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Three Key Strategies Needed to Become a Major Philanthropic Gifts Wizard

Ruby Slippers, National Museum of American History CollectionWhile this might sound scary at first, put on your rose green-colored glasses and just imagine what it will be like once you venture through the forest and come out the other side.

There’s an Emerald City awaiting you!

A shiny kingdom where major individual gifts are fueling your annual fundraising program. Where your life will be less stressed. You'll sleep soundly.

You'll no longer be scurrying around, looking for the wizard,” through endless, cost-ineffective event fundraising and here today, gone tomorrow grant seeking.

The “wizard”—the one who sets your organization on a firm foundation—will be YOU!

So ... put on your ruby slippers. I’m going to show you how to click your heels three times and get to your cherished destination.

You don’t even need to find the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West!

You simply need:

  1. The Right Prospects (click one)
  2. Visits (click two)
  3. Asks (click three)

Let’s get you moving on down the road by taking a look at:

  • Where to find the best major donor prospects
  • How to get and make major donor visits
  • How to make major gift asks.

1. THE RIGHT PROSPECTS: They hide in plain sight

You only need a few major gift donors to hugely impact your bottom line.

Generally, the Pareto Rule (80/20) applies to major gift fundraising. In spades! You’ll have 80–95 percent of your money come from 5–10 percent of your donors.

What does that say about where you should be spending the lion’s share of your time and resources?

How much are you hoping to increase your overall fundraising results this year? By 2 percent? 3 percent? 5 percent?

Just one major donor can increase your fundraising by as much as 10 percent!

Think about it. Let’s say you currently raise $100,000/year. Let’s say you secure one $10,000 donor. This is a game changer.

So it makes sense to look for these folks. Right?

Guess where they hide?

In your database!

Three Don’ts of Prospect Identification

  1. Don’t just look for the richest people in the room.
  2. Don’t ignore the people closest to you already.
  3. Don’t identify more than you can handle.

1. People who are rich are not necessarily philanthropic. Even if they are, they may have little to no interest in your mission. And you can be sure everyone else in the world is approaching them too.

2. People who are already close to you are your most likely prospects. These include folks in your database, as well as folks connected to your board, major donors, staff, and so forth. Ask those closest to you for referrals.

3. People who you have time to meet with and cultivate personally are your likely donors. Look for a number of prospects you can handle. It doesn’t have to be a lot if you’re small and understaffed. A reasonable list is one you’ll commit to, and that’s how you’ll get to success.

Three Do’s of Prospect Identification

  1. Look for L-I-A (Linkage; Interest; Ability).
  2. Make sure your prospects have all three (L-I-A).
  3. Prioritize your most likely donors.

1. People who have existing linkages to you are people you can access. People who are interested in what you do are folks you can persuade to give more. Folks in your database are already linked and interested. Now you just have to assess ability to give.

2. People who are linked, interested, and can make a gift at a level that constitutes a major gift for YOU are your best prospects. First determine your major gift amount. Then figure out how to screen folks for wealth. (This may be peer rating sessions and/or purchased wealth screening or donor analytics services).

3. People who have attributes like your current major donors are your most likely future major donors. Use database mining to assess which of your mid-level donors may be your best major donor prospects.

Next Steps

Take your best prospects to the next level by getting to know them better. (I cover prospect identification, rating and qualification in depth in Get Your Nonprofit Ready for Major Gifts.)

2. VISITS: Get the visit, get the gift

There’s a barrier to overcome to move someone from a small to a major donor.

It’s called habit. Inertia.

If no one asks folks for more, and gives them a compelling reason to do so, they simply won’t.

EXAMPLE: I make a $100 annual gift to a small arts organization where I’m a subscriber. I’ve thought about giving more, and joining one of their $1,000+ giving societies. But no one has asked me. So far, end of story.

You’ve got to identify folks like me; then get out from behind your desk and ask!

But first, and this is critical, you need to know what to ask for.

And that’s why you need a visit. Or several visits.

The visit meeting is a “getting to know you” meeting.

Jerold Panas in his iconic book, Asking, writes: “Get the visit and you’re 85% of the way towards getting the gift.” Why does this work? Because it helps you break down barriers and become known to each other.

It’s harder to deny a friend than a stranger.

Three Don’ts of First Meetings

  1. Don’t offer to give an “update” about what’s new at your organization.
  2. Don’t say you want to set up an “appointment.”
  3. Don’t offer to thank them in person.

1. People aren’t sitting by their phones waiting to hear more details about your organization. They probably already know what they want to know. They’re on your email list, get your blog posts and appeal letters, and have easy access to your website. This comes across as a ruse for an ask, and makes folks uncomfortable.

2. People don’t need any more appointments. Their calendars are already jammed with these types of obligations (dentist; doctor; work meeting), and “appointments” are no fun. Visits, on the other hand, are enjoyable—because they have a social purpose.

3. People don’t want you to waste your time. They don’t need an in-person thank-you, and this often makes them suspicious that what you really want to do is make an ask.

Three Do’s of First Meetings

  1. Have a connection make the introduction.
  2. Ask for advice and opinions.
  3. Offer to keep the visit brief and convenient.

1. People will be more likely to see you if someone they like or respect vouches for you. It’s a lot harder to say “no” when a friend puts in a good word on your behalf. The prospect knows the friend is watching, and may be judging. They want to look good to their friend.

2. People want to talk about themselves. Tell them you’re doing a “listening tour.” Ask for advice as to why they give, saying that this might help you with other supporters as well. Of course, you’ll talk about the organization once you get there. But you get there by asking donors to talk about what they care about. It’s important to understand what makes your donors tick in order to cultivate them effectively and craft a relevant ask. Do this by asking open-ended questions:

  • Why did you first begin giving here?
  • What keeps you giving?
  • What do you think is the biggest problem facing our community/world?
  • What do you want to pass on to future generations?
  • What legacy do you want to leave?
  • What are your deepest, most cherished values?
  • What would motivate you to give more?

3. People are all about convenience. It’s hard to say no to someone who is trying hard to make my life easy. Try “I promise to keep this to no more than 20 minutes, and I’m happy to meet you at your home, office, a café, or my office—whatever works best for you and your schedule.” “Do either of these dates work?” Then make sure you stick to your promise!

Next Steps

After the first meeting, you’ll want to develop a cultivation plan to move the donor toward the gift. This is often called “moves management.” (I cover this in depth in 50 Ways to Move Your Donor ... and Get to 100! A Relationship-building Solution Kit.) Once your donor is sufficiently cultivated, it’s on to the ask!

3. ASKS: Take your best shot

Hockey great Wayne Gretsky said: “100% of the shots I don’t take never go in.”

Unfortunately, because of ubiquitous fundraising fear, nonprofits will cultivate, cultivate, and cultivate, ... and never get to the ask.

You’ve simply got to adopt the Nike motto here. Once you’ve done your due diligence, preparation, and cultivation, you’ve got to get to the call to action:


Three Don’ts of Ask Meetings

  1. Don’t ask for something vague.
  2. Don’t beat around the bush.
  3. Don’t jump in when you should stay silent.

1. People want to know specifically how they can make a real difference. What’s the project? How much does it cost? How much do you need them to contribute?

2. People want you to get to the point. By now, they’ve been cultivated. They’re interested. They want to be asked. When you simply chit chat, this begins to make them uncomfortable. With each passing minute, they become less receptive. Don’t waste folks’ time.

3. People need time to consider your request. Don’t beat them to the punch! Once you’ve put your ask out there, stay silent. Even if you’re uncomfortable, don’t make the mistake of rushing in with “Or ... perhaps the amount I’ve asked for is too much. ...” You’re just shooting yourself in the foot. Plus you’re potentially raining on your donor’s parade.

Three Do’s of Ask Meetings

  1. Listen more than you talk.
  2. Overcome objections with empathy.
  3. Close and set up next steps.

1. People need an opportunity to get questions answered. You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.

2. People need an opportunity to express concerns. If a donor hesitates, you need to show you've heard his or her concern, understand, and empathize; then offer alternatives. Until every issue is addressed, the donor won't be ready to make his or her passionate gift.

3. People need to know what's next. Whether you got a yes, no, or maybe, keep the ball in your court by letting your donor know what will happen next.

Next Steps

Prep your solicitors to overcome their fundraising fear. Teach them to work with the prospect’s response. If the prospect needs more information, get it to him or her. If you need to regroup and come back to them with a revised proposal, do so. Whatever you do, keep building the relationship. No visit is ever wasted. (I cover this in depth in Anatomy of a Major Gift Ask.)

You’re Now a Wizard of Major Gifts!

At least almost (click here if you want to attend “Major Gift Wizard School” with me).

You know what you need, plain and simple.

Prospects. Visits. Asks.

Once you’ve put everything you need together, commit to following through.

Commitment (belief!) and follow through (three clicks of your heels!) are the “magic” that distinguishes successful major gifts programs from those that are unsuccessful.

Now ... just ease on down the road.

Three Key Strategies Needed to Become a Major Philanthropic Gifts WizardClaire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification.

Topics: Fundraising Major Gifts