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How to Raise Major Gifts When You Don’t Have Any Donors

How to Raise Major Gifts When You Don’t Have Any DonorsLast week, GuideStar hosted a webinar called “How to Get Started Raising Major Gifts.” If you missed it, watch the replay here. One question was asked more than any other:

“How can we raise major gifts, if we don’t have a database full of donors?”

The short answer is, you probably can’t. Not right away, at least.

However, there is something you CAN do.

During the webinar, we discussed starting with your existing largest and most loyal donors to ask them for even bigger gifts ... major gifts.

So, if you don’t have any donors to begin with, it’s hard to identify a list of people to ask for major gifts, right? Wrong.

Friend-raising Is the Answer

If you’re at the stage of identifying donors for the first time, you’re going to do what we call “friend-raising.”

What your organization needs right now is a lot of friends. The reason is, friends come through when you need them. They lend a hand, provide support, and often bring other friends to the party. So how do you raise friends, and ultimately donors, for your organizations?

The obvious starting point is to ask board and staff members for the names of their contacts. Unfortunately, whenever this happens, the response is “crickets.” In others words, you get nothing ... silence ... nada.

Instead of simply asking for board members to connect you with their networks, I’d like you to try the following plan.

Identifying Friends and Others as Prospects

Although board members can be hesitant about asking their friends for money, people give to people—specifically, the people they trust. That’s why peer-to-peer fundraising is so successful. After all, fundraising is about relationships.

It all starts with a meeting.

Call a meeting of board and staff members. I frequently do this exercise when I am facilitating a board retreat.

Draw a diagram on a flip chart. Each person has a blank sheet in front of him or her with a center circle and spokes off it (like a bicycle wheel).

Start with a blank circle in the center and spokes coming off it like a wheel. Ask everyone to write his/her name in the center circle (on the flipchart, write “you”).

Ask participants to come up with big categories of people they know ... give them the example of friends and family, and ask them to keep going. You’ll end up with something that looks like this. They can complete their own sheets, too.

How to Raise Major Gifts When You Don’t Have Any Donors

Now they can decide whom to solicit.

Once they have completed this exercise, it’s time to name one person from each group whom they will cultivate and solicit for your organization this year. From “friends” it could be a best friend, John. From “family” it could be Aunt Sally.

This way, they don’t need to be overwhelmed by the idea of handing over all their contacts. They will identify one person from each grouping who they believe might be interested in your mission and has the capacity to make a donation.

A Friend-raising Plan That Works

Once each board and staff members has a list of 5 to 10 people they will work with from their networks this year, it’s time to make a plan.

First, determine how will they engage each of their contacts:

  • Bring them on a tour?
  • Invite them to meet the executive director?
  • Send them newsletters and emails about the organization with personal notes?
  • Introduce them to clients (if appropriate)?

Next, decide how will they ask them for financial support:

  • Invite them to your fundraising events?
  • Ask them for sponsorship?
  • Send an appeal letter with a personal note?
  • Sit down over coffee to ask them for support?

While you might not be ready for raising major gifts, this is the perfect way to begin creating your donor list. Always remember: slow but steady wins the race.

What have you tried to identify new donors? Share your ideas in the comments.

31 Rules for Better Fundraising and a Better You

Whether you have zero donors or hundreds, fundraising is never easy. But when you approach it the right way and integrate it into a sustainable, holistic lifestyle, it becomes much easier.

Check out my own personal set of 31 rules for better fundraising and a better you. These are small, simple, incremental changes you can make each day to live a happier, healthier life of philanthropy. Download it here.

How to Raise Major Gifts When You Don’t Have Any DonorsThe preceding is a guest post by author, speaker, and trainer Amy Eisenstein. Amy’s published books include Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops, Raising More with Less, and 50 A$ks in 50 Weeks. She became an AFP certified Master Trainer in 2009. Amy recently completed her service as the president of the board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals—New Jersey Chapter. She became a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) in 2004 and received her advanced certification, ACFRE, in 2013. Check out her blog and video posts at for free fundraising tips and best practices.

Topics: Fundraising Major Gifts Donors