and certificates in fundraising are certainly available. In truth, however, the most useful knowledge comes not from coursework but from being hands-on with the major gifts process for a number of years.

Skills in fundraising, relationship-building, and communication are essential to being a good MGO. Major gift fundraising can be challenging, so an effective MGO is patient, resilient, and confident. Feeling passionate about an organization’s work and mission makes it far easier for an MGO to convince a prospect to contribute to a project.

Read more about what makes a good Major Gifts Officer in our Jobs and Career section.

Solicitation Cycle Used in Major Gifts

Major Gift Fundraising Solicitation Cycle

Use this artwork for your next proposal [PDF].

Pie chart – major gifts solicitation cycle 4 steps

1 Identifying Major Gift Donors

To be a successful major gifts fundraiser, the first step is identifying prospective donors. Start by examining your organization’s existing supporter base in search of your largest and most loyal donors (most loyal donors also make the best planned giving prospects). Screen these donors for wealth markers and philanthropic indicators that speak to their financial capacity to make a major contribution and their predicted openness to doing so. Those with the most data points in both areas will be your best prospects.

WEALTH MARKERS

Wealth indicators signal someone’s financial capacity to give. Here are common areas researched by MGOs:

  • Real Estate Ownership
    An individual who owns $2+ million worth of real estate is 17 times more likely to give philanthropically.
  • Nonprofit Involvement
    Whether as a trustee, director, board member, or volunteer, someone who has been directly involved with organizations – especially those with missions compatible with yours – should be at the top of your list.
  • Stock Ownership
    Stock ownership tells you about a donor’s potential to give, and it adds another possible way for a donor to give – by simply transferring the stock to your organization.
  • RFM Score
    RFM scores rank the recency, frequency, and monetary value of gifts made by a prospect. The higher the scores for each of these dimensions, the more likely that donor will be a good prospect.
  • Political Giving
    Studies have shown that donors who give more than $2,500 to Federal Election Commission campaigns are 14 times likelier to contribute to a nonprofit.

PHILANTHROPIC INDICATORS

Philanthropic indicators speak to a prospect’s inclination towards charitable giving – particularly to your organization. It makes sense that a donor who has given in the past, has been involved recently and frequently, or has donated large sums over time is highly likely to donate a major gift in the future. Donors who have given between $5k and $10k to a nonprofit before are 5 times more likely to continue charitable giving.

LEVERAGE YOUR BOARD’S CONNECTIONS

Board members are often major donors themselves, and they often have the kind of connections helpful for identifying major gift prospects for the organization. Ask your board members to reach out to key people in their networks. With donors introduced by a board member, consider including that board member in your communications.

2 Cultivate Major Gift Prospects

The next step is building relationships with the prospects you identify before you ask them for money. This stage of the fundraising process is called cultivation.

How your MGO connects with and learns about what matters to prospects is critical. It is the MGO’s attention to relevant details about what a prospect values and personally cares about that will ultimately pave the way to a major gift solicitation that resonates with that prospect. Here are a number of ways to build those relationships:

GET-TO-KNOW-YOU VISIT

Major giving is personal, and in-person meetings build the foundation for meaningful relationships with your major gift prospects. If in-person meetings aren’t feasible, consider hosting a video meeting instead!

MEETING WITH LEADERSHIP

Hosting a dinner or another sort of exclusive meet-and-greet with your executive director is a great way to let your major gift prospects know that leadership is invested in them. If you are practicing social distancing, you can still provide virtual opportunities for them ways to meet with leadership.

EVENTS

A small, exclusive, and personal event can let donors know that they are a very important part of your organization and play a key role in serving your mission. Also a personalized volunteering opportunity lets your major donors in on the action, allowing them to experience your organization’s work, either in person or virtually.

OFFICE TOUR

Let potential donors see firsthand how your organization operates. If a physical tour isn’t possible, consider filming a virtual tour. A tour of your office can solidify a donor’s commitment to giving a substantial gift to your nonprofit.

As you strive to get to know your prospects, ask them questions that encourage them to think about your organization on a deeper level:

  • What first inspired you to get involved with our organization?
  • Why did you decide to start giving? Why do you continue to give?
  • Why do you feel it is important to support our mission?
  • What do you love about our organization? What would you like to see improved?

3 Soliciting Major Gifts

When you’re ready to ask your prospects for major gifts, call them up and schedule “ask meetings” with each of them. Explain that you’d like to follow-up on your previous discussions, and talk specifically about how they might be able to help your organization, project, or program.

If a donor asks you if you’re coming to ask for money, be honest. Say something like, “Yes, I’d like to come discuss how you might invest in our organization in a bigger and more meaningful way.” If you have built a relationship on trust, the donor shouldn’t be surprised when you ask them for money.

WHO SHOULD ATTEND?

An MGO will often bring another member of the organization to an ask meeting – sometimes the executive director or a board member. Just be sure that during your cultivation of the prospect, he or she has already had an opportunity to meet this person.

WHERE SHOULD THE MEETING TAKE PLACE?

The meeting should be held someplace quiet and convenient for the donor. Often visits are made to the donor’s home or office. If prospects come to your office, hold the meeting somewhere appropriate for a confidential conversation.

PREPARE FOR YOUR MEETING

Being ready to “make the ask” can be daunting for newer MGOs, so it is extremely important to prepare, practice, and role play. Remembering the following tips will help:

Apply what you’ve learned.

Use the details you’ve learned about your major gift donor to make your ask as personal as possible.

Use supporting documents.

Before donors commit to a major gift, they’ll likely want to know what their return on investment will be. Supply your donors with evidence that shows them how donating to your nonprofit will have a positive impact on the cause they care about. You can give them physical or emailed documents that summarize your case for major donations. Showing donors how their donations help your overall goal can make them feel like they’re part of a bigger cause.

Consider your ask.

Using what you’ve learned from your research, determine a reasonable amount to request that reflects your donor’s financial capability and past donations. Try to aim higher than your past fundraisers while remaining realistic.

Map out the conversation.

Plan out your half of the conversation and anticipate what your donor may say in response. So that you forget nothing important in the course of the conversation, write down the major points you might need to stress to create an effective pitch. If you will be accompanied by another member of your organization, be sure you know who will open and close the meeting and who will actually make the ask. Practice by doing some role playing together before your meeting.

Be prepared to negotiate.

Begin your ask by making your highest request first. If a donor says “yes” right away, you’ve probably aimed too low. If the donor balks at your original request, whittle it down until you both feel comfortable.

Know your next steps.

Be prepared to follow up after your ask. Depending on your donor’s response, you may need to confirm a donation, send your donor more information, or try a new approach. Be sure you have reliable contact information and notes from the meeting.

WRITING MAJOR GIFT PROPOSALS

Here are some useful tips for what to include in the written proposal that fleshes out your in-person solicitation:

Personalize

Creating a customized proposal based on the relationship you’ve built with your donor vital to its efficacy. Be sure to use the donor’s preferred name and titles in letters, emails, and in-person conversations – and pay attention to the level of formality he or she prefers.

Summarize Options

In emails and on your online donation page, present your major donors with summaries of a few different campaigns or programs that their gifts can support. This allows them to give to those initiatives they’re most passionate about. Try to guide your donors toward high levels of need, but do not tell them how to give their money.

Align Your Goals

Your donor is already acquainted with your organization and its mission. Now, explain how the donor’s specific interests align with certain goals that your nonprofit has set out to achieve. Prepare your asking strategy based upon the donor’s profile.

Be Clear

Using the data you’ve compiled about your prospect’s giving capacity, you should be able to make an informed and accurate request. Make a direct ask in your proposal that includes the amount you want, the program that needs the donation, and why this particular program requires this gift. Be clear about what you need.

Acknowledge

Thanking your donors and acknowledging their past contributions shows your gratitude and encourages them to donate again. Share with them specific stories illustrating the direct impact of their past gifts. If they are new donors, you can recognize them for their philanthropic interests and generous spirit.

Focus on Results

Explaining to your donors how their gifts will be used to further your nonprofit’s cause gives them a clear idea of their value and necessity to your organization. Support your statements with data-based projections. 

4 Major Gift Stewardship

Stewardship is one of the most important steps in the major giving process. Major donor stewardship follows the same principles as stewardship for any other type of giving: acknowledging, recognizing, and thanking your donors.

As major gifts are game changers for your organization, your expressions of gratitude should reflect the level of their contributions. You can take donor stewardship a step further in the following ways:

  • Schedule check-in calls to find out how donor are doing and where your relationship with them stands. This is especially important in times of crisis.
  • Take time to get to know donors through one-on-one conversations. If you can’t meet in person, video chat is a great alternative.
  • Find creative ways to recognize donors. Giving them a shout-out in your next email newsletter can go a long way.
  • Send notes of appreciation at different points throughout the year,  even when they haven’t given recently.A major gift has likely helped your organization in more ways than one, so make sure to express this.
  • Correspond about more than asks and acknowledgments. Make sure your major donors know that you care about them beyond the gifts they give. Let them know about current events at your organization or exciting opportunities for involvement.
  • Host events catered to major donors. Hosting special events like galas or live auctions creates opportunities to know your donors better and to pull in prospects, and it let donors get to know the key players in your organization. When in-person engagements are not an option, hosting a virtual event like an online auction is a great alternative.
  • Start a Major Donor Society. These are essentially members-only clubs for your most generous contributors. Their exclusivity makes donors feel as though they’re a part of something special — and they are! Setting a minimum donation amount for acceptance to the society encourages donors to give more than they otherwise might have to belong.
  • Engage donors as volunteers. Get donors excited and invested in giving to your organization through hands-on engagement with its work. Host a volunteer day for your major gift prospects.
  • Share specific results. Major donors understandably want to know exactly how their money will be used. Provide them with details about the projects they are funding so they can visualize their financial support in practice. Also, give them a big-picture view to show how their contribution extends beyond individual projects to make a large and lasting impact on the cause you serve.

Launching a Major Gift Program

It’s important to see a major gift program as integral to your organization’s overall fundraising strategy. For example, if your annual giving program strengthens relationships with donors, they will be more likely to become major giving prospects. Also, remember that planned gift and major gift prospects frequently share predictors of wealth and philanthropic interest. Finally, major gift solicitation is crucial to capital campaigns because approximately 60% of the average campaign total is usually raised from major gifts before a campaign goes public.

Here are some tips for how to get a major gift program off the ground at your organization:

  1. Get leadership on board.

Major gift efforts require everyone on your team to be involved, so you’ll need all the full support of your leadership team. It’s also likely that your organization’s leadership has valuable connections, since people of philanthropic interest tend to flock together!

  1. Recruit your fundraising team.

You’ll also want to have board members, fundraisers, prospect researchers, and some marketers on your major gift team. Make sure you recruit a dedicated team of people; the success of your major gifts program relies on it.

  1. Determine what qualifies as a major gift at your organization.

As your organization grows, your standard for major gifts will naturally change. It’s important to update this standard every so often, as it will dictate your strategy for cultivating and soliciting certain prospects over others.

  1. Perform prospect research.

You might be surprised by the number of major gift prospects that you already have within your existing donor base.

  1. Establish tangible outcomes.

When a major donor gives to your organization, they want to know that their gift is being used effectively and see how it is making a real impact. They also might appreciate some kinds of perks like naming opportunities. Incentives never hurt!

  1. Create a solicitation strategy.

Ask your prospect researchers to create profiles of your major gift candidates that include recommended asks. Then, divide those profiles among the members of your fundraising team. Hold weekly major gifts meetings that include anyone on your major gifts team — the executive director, development staff, and key board members. Plan time to discuss the following:

  • Who among your major gift prospects are ready to be asked? Who will schedule the ask meeting? How much will you ask for?
  • Who needs more cultivation? Review the cultivation plans for each prospect at the meeting. Who on your team will be responsible for cultivation activities?
  • Who was asked since your last meeting? How did they respond? What follow-up needs to take place? Who is responsible for that follow up?

Do your hardest tasks first. You can move on more easily with your day if you know the worst is out of the way, so if you’re dreading making an ask for a major gift, just get it over with. This “worst-first” approach can help you avoid the procrastination that often derails major gift fundraising.

  1. Implement a stewardship program.

Major donors often become repeat donors, so make sure you have a firm plan in place for how you acknowledge gifts and maintain relationships with donors after their gifts have been made. Identify who will follow up with your donors as well as when and how they will do so. Donors should be thanked in multiple ways by multiple people.

  1. Assess your results.

It’s especially important to set and evaluate key performance indicators when you’re implementing a major gifts program. Pay particular attention to the following metrics:

  • Return on investment
  • Number of gifts secured
  • Average major gift size
  • Average giving capacity of top donors

With these things in mind, you can assess your existing campaign and identify improvement opportunities for the future.

Camilyn K. Leone, Esq.
succeed@majorgifts.com

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