5 Proven Ways to Find Nonprofit Major Donor Prospects
One of the most common questions I hear is, “Where can we find major donor prospects?”
First, I’ll tell you where they don’t come from:
- Falling into your lap
- The "Fortune 500" list
- Storks have no interest in your nonprofit.
- Kittens have no ability to give to you.
- Folks on the “Fortune 500” list likely have no linkage to you.
I’m joking a bit, but… do any of these statements sound familiar to you?
“What about [richest person in the community; name on everyone’s list]? He/she has lots of money. He/she should give here!”
“What about getting a celebrity to be our spokesperson? That will probably persuade others to give. Does anyone know anybody?”
“What about the parents in your kid’s private school? That’s probably a good list.”
You probably already recognize the problem. Every organization in town is saying the same things. These are the folks on everyone’s lists.
Just because someone has ability to make a major donor investment does not mean:
- They have any linkage to you that makes them a likely prospect—or that you have any way to reach them or arrange a meeting with them.
- They’re interested in what you do.
- They’re philanthropic—ability is not the same as inclination.
Standing alone, ability means nothing. Brainstorming a list of wealthy people in your community is a worthless exercise standing alone.
There are better ways!
Your Best Major Donor-Investor Prospects Are Those With ‘LIA’
1. Linkage to your cause (e.g. they’ve given before, they’ve been a client or patron, they know one of your board members, etc.).
2. Interest in your cause. (Just because a family member was treated at your hospital does not mean the prospects wants to build you a new wing. Linkage alone, without interest, does not suffice.)
3. Ability to give. (Yes, though we hate to talk about money, it is important that the prospect have the capacity to make a major gift if you’re going to put them on a major donor cultivation track. If not, you’re just wasting your time.)
Here’s the kicker: They must have all three.
Let’s look at five ways to find the folks with LIA.
1. Begin With Your Loyal Insiders.
Look inside the box before you look outside. Your current donors, board members, volunteers and staff already have demonstrated they care about your mission.
Think of your potential major donor constituents like you’d think of a target with concentric circles. Those closest in (board, staff, donors, lapsed donors, volunteers) are most likely; those furthest out (clients, friends, associates, others) are least likely. For some reason, too often folks begin by brainstorming the folks on the fringes.
Don’t start there.
Begin by taking time to assess who among your current supporters might be major gift prospects.
Look at your current large donors.
Run a report from your database asking for all individual donors who give (cumulatively over the course of a year) above a certain amount. Using a cumulative calculation is important, so you don’t include $1,000-plus one-time donors and ignore someone who makes two or even three or more $500 gifts. The amount you select will differ for every nonprofit, but a quick-and-dirty way to pick a number is simply to find an amount that represents the top 10 to 20 percent of your donor base.
Depending on how many prospects you think you can handle, you may even want to narrow this list down to the top five to 10 percent. Remember, you’re looking for folks who will give you the lion’s share of your money. (You can learn more about picking what’s “large” for you here.)
Above average donors are generous and invested in your cause and often would give more if someone were to ask. Too often, they’re simply left to languish in the middle of your database.
Note: If some of the names in your database are private foundations, that’s okay, because you approach them just the same way you would individuals. Don’t, however, include public foundations or corporations in this list. Grants are a different type of fundraising all together.
Don’t just look at size of gift, but also at frequency.
Run a report from your database asking for all donors who (1) give multiple gifts within the course of a year and (2) have given for X years or more. (They don’t necessarily have to be consecutive years; sometimes donors lapse a couple of months, but remain loyal.) The number of years you select will depend on your size and longevity. The larger and more established organizations may choose a metric like seven out of the past 10 years. Smaller and newer organizations might choose a metric like three years.
Frequent donors are loyal and often would give more if someone were to ask. In fact, many of them may be larger donors to other charities. Also, they’re good prospects for legacy gifts down the line. In fact, according to a survey by Lawyers.com and the Council for Aid to Education’s “Voluntary Support for Education Survey,” 78 percent of planned giving donors gave 15 or more gifts to the nonprofits named in their will during their lifetimes.
Look for those active on your social sites.
It’s time to start looking at the level of online engagement and influence as an indicator of philanthropic inclination. Those who share and comment on your messaging are clearly demonstrating linkage and interest. And if some of their sharing results in leveraged engagement from a broader spectrum of potential constituents than you might otherwise have reached, the value of these social engagers ratchets up. Not only might they give majorly, they also may be help to influence others to do so as well.
You may not find a lot of these super-engaged folks, but it’s worth putting them on your preliminary list for further research and wealth screening.
2. Look for Donors Who Support Similar Causes
Interesting research by Donor Search reveals major donors who support one or more nonprofit causes have a likelihood to donate to other causes as well. At over $100,000, they are 32 times more likely to make a charitable donation elsewhere than the average person. At $50,000 to $100,000, 25 times more likely. At $10,000 to $25,000, 10 times more likely. And at $5,000 to 10,000, five times more likely.
If you’re looking at organizations with donors similar to (or friends with) your donors, you’ve probably got at least two out of three of the LIA. For this reason, I always asked my board and committee volunteers to bring me annual reports, newsletters and event programs listing major donors to other organizations they supported. Even before the Internet, sometimes you might even find me in a hospital or museum lobby, surreptitiously jotting down names (I haven’t quite broken the habit).
Once you’ve got names and giving levels, you can conduct prospect research and do screenings on the names to winnow your list. Google and LinkedIn are great tools to learn more online. Also, hold in-person screening sessions with your board volunteers to find out who they know and what information they can add. This “word-of-mouth data” can be invaluable and also offers an opportunity to begin to enlist folks who may be willing to act as door-openers and/or solicitors when the time comes.
3. Look for Folks Serving on Foundation or Corporate Boards
Did you know a prospect’s participation as a foundation or corporate trustee is a more powerful signal of future philanthropy than any wealth indicator? We know this because research by 4aGoodCause, a study analyzing charitable giving to over 400 nonprofits, found it to be true.
It makes sense. These folks are invested in the work of the social benefit sector. They understand philanthropy. They tend to have capacity to give. And they’re likely to be receptive to cultivation towards becoming even further invested philanthropically—potentially with you!
Compile a list with names of local foundations and businesses, complete with the names of their officers and directors, and share this periodically with your board members. Ask them if they have connections with any of these folks or if they know other folks who might.
Cross-reference your list of names with your donor database. You may find some of these folks are giving small gifts to you. Add these names to your list for screening sessions.
4. Look for Folks Who Make Contributions to Federal Election Campaigns
It’s a little known fact that political contributors are significantly more likely to make philanthropic gifts than someone who has not made a political contribution. Not only are they inclined to give away their money, they’re also at the tip-top levels of income and assets. In fact, someone who has made just $1,000 in federal election campaign contributions over their lifetime is in the top one tenth of one percent of the U.S. population.
Search the FEC.gov website to find free records of political giving. Simply type in your prospects’ names to see if you find a match.
5. Plan Ahead to Make Donor Interactions Fact-Finding Opportunities
You meet the best prospects at events. Don’t waste those precious opportunities. Often your board and other donors will bring guests. Make sure someone is assigned to greet and meet with these folks and get to know them.
If your organization comes into regular contact with prospects set up opportunities to socialize (e.g. parents of students, patients, theater subscribers or members). Schedule a new parent welcome event, a post-hospice memorial event, an after-play reception or a members’ ice cream social. Ask for RSVPs, so you can research those who will be in attendance and assign staff and volunteers to chat with them.
Seek and Ye Shall Find!
Major donor prospects don’t hide under rocks or fall from the sky, but if you look in the right places you will find them.
Once you do, you’ll have the fuel you need to fill your major gifts fundraising pipeline. It’s your first step towards leading them along the continuum from interest… to greater involvement… to passionate investment.
If you want to learn more about filling your pipeline and moving folks along the major donor continuum, please join me for my eight-week online course: “Winning Major Gift Fundraising Strategies.”
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.