The Next Level of Giving: 4 Research-Proven Strategies to Help You Raise Major Gifts
The idea of raising major gifts can seem elusive and mysterious. However, recent research shows that even those at small and mid-sized nonprofit organizations can raise major gifts with a few small shifts in process and mindset.
These changes are simple to make, but not always easy to implement. The question becomes: How much do you want to raise major gifts? In other words, what changes are you willing to make to end hunger? Cure a disease? Provide education? Clean the environment? Create art?
Here are four simple, research-based strategies to help you raise major gifts. For the full research report, click here.
1. Metrics Matter: Track What You Want More Of
The most commonly measured metric when it comes to raising major gifts is “dollars raised.” However, that doesn’t always tell the whole picture.
For example, let’s say in Year One, you raise 10 gifts of $10,000 each for a total of $100,000. You report to the board that you’ve raised $100,000, and they are happy.
The very next year (Year Two), nine of your donors don’t make major gifts again, but one gives $100,000. So once again, you report to the board that you’ve raised $100,000. Once again, they are happy. However, because the only metric you’re using is “dollars raised,” no one is concerned about the nine donors who did not give again.
It’s important to measure donor retention and attrition. In other words, the number of donors are you keeping and the number you are losing year-after-year.
Another important metric to pay attention to is “dollars raised” compared with “dollars requested.” If you ask 10 donors for $10,000 each, and they give what you’ve asked for, you might think you’re doing a great job. However, it shows that you’re probably playing it too safe.
Likewise, if you ask for $1 million and only raise $100,000, then you’re being too aggressive and not careful enough.
To get started, pick three or four metrics to measure, beyond dollars raised, which will help you and your board members evaluate the success of your major gifts program.
For a major gifts metrics dashboard, click here.
2. Pay Attention to Your Portfolio
It really makes a difference who is in your portfolio of major gift prospects. In other words, you need to focus on the right people if you are going to raise major gifts this year. And, the right people are those who have already given you gifts and who love your organization. They are not “new” donors. They are not “out there.” Too many nonprofit staff and volunteers are obsessed with finding new donors for their cause.
The research showed that the best prospective donors, by far, are those who already know and love your organization. You’ll find them in your database of existing donors.
Not only that, it’s important to narrow down your list. If you don’t know who to focus on or have a long list, you’ll end up spinning your wheels and not make any headway.
Your goal is to come up with a manageable sized list of people you can work with individually this year. For a busy development director who has many responsibilities, I recommend starting with a list of 20 people.
• Step 1: Run lists of your biggest and most loyal (repeat) donors.
• Step 2: Rate each person on those lists on a scale of one through five based on their affinity for your organization. If they are board members, major donors or active volunteers, they would get a score of five. Loyal, low-level donors and occasional volunteers might get scores of three or four. Those you don’t see or hear from often would get a score of one or two.
• Step 3: Rate each person on those lists on a scale of one through five, based on their capacity to give a major gift. Use information and tools at your disposal, such as wealth screening, as well as other things you know about them, such as what they do for a living, how much they give to your organization and other organizations, etc.
• Step 4: Total up the two scores for each individual donor. If “Sue” got an affinity score of five and a capacity score of four, then she would have total a score of nine.
Take your top-scoring prospective donors to create a list of major gift prospects for the year.
For more details on how to score your donors, click here.
3. Make Time for Raising Major Gifts
Making time to raise major gifts seems to be the most challenging obstacle for most development directors. Unlike grant writing and event planning, major gift fundraising has no real deadlines. Therefore, it’s easy to put off making calls to donors or scheduling meetings. Major gift efforts get put on the back-burner when grant and event deadline approach. However, raising major gifts has a much better ROI and takes about the same amount of time as grant writing and event planning, so it should be a priority.
So, if you really want to raise major gifts this year, you’re going to need to make time for it. Here are some suggestions for staying accountable and on-track:
• Major Gift Mondays
Dedicate Mondays on your calendar to raising major gifts. Every Monday, do research, make phone calls, write “thank you” letters, create cultivation and stewardship plans and more. If it works better, block off 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. every morning to work on raising major gifts. If you leave it to Friday (or the afternoon), it won’t get done.
• Weekly Team Meetings
Hold an accountability meeting with your executive director/CEO, development staff, board members and administrative staff. Ask two questions for the agenda:
1. What did we do last week to raise major gifts? How did it go? What follow-up needs to be done?
2. What will we do this week/next week to raise a major gift? Who is responsible? What steps need to be taken?
The meeting should be short—10 minutes only. Answer these two questions and get back to work!
4. Keep Your (Good) Development Staff
This might sound obvious, but I’ve witnessed many development staff members quit or get fired for some relatively minor issues.
For example, recently I received a call from an executive director who was upset because her development associate, Jane, wanted a change in title to “development director.” Jane was the only fundraising professional at the organization and had already been there a few years. Jane was a hard worker and passionate about her work. However, the executive director was concerned about the change in title, because Jane was still young and other than her current position, didn’t have a lot of fundraising experience.
Ultimately, the executive director stuck to her ground and didn’t give Jane the title change she requested. Shortly thereafter, Jane left for a new position. And, for the cost of new business cards and a little bit of flexibility, the stubborn executive director could have kept her great development staff member instead of struggling to search for a new one.
We know fundraising is about relationships. In fact, the research showed that for every additional year you stay at your organization, you would raise an additional 6.5 major gifts (on average). If you leave your job (or get fired) within the first two years, you haven’t even scratched the surface of your major gift relationship-building potential. So, why are we losing our development directors so
frequently, instead of working harder to keep them?
Here’s a simple list of strategies to keep your (good) development staff members longer:
• Provide an annual raise (yes, sometimes you’ll need to provide a raise, but it’s cheaper than doing a search and training someone new).
• Offer flex time or work-from-home options. You’ll attract higher qualified individuals than you could normally afford by proving them with flexible hours and work-from-home options.
• Express gratitude. Need I say more?
• Happy work environment. Are staff members supportive and
encouraging of one another, or is there an attitude of “that’s not my job”? Do people enjoy one another, want to eat and socialize
• Provide training and continuing education opportunities. The research showed that for every meaningful (more substantial than a webinar) training opportunity, major gifts went up by $37,000. So, for every $2,000 or so you invest in training, conference or CFRE review course, you should see a ROI of $37,000.
Bottom line, if you have a good development staff member, you should do everything in your power to keep them and if you love your job, you should do everything you can to stay. You’ll raise more
money, and you’ll be glad you did.
If you’re serious about raising major gifts this year, make a commitment to the following:
1. Measure what matters and keep track of what you want more of.
2. Pay attention to who is in your portfolio and focus on them.
3. Make time to raise major gifts.
4. Keep your (good) development staff.
Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, is CEO & Co-Founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit. She is a veteran fundraising consultant. With over 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, she’s published a number of books, including "Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops." Amy is also an in-demand keynote speaker and an engaging board retreat trainer and facilitator.