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Major Gifts Fundraising: The Questions I Hear Most Often

Having worked as a fundraising consultant and trainer for almost 20 years, I'm often surprised that the same questions come up again and again.

Happily, recurring questions can generate new answers: my responses keep evolving as I learn from donors, peers, clients, and from my ongoing experience soliciting gifts.

What follows is a "greatest hits" collection of questions. You'll find more extensive answers in my books How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone and Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise More Money.

What would you consider a "major gift?"

The concept of a "major gift" varies wildly based on the size and sophistication of organizations. For big-league universities, the major gifts category probably begins at $100,000. On the other hand, for some grassroots groups, $250 might be considered a big gift.

In the first book mentioned above, I focused on $500 to $5,000. These amounts are large enough to justify the time required to cultivate and solicit donors, yet small enough to include a wide range of prospects.

Taken in the context of a major gifts campaign, with many askers talking to multiple prospects, gifts of $500 to $5,000 can add up to a lot of money.

What's the most effective way to raise money?

Look someone in the eye and ask for it. Unfortunately, this is also the scariest way to raise money. If we're going to be successful, we have to confront our fears and doubts about money, where it comes from, who gives it, how to ask for it effectively, and so on.

If fear is the biggest barrier, how do we address it?

In a word, training. Lots of training interspersed with hands-on practice.

You might remember the first time you learned to ride a bike, which included the fear of falling and skinning your knees. A family member or friend probably coached you through it: you tried, you fell, you got up, you received more coaching, and pretty soon you were riding around the block.

Fundraising is the same. You learn, you fall a few times, you get up, you try again, and pretty soon donors are saying yes and handing you checks. For more training tools, visit

Nonprofits can spend a lot of money on trainers and consultants to engage their boards in fundraising. Does training really work?

Yes and no. While I continue to lead a lot of one-day workshops—often, with the client providing little advance prep or follow-through after the event—I'm beginning to question the model. A good trainer can move the needle, but when he or she leaves the room, everybody begins to backslide. Old habits, as they say, die hard.

On the other hand, when training is part of a long-term process of board education and engagement, rather than a one-off event, yes—training works. A lot of ongoing board education can be driven by board and staff leaders rather than relying on outside consultants.

Let's talk about donor meetings. What's the best location?

When we meet with donors, we generally have three goals:

  • Learn more about them
  • Look for ways to connect them to the work of our organization
  • Ask for their support (unless this is a get-to-know-you meeting or a personal thank-you after a recent gift)

With that in mind, you want a comfortable location that allows a certain degree of privacy and quiet. If the venue inspires the donor, even better. I would suggest the following hierarchy:

  • The donor's home. If someone invites you into his or her home for the purpose of being asked, this is a very good sign.
  • A show-and-tell opportunity: the site of your new clinic, a forest you are working to conserve, your preschool in action, and so forth. Following the site visit, make sure you have a quiet place to talk.
  • The donor's place of business.
  • Your organization's office or place of business—with the reminder that if you have good engagement opportunities, this moves up to item two on the list.
  • A restaurant or coffee shop. If this is your best option, take it—but beware of the loud diners at the next table or the waiter who delivers the check just as you are making your case. In a public location, it's impossible to control the distractions.

How about materials? What do you need to bring?

It really depends on the ask. Is this annual fundraising, a special project, or a capital campaign? As a general rule, keep it simple. We tend to overload donors with too much stuff. With that in mind, here's the basic list:

  • Pledge form (name, contact info, terms of payment, recognition information, etc.)
  • Case materials: a brochure, fact sheet, or newsletter
  • Something visual: a map or graph, photos, a site plan—specific to your mission and funding request
  • Gift chart showing the range of gifts needed to reach your goal, and progress toward that goal

Remember, materials don't make the ask, YOU make the ask. Even the strongest materials aren't as effective as a thoughtful face-to-face request, spoken from the heart.

What's your single best advice for those who want to learn face-to-face fundraising, but don't know where to begin?

If you're a novice, embrace that. Use it to your advantage. Pick three people you know well enough to call on the phone and have the following conversation:

"Sally, I'm on the board of [your organization]. We're learning how to meet with donors and ask for their support. To be honest, I'm a little intimidated but I really need to learn how to do this. May I come and practice on you?

"Just so we're clear, it's a real ask—I hope you will give. But more than the money, what I really need is feedback, and I think you would make a great practice partner. Can we practice this together? I would so appreciate your help."

The advantages of this approach: it's authentic, it's honest, and it shows a lot of humility. Most donors find that appealing.

As the famous fundraising saying states, "If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice."

Major-Gifts-Fundraising-The-Questions-I-Hear-Most-Often_Andy-Robinson.jpgAndy Robinson
© 2014, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Andy Robinson is a trainer, consultant, and the author of six books, including Great Boards for Small Groups, Train Your Board (and Everyone) Else to Raise Money, and How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone. Learn more about Robinson at and

Topics: Fundraising