Major Donor Development: The 3 Step Framework To Growing Your Results

Major Donor Development

  • Categories

  • No category assign

Major donor development can be intimidating. For some fundraising professionals, the confidence they have writing grants, hosting events, or sending appeal letters suddenly evaporates when they’re confronted with the need to pursue major gifts. Their minds fill with visions of awkward asks and uncomfortable country club lunches, and they don’t know where to begin.

Fortunately, major gifts fundraising doesn’t have to be so daunting, especially when you apply the responsive framework and use automation tools to engage with every donor personally. When you focus on building relationships instead of soliciting transactions, your fundraising becomes more human, less salesy, and appeals more to the modern donor. This is true for every donor, including major donors.

What Is Major Donor Development?

The term “major donor” is applied to people with the capacity to make large-scale gifts. What counts as large-scale depends on your organization’s budget and the gift sizes of most of your donors. If your average gift size is $100, then $1,000 may be considered a major donation. If your organizational budget is several million dollars, your analysis will be different.

How is Major Donor Development Different?

Traditionally, major donor development involves a lot more personalized attention than regular donors. When someone is capable of making a large investment in your organization, the process of solicitation becomes a lot more like a conversation than a simple solicitation.The donor may have specific philanthropic interests or priorities that they want to communicate. You’ll learn about these as the relationship develops.

Major donor development is a process that takes time. Just because someone has the capacity to make a large-scale gift doesn’t mean that they’re immediately ready to do so. Don’t expect instant results; concentrate on building relationships.

If you’re already taking a responsive fundraising approach, you’ll find that a lot of what you’re doing translates directly into major donor development. However, you’ll probably use your automation software a little differently to engage with major donors, relying more on task reminders for one-on-one contact than automated emails, for instance.

How To Plan Your Major Donor Pipeline

Prospecting for, engaging, and soliciting major donors is an ongoing process. A major gifts program that relies too heavily on any single donor isn’t sustainable. You need a pipeline with multiple donors at different stages of development.

If this seems like a lot to manage, rest assured that your responsive nonprofit CRM can help you. Virtuous CRM’s gift pipeline management features allow you to track asks and gifts, manage relationships over time and organize development teams.

The Pipeline is a Kanban-style, drag-and-drop board that provides a high-level view of asks broken down by status, or pipeline stage, with weighted and actual totals for each group. Within the system, members of your staff can create personalized dashboards that focus only on their assigned major donors, and give them a streamlined view of their progress.

gift pipeline management

Major Donor Development Strategies

1) Listen: Identifying Prospects

Your first major donors are probably already in your nonprofit CRM. Look at all your individual gifts, and start considering the percentages you find. Did a relatively small number of donors give a disproportionate percentage of your total? If so, you’ve found your major donors.

Past giving is a good signal, but it’s certainly not the only one to pay attention to. It’s possible that not everyone in your sphere who could make a major gift has actually made one.

For example, imagine a donor hasn’t yet made a major gift to your organization, but the data you collect shows you that they’ve made major gifts to other organizations and regularly post on social media about your cause. That’s a prospective major donor, no matter what their giving history with you looks like.

Your nonprofit CRM can help you find prospective major donors with appended wealth and demographic data, along with social scraping and identifying group affiliations and existing relationships within your community. You can automate this process further by assigning workflows based on specific donor signals and criteria.

2) Connect: Cultivating Engagement

Once you’ve identified your existing and prospective major donors, you can make meaningful connections with them. Connection is about building your organization’s authenticity and encouraging donors’ trust.

You should strive to connect personally with all of your donors (that’s what responsive fundraising is all about), but with major donors, there is no other option. If someone is going to make a large-scale gift to support their philanthropic interests, they want to know that the organization they’re giving to does what it says it does, and that the people running it know what they’re doing.

Connection comes from communication. Emails, phone calls, text messages, direct mail, personal meetings, and events can all be a means of building connection between a donor and organization.

Use your communication channels to deepen the connection between your organization and the donor, while building a bridge between the giver and the good they help make happen. Show your donors what their gifts are accomplishing in the real world and demonstrate how they’re changing lives. Introduce your donors to the ways you’re approaching the cause, and how they’re a part of it.

As you continue to listen to your major donors’ signals, you’ll discover what kind of communication will boost connection. Do they always open your emails about one program, but never any others? Lead with that program! Do they never check social media, but always answer the phone? Call them. Let the donor show you which stories and communication channels they prefer and follow their lead.

The level of personal attention that major donors expect is high. You’ll likely want to offer them truly individual communication, like hand-written notes, personal phone calls and invitations just for them. Your CRM can help with this kind of communication, too, by assigning tasks as part of an automation flow. For instance, you can build a flow that includes a task reminder to call a donor personally after they RSVP for an event or a reminder to send a donor a birthday card.

3) Suggest: “The Ask”

It’s not uncommon for fundraisers to feel nervous about major gift “asks.” No wonder, if what they’re picturing is sitting down cold with a stranger and asking for thousands of dollars. That’s intimidating! But when you’re using a truly responsive approach, you may find that the ask feels less fraught.

Responsive fundraising helps you make better asks, simply because it gives you more data and a deeper relationship. When you’re paying attention, you learn what your major donors care most about, and can point them towards projects and programs that are meaningful.

Responsive Fundraising Framework

If you’re a responsive fundraiser, by the time you get to an ask, you’ve been in relationship and conversation with the donor for a while, listening to their signals and really coming to understand what they care about. Your nonprofit CRM may even have predictive analytics to help you choose the next best ask. You’ll be prepared with connections established and the conversation already started.

Remember, there are many kinds of suggestions you can make to donors, not only financial ones. The old adage about, “Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money” is repeated in fundraising circles for a reason; major donors want to know you value their insight, experience, time, talent and social capital, not just their dollars. Your early asks to them might be for advice, an invitation to tour a facility or for an introduction to someone in their circle.

Responsive Fundraising Enhances Major Donor Development

When you take a responsive fundraising approach, major donor development doesn’t have to be awkward or intimidating. It becomes a natural part of the authentic, human relationship-building you’re pursuing with all your donors. Major donors may get more personal attention, and ultimately give larger gifts, but the listening, connecting, and suggesting of responsive fundraising remains the same.

Responsive Fundraising: The Blueprint for Engaging Modern Donors

Traditional fundraising strategies no longer work. This blueprint explains why today's donor expects more, and how nonprofits are shifting to responsive fundraising.

Get the Blueprint