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What Are “Major Gifts”—and Where Do I Find Them?

U.S. dollars rolled to show Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Andrew Jackson, with $1 bill showing Washington laid flat in front of the rolled billsWhen talking with potential clients, I often ask the following questions: “What do you consider a major gift? How many donors contribute at that level?”

The phrase “major gift” perplexes some people. If needed, I might rephrase as follows:

  • What do you consider a big gift from an individual donor?

  • If you skimmed off the top 10 percent of your donors, based on the size of their contributions, what amounts are they giving?

  • When you open the mail (or review your list of online donations), what size gift inspires you to do your happy dance?

You decide what “major” means

The concept of “major donors” can feel intimidating. It conjures up images of mega-million-dollar campaigns funded by famous wealthy donors.

For most of my clients—grassroots groups with modest budgets—these mega-gifts are unlikely and frankly unnecessary.

Here’s the deal: You decide what “major” means. For many smaller organizations, annual gifts of $500 or $1,000 or $2,500 can have a huge impact.

To raise these kinds of donations, you don’t need famous rich strangers. However, you must engage your current and prospective donors more thoughtfully and proactively.

Why you need major gifts

When you’re fundraising from individuals, consider the following distribution of donors and dollars:

10 percent of your donors give 60 percent of the money
20 percent of your donors give 20 percent of the money
70 percent of your donors give 20 percent of the money

These ratios can vary based on your circumstances, but provide a good place to begin. Set your fundraising goal, then use these ratios to create a giving pyramid or gift chart to compute how many donations you’ll need at each level. (Here’s a helpful exercise, Building a Gift Chart, for you to download and use.)

The message is simple: Without that top tier of donors, you won’t reach your goal. Every organization, large and small, can benefit from major donor outreach—regardless of how you define the word “major.”

Why major donors are different

Actually, they aren’t. They’re just like you and me.

What’s different is how you treat them: more contact, more appreciation, deeper engagement. You might schedule periodic check-in calls or host thank-you events just for them.

Hear me clearly. Do NOT ignore your $25 donors. Indeed, with a modest amount of love, some of these lower-level supporters will give for years and increase the size of their contributions.

However, fundraising is not a perfect democracy. Those who give more money tend to get more attention.

Your gift chart provides good guidance: If 10 percent of your donors provide 60 percent of the money, it follows that they deserve 60 percent of your effort and focus.

Three steps to find and engage major donors

Here are three steps you can take immediately to expand your pool of potential major donors and get bigger gifts.

1. Create and promote your monthly giving program.

If $500 or $1,000 sound like scary numbers, consider this: $500 per year works out to $42 per month. Likewise, $1,000 equals $84 per month, and $2,500 breaks down to about $200 per month.

Compared to other monthly commitments, that’s far less than the rent, mortgage payment, or health insurance.

Try the following exercise with your board. Working individually, ask them to list anyone they know who can give $500. They might struggle with this task; let them struggle. After a few minutes say, “OK, now write down anyone you know who spends $42 per month on non-essential items: movies, lattes, dinner at a restaurant, etc.”

Watch what happens. Same amount of money ... much bigger list!

With monthly giving, people can give you a lot more—automatically—because they break it into smaller payments.

2. Study your peers.

Let’s say you’re involved with an arts organization. Make a list of all the other arts groups within 50 miles. Study their websites and ask for annual reports. Many groups publish thank-you lists of donors and may even sort the names based on the size of their gifts.

Assemble these lists, photocopy them, staple them into booklets, and share with your board and staff. Ask everyone to review the names, check off anybody they know, and add contact info. This is a classic exercise for building your prospect list.

3. Ask in person.

The scariest way to raise money—face-to-face—is also the most successful, dollar for dollar and hour for hour. In general, people will give you five to ten times more money in person than they will send through the mail.

Create your case, practice your pitch (hint: it’s a conversation, not a monologue), schedule your appointments—then go out and ask!

This post is reprinted from the Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money Blog.

Andy RobinsonAndy Robinson is author of How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone; What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money (co-authored with Andrea Kihlstedt); and The Board Member’s Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances (co-authored with Nancy Wasserman).

Topics: Major Gifts Major Donors