Back to ‘A, B, C’ Nonprofit Major Gift Program Essentials
There’s no substitute for the basics, as boring and tedious as they may be.
This is true with anything in life, and major gifts development is no exception. The basics are boring, but they’re fundamental to your success.
Imagine going onto “Shark Tank” to pitch an idea without first fully flushing out your proposal, researching the judges who’ll be on the receiving end of your pitch and assuring you’ve dotted all “I’s” and crossed all “T’s” before making an offer you hope won’t be refused. You’d look sloppy and unprepared, and you’d likely get a rejection.
Sadly, too many nonprofits fall into the trap of ignoring the essentials. They don’t do the hard, methodical work. Instead, they grab for “pie-in-the-sky” quick fixes.
Here’s a real-life example (identities have been disguised): “Jane knows someone who used to work for Bill Gates. Let’s ask him to be our lead funder for the computer center.” Then Jane’s friend suggests they plan an event Bill would want to come to, and once they’ve got a good plan and some other commitments lined up, she’ll be happy to send Bill an invite. You know what happens, right? The next six months are spent planning an event (draining resources from other more cost-effective strategies) on the hope and prayer that Bill will attend. This doesn’t end well. Meanwhile, the hard work of viable major donor prospect identification, realistic cultivation and targeted solicitation has languished.
I’ve found those most likely to ignore the basics are small and medium-sized shops. I feel the pain of one-person office development practitioners and executive directors who don’t have any fundraising staff, but you’re not immune from reality. Securing major gifts is hard work. It takes time, devotion and a thoughtful plan. And it takes follow-up and attention to detail. You simply must put in place the essentials to make this happen. If you keep trying to do major gifts “catch-as-catch-can,” you’ll spin your wheels, give yourself a major head-ache and ultimately fail.
So let’s take a look at some fundamental, brass tacks “A, B, C” strategies.
A is for… Administrative Support
To secure major gifts, you simply must get out from behind the desk. This means if you’re chained to the computer to do data entry, reporting, research, mail merges, website updating, online communications and you-name-it, you’ll never find time to set up prospect visits—let alone go on them!
Hiring an outside person without an inside person to support them is pennywise and pound-foolish. Make sure your development director or major gifts officer has support staff, or you’re going to spend most of this person’s time on administration. One gift can pay for the support person. But only if you let your staff focus on getting the gift!
B is for… Building Relationships Job Description
What’s in a name? Often, it can be an attitude or a culture. And if that attitude is all about you, and/or one-time transactions, then there’s trouble ahead. Your major gifts program, key staffer and written job description needs to be about helping your donors achieve their personal missions and enact their cherished values.
It starts with the position title. Somewhere mid-career, I began having a problem with calling folks “major gifts directors.” Who wants to get a letter from this person? Remember, most people do not self-identify as “major” donors. It’s too easy for folks to deduce that all you care about is their wallet and, even worse, maybe you’ll regret having spent time with them and think their commitment isn’t quite up to snuff (you know, not really “major” enough).
So consider retiring this industry and institution-focused term with something more donor-centered. I’ve used “director of philanthropic gifts” (which places the emphasis on the definition of philanthropy as the “love of humankind” being demonstrated by the donor). I’ve also used “director of legacy gifts” (which places the emphasis of what the donor hopes to accomplish). Even better would be “director of donor experiences,” though I’m not sure we’re ready for that. Yet, that’s what you really do if you’re doing your job effectively!
Then comes the list of duties. Too often, there are way too many assignments stuffed in here. And they aren’t really focused on building relationships. They may include responsibility for events, mailings and even grant proposals. This is distracting. For a staff person to really focus on building relationships with an assigned portfolio (and this is the heart and soul of major gifts fundraising), they must not get sidetracked. They must:
- Manage an assigned group of major gift prospects and donors.
- Do the work to assure these prospects are qualified.
- Build and implement a relationship-building cultivation and stewardship plan.
- Learn about programsm, so they can build compelling major gift cases for support.
- Work closely with other staff and volunteers as members of a team.
- Get out of the office.
- Do nothing else.
Then comes the section on accountability. You’ve probably heard the adage: “What gets measured gets done.” You must hold major gift staff accountable. Choose your metrics carefully. Will it just be dollars raised and/or gifts closed? Or will it also be numbers of prospects qualified, visits scheduled and solicitations implemented?
C is for… Continuing to Persevere
You must continue your work according to plan. Perseverance is essential.
Too frequently, I encounter organizations that hired a consultant, wrote up a plan, began a program, but then didn’t follow through. Perhaps, the person they hired as development director left. Or there was turnover in the executive director position. Or other activities intervened and took a front row seat. For whatever reason, everything just petered out.
Or maybe they had some major donors once upon a time, but no one has communicated with them in several (or many) years. And no one has tried to identify potential new ones.
I always come back to the Peter Drucker wisdom: “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”
Major gifts work is challenging and requires continual, methodical attention. There’s no magic bullet. Leads must be uncovered. Research must be done. Contacts must be made, renewed and made again. Follow-up is essential. A major gifts officer must really love connecting donors with the joy of giving. This work is not about going through the motions.
Here’s a list of some of the tedious, time-sucking, yet essential, tasks required of a successful major gifts fundraiser:
- Emailing, texting, calling and visiting donors to qualify them for intensive cultivation towards a major gift solicitation.
- Researching, screening, rating and tiering donors to determine priorities.
- Setting up visits.
- Talking and listening to donor prospects to learn as much as possible about what floats their boat and overcome any resistance.
- Talking and listening to program staff to learn as much as possible about the “product” you’re selling.
- Talking and listening to finance staff to learn as much as possible about the economics of the project you’ll propose to your prospects.
- Creating cases for support.
- Writing targeted proposals.
- Monitoring your portfolio and pipeline to assure follow through on next steps.
- Attending meetings and events.
- Thanking donors.
- Providing donors with specific financial information they need and/or request.
- Reporting back to donors on next steps.
- Reporting back to donors on outcomes.
Put It All Together
When you read, you begin with A, B, C. When you build a major gifts program, you begin with administrative support, building relationships and continual perseverance.
Hire the staff you need to get the job done. Build a job description and a culture that make it possible to get these essential tasks performed on a consistent and effective basis. Develop metrics to measure success and hold people’s feet to the fire. Practice the art and science of major gifts fundraising continually for best results.
Avoid the hard work—and daily grind—at your peril. The tried-and-true will get you through.
Whether you’re new to major gifts or a seasoned pro, please join me for my eight-week online course: “Winning Major Gift Fundraising Strategies,” to learn more about building and sustaining a successful major gifts program—from A to Z!
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.