Major Gifts: How Two Fundraising Professionals Successfully Made the Ask

Enjoy this spotlighted blog from Fundraising Academy Cause Selling Education

If you are not working with individual donors to raise major gifts, it’s time to start. Here’s why…

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of your revenue will come from 20% of your clients. With fundraising, that might be more like 90/10. In other words, 90% of your revenue will come from the top 10% of your donors. 

The Pareto Principle highlights the need for strong major gift fundraising programs and lasting donor relationships. As a follow up to my previous post about Fundraising Academy Cause Selling Education, I am excited to share field-tested tactics and relationship-driven strategies that have paved the way for successful major gift asks. We’ll take a closer look at how Cause Selling applies to soliciting major gifts with insights from two nonprofit professionals: Karissa Poe at Blue Star Families and Alison Aragon at Pro Kids, First Tee – San Diego. As we work our way through this process, we learn about why donors give. That knowledge informs our approach to small and major gifts alike. 

How to Define Major Gifts

First of all, what is a major gift? Major gifts are the largest gifts your organization receives, which will mean something different to every organization. Usually, nonprofits have a designated “major gift” amount range that includes the largest donations received in a year (excluding planned gifts). Major gifts contribute to more than an annual campaign; they are also critical for your annual fund. 

These steps can help you define a major gift for your organization:

  • Check your database of donor records to identify your top 5-10 individual donors. Don’t include foundation funders. 
  • Identify the range of your top 5-10 donors’ gifts. If one or two of the gifts is significantly larger than the others, eliminate these outliers.
  • Pick a minimum amount based on this data. An appropriate major gift amount mirrors gifts you have received of that size or just above the top level.
  • Test against your database by pulling a historical report. If several people have given more than that amount, it’s too low. If there are virtually none, it’s too high.

Keep in mind that major gift givers may include donors who give from family foundations but exclude funds gained through submitting grant applications. Once you have defined major gifts for your organization, it’s time to build your fundraising strategy.

Principles of Fundraising for Major Gifts

Major gift donors are people too. While they may have wealth, they are people who experience the ups and downs of daily life like you do. By building authentic relationships with your major gift donors, you will not only raise more money, but you will also find that your efforts are that much more personally fulfilling. 

Consider the traditional major gifts fundraising model—Step 1: Identification, Step 2: Cultivation, Step 3: Solicitation, and Step 4: Stewardship. The traditional major gifts fundraising model is valuable, and fundraisers have been using it successfully for a long time. In fact, the Cause Selling Cycle fits elegantly within this model and enhances it with lasting donor relationships. In Cause Selling, however, there is another step: Preparation. This may take more time than some of the other steps as it lays the groundwork for successful donor fundraising. 

Three Questions to Consider as You Prepare for the Ask

The Cause Selling Cycle invests time and effort in preparation. To help you map out your major gift solicitation, try this three-step, question-driven preparation plan. Share this strategy internally with your executive team, board members, and anyone else participating in major gift fundraising.

  1. What is the ask? 

From your Pre-Approach work, you should already know information about your potential donor. This might include their propensity to give, giving history (including amounts and causes), passion for the cause, etc. Use this information to determine the specific gift amount and the ask.

  1. How will this gift make a difference, and how will success be measured?

Be prepared to explain the scope of the gift, its uniqueness, and its importance in your presentation. What happens when the donor says yes? Be prepared to detail the impact it will make. What is your stewardship plan? Once you complete Step 2, you will know how ready both you and the donor are to discuss a gift.

  1. What objections might you encounter? 

It’s always helpful to consider potential objections and lay out your plan for dealing with them. Do you anticipate any concerns that you could address in the presentation? Put yourself in the donor’s shoes.

This sounds good in theory. But what do these steps look like in action? Take a look at how Fundraising Academy graduates Alison Aragon and Karissa Poe approached major gift fundraising in their unique circumstances.

Alison Learned How Organizational Support Can Be a Major Gift 

Alison Aragon, Director of Development at Pro Kids, First Tee in San Diego, focused on building support from the national First Tee organization. Her team established open communication and developed their relationship as part of the same network. Alison describes their community-driven approach to identifying their Ask: “Just as development professionals are taught to listen more than they speak to donors to identify their needs, it’s just as important to listen to the needs of the community you are serving, and the people closest to that community.” 

And the need was great. Alison said, “Being honest about the disproportional impact the pandemic had on underserved communities and communities of color with donors who had already given so much support, financial or otherwise, was a difficult first step in shaking off the uncertainty of our development operations this year.”

Karissa’s Responsive Presentation Skills and Stewardship Led to Success

Often, fundraisers will work with individual donors and respond to multiple questions and requests before securing a major gift. Karissa Poe, Tennessee Chapter Director for Blue Star Families, shared a very relatable fundraising experience, starting with setting goals based on measurable needs in her community. “My research found that Tennessee’s literacy rates are at crisis-level lows, with only 34.9% of students reading on grade level,” Karissa said. “I did not know how exactly I would pull it off, but I knew Blue Star Books had a reading program and I thought, ‘How can I expand it?’ I knew I needed money to make an impact!” 

Karissa presented goals for the year to colleagues and peers as part of her prospecting strategy, and it paid off. She said, “I did have a feeling that someone would help me make an impact, but I was not confident in asking at all. Then one day I received an email to be a part of an education roundtable discussion with an organization who had an interest in K-12 education.” The panel included influential education leaders in the region as well as some prospective donors. Karissa took this opportunity to start building a relationship right away. 

When Karissa had the chance to present to her new contact and prospect, the relationship grew. “I cultivated it with follow-ups and fulfilled requests for more information,” she said. “The potential donor connected with the program scope because it aligned with their funding strategic goals. After several weeks of my contact within the organization deliberating with her team, she notified me that they were interested in funding two of the three programs I shared.” Ultimately, the ask was successful, thanks to open communication and Karissa’s careful preparation.

Stewardship Strategies for Donors of Major Gifts

You’ve qualified a major gift donor and possibly even made the ask. What’s next? The key is to steward your donors along the way and after they give a major gift. 

Plan Your Follow-Up Strategy in Advance

Taking the time to build a stewardship plan is critical to maintaining a positive and vibrant relationship that helps donors feel appreciated. As you map out your stewardship plan, ask yourself and your team these three questions:

  • Who will follow up with this donor?
  • When will they follow up?
  • How (specifically) will they follow up?

Sketch out some specific tactics and details. For example, one of your follow-up actions may be a thank you card from a board member. Mapping out all the steps and who is responsible for them will prevent you from stalling. Plan ahead, prepare to act, and follow up in a timely manner.

Karissa had their stewardship plan ready to activate so they could follow up with the donor quickly and on multiple channels.  “Once funding was received,” she explained, “the Development department sent a formal letter to thank the donor, and I sent a personalized email to my contact within the organization and made a follow-up video chat to share status updates of the implementation. I plan to check in periodically throughout the program offering timeframe.”

Steward Relationships with All Donors—Major Gifts or Not 

Because Pro Kids had a relationship with the national First Tee team, Alison and her team focused on building that relationship using Cause Selling stewardship strategies. “We have been more intentional in our check-ins, needs assessments, and internal struggles as an organization with First Tee since the start of 2021 and recognize that national support IS major donor support,” she said. “It is just as important as any other partnership we might be cultivating together.” Alison has learned important Cause Selling concepts through gaining support in this unique way: “My biggest learning from growing a relationship with First Tee—where teamwork and sportsmanship come first—is that we have to examine our gaps in perspective, mistakes, and give time to the relationships closest to us.”

Having a strategic major gifts plan is essential for cause support. Seeing Cause Selling practices in real-world situations highlights how relationship-centered fundraising can and should be. Learn more about building donor relationships with Cause Selling in our blog posts and Hubinars created in partnership with Nonprofit Hub & Do More Good. Or, reach out to us by emailing [email protected].   


About the Contributors

Alison Aragon is the Director of Development for Pro Kids, First Tee – San Diego. She graduated from Fundraising Academy in 2021. Alison is a born and raised San Diegan and proud Jamulian (ha-mool). She grew up playing sports and exploring the East County backcountry with her parents and dogs. Alison attended Steele Canyon High School (go Cougars), studied politics, sociology, and played on the Women’s Golf Team at UC Santa Cruz (go Slugs), and graduated from the University of San Diego’s Nonprofit Leadership and Management M.A Program in 2017. Alison is particularly passionate about equitable access to sport and play, shifting power through community philanthropy, and petting all the dogs.

Karissa Poe is the Tennessee Chapter Director for Blue Star Families. She graduated from Fundraising Academy in 2019. Karissa obtained a Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science from Bethune-Cookman University in 2003; she then went on to pursue a master’s degree in Healthcare Administration in 2008 and a Master of Business Administration from University of Maryland University College in 2010. Karissa has over 15 years of event and program management experience. In her 15 years as a military spouse, she has volunteered at and worked for many organizations that service military service members and their families. Karissa is a lifelong learner who enjoys planning events, helping others, and spending time with her daughter. 

Fundraising with major gifts

Tony Beall

August 5, 2021

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