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How do I build a major gifts program from scratch?

Building a major gifts program requires creating the right structure.

Are you trying to build a major gifts program for your ministry? The task might seem so big that you just don’t know where to start. Even the name, “Major gifts,” implies that you’re facing a challenge.

If you’re at an existing organization, you face an additional difficulty. You probably already have a bunch of fundraising programs. And you don’t get to set these aside in order to focus on major gifts. New fundraising staff might be in the budget… in the year 2050. So in the meantime, you have to make due.

Start with the basics.

There’s no one perfect way to start your major gifts program. Your development team and your donors are unique, so your approach is going to be a little different. Just start with the essentials: a reason to raise money, a pool of donor prospects, and a process.

1. Reason for funding.

Start with the reason that you need to raise money. The fundraising proverb tells us that big money chases big ideas. So what is the big idea that you will share with your donors?

Your reason needs to be fleshed out and developed into a fundraising case statement. In a nutshell, your case statement should describe the need that exists, how you meet that need, and how the donor’s gift will make an impact.

Writing a case statement doesn’t mean starting a whole bunch of new programs. It can, if you’re doing a major capital campaign, but it doesn’t have to. It just needs to tell your story in a way that inspires people to give.

2. Pool of donor prospects.

Major gifts come from people. Who are those people? That’s what you’re trying to find out. A major gift donor cares about your mission and has the ability to make a significant gift to your organization.

You need to create a pool of new donor prospects. At this early stage, some development professionals call them suspects, because you don’t yet know whether they want to talk to you. You can build your list of suspects by doing prospect research in your database, getting referrals, and hosting small events.

3. Major gift process.

Once you have a list of potential donors, you need a process that will enable you to find out if they share your passion for the mission. Process enables you to be consistently meeting new people (or just trying to meet people).

Early in the game, you’re going to hear, “No,” or nothing at all a lot. That’s to be expected. Building a major gifts program is different from running an established major gift program. You will have to go through a lot of no’s before your list of yesses starts to look like a full roster of major donors.

Having a consistent process makes the difference between “trying” to start a major gifts program and “succeeding” in building a major gifts program. You’re basically trying to create a major gifts portfolio with a list of donors in cultivation. Cultivating major gifts with a process like Moves Management takes time, but can bear great fruit.

A major gifts case study.

My food bank has been going through this process of building a major gifts program during the last couple of years. We didn’t add any new staff, and we didn’t drop a lot of our current fundraising activity. So we had to find a way to add major gifts alongside our current responsibilities.

We divided the responsibilities for prospect research and frontline fundraising between the grant writer (me) and our development officer. I did a wealth screening of all our donors who have given in the last two years. The wealth screening combined with their donor records enabled me to pull lists of donors that are committed to are work who have the ability to make a larger gift if we give them some personal attention.

The prospect research revealed a massive prospect list that we had no idea existed. More than we could even handle at one time. So we had to develop our process.

Bite sized pieces, consistently.

The process that we landed on took into account the fact that it needed to fit with all of our development officer’s other responsibilities. We eventually hope that she will be able to do major gifts exclusively, but that’s just not a reality yet. Once the program is up and running, that might change. For the time being, she can devote 20-40% of her time to major gifts, depending on the season.

So every week, I provide her with five new suspects to contact. She writes them a letter introducing herself and telling them that she will call in a few weeks to set up a time to get together. She waits a week before calling, and if she doesn’t connect, she’ll call again after another week has passed. If at that point, the person hasn’t responded, she’ll send an email. If there’s no response to any of these contacts, she’ll take them off the suspect list.

She meets with those that do respond and then begins to cultivate the relationship, with the intention of eventually making a major gift ask.

Thank effectively.

One other significant initiative supplemented our efforts to build the major gifts program. Our director of fundraising invested some time and energy creating a donor wall for the major donors that helped the food bank to build the new soup kitchen.

This created an opportunity to invite some of our biggest donors for a thank you event so they could see the good their donations made possible. A large number of these major donors responded favorably to the invitation, making for a fun, high powered event.

The fruit so far.

Honestly, only a small percentage of the new prospects our development officer contacted have responded at all. That’s what we expected. What we didn’t expect was increased giving from donors who did NOT respond. Just the fact that we’re trying to make a more personal connection to our donors makes a difference.

Our development officer has also met with people who are very excited to be talking to her. They know why she’s meeting with them, and they don’t mind. They share our passion for feeding the hungry and take pleasure in being able to learn more about what we do.

Many of our new donor prospects express surprise at the size of the food bank’s operations. They might have been giving for years and known the name of our food bank, but they still thought of us as a big food pantry. Coming in for a tour of our warehouse opens their eyes and builds their commitment to the mission.

In it for the long haul.

We still don’t have a fully fledged major gifts program. Our development officer’s long term goal is a portfolio of 100-150 active major donors. At that point, she will be able to focus exclusively on major gifts. We expect that we will reduce the number of new prospects she seeks to engage at that point, but that’s a few years off.

Major gifts fundraising should be exciting, because you’re enabling people to make big impacts on causes that they strongly support. It takes time to develop a major gifts program, but it’s worth the every moment that you invest.


Need some new ideas on how to fundraise? Check out The Fundraiser’s Playbook and find the fundraising strategy that will work best for you!

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com, via Creative Commons License, no rights reserved.