Soliciting Major Gifts: It's More Than Direct Marketing on Steroids
The best place to prospect for major donors is in your small- and middle-donor files. Plenty of major-gifts officers will tell you that their biggest contributions often come from people who started as $25 donors.
Those donors have loyalty and commitment. They understand and support your mission.
But turning them into major donors doesn't happen overnight. As Mark Twain said, "A round man cannot be expected to fit into a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape."
In other words, it takes more than just ramping up your direct marketing with stronger and more personal appeals. Actually, you should have already done that — with closed-faced carriers, First Class postage and higher-touch copy — to take them from small- to middle- to high-dollar donors.
Cultivating major donors takes something more. And, just as when you're compiling your regular donor lists, it starts with doing your homework. From ground-level research, like looking at which donors are active in civic affairs to using wealth overlays on your file, your first step is to find out who has the means to become a major donor. And that's the easy part.
As my old pal Julie Bostick, major-gifts officer at the University of Tampa, says, "Once you're talking to people you know have the capacity to give, it's about connecting to them and helping them find the inclination."
After a lifetime of having the inclination to give much smaller amounts, changing their giving habits means slowly and gradually changing the way you ask them to give.
"It's very different from direct mail, for example, where you have one message you've carefully developed, then sent out to everyone on your list," Alicia Figueiredo, vice president of development at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, says. "With major gifts, your message is tailored specifically for that donor. So you have to start building a relationship with him or her, to understand their values and what they're trying to accomplish through their philanthropy. Then give them the opportunities to act on those values."
Before you ever approach your prospects, develop a plan of action. Know what their passions are. Know what they like and what kind of attention they respond to most positively.
Some people like attending black-tie dinners. Others want you to come and visit them personally. Others want to feel they have access to the inner circle of your organization.
They may want to be noticed and appreciated by your president or board members. Or they may want to be asked for input and advice.
Yes, it takes time. And often it takes investment. But it's usually money well spent. I have a friend who once took an important donor on a safari to Africa. It wasn't cheap. But because my friend knew her prospect and had cultivated a strong relationship, the ROI was more than worth the effort.
One more thing: The time and attention you spend on major-donor prospects cannot be faked. People know when they're getting the canned message and when you're being real.
Donors who feel like they're being given the hard sell, or even the soft sell, will feel hurt and resentful. And they won't stick around for it. In fundraising, as in medicine, always follow the primary injunction of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.