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A Small Guide to Large Gifts: How to Attract Major Donors

By Buzz Harris on April 2, 2009No Comment

Minor office drama can illustrate fundamental truths about fundraising. You’ve lost your stapler. Again. If you email folks in the surrounding cubes, odds are good that several of them will offer a loaner.

Imagine, though, that you need help getting your cranky bulldog, Mr. Teeth, to the vet.  Even emailing forty or fifty coworkers is unlikely to generate a volunteer.  Email messages aren’t a powerful enough medium for such a request. But someone has to hold onto your dog.  The headrests can’t take more gnawing.

Time for the direct approach.  You shuffle down two rows and over one to your friend Wendy’s cubicle.  She’s always talking about volunteering at the animal shelter, and there’s a Dog Rescue calendar on her wall.  “Wendy, I need a big favor,” you say.  “Someone has to hold Mr. Teeth in the back seat while I drive him to the vet.  Can you help?”  Wendy frowns thoughtfully, but her eyes travel from you, her pal, to the doggie calendar.  “Sure.”

Major donor fundraisers will recognize the moral.  Staplers are easy.  But only a true friend will get slimed by Mr. Teeth.

There are, broadly speaking, two means of communicating with nonprofit donors.  One uses postal mail, special events, email, and the like to reach many donors at once.  This strategy is great for soliciting many modest contributions.  The second technique involves personal phone calls, personal letters, and in-person meetings to touch one donor at a time.  This is the way to bring in large gifts.

This is very important since between 60% and 80% of individual donor dollars available to a nonprofit come from major gifts.  They only get them, though, if they use Technique Number Two.  Mass communication doesn’t buy face time with Mr. T.

Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite fundraising topic—the Fear of Asking for Money!  Most of us have it.  We dread asking; most of all, we dread asking in person.  Why?  Think about the messages you heard about money as a kid.  What did your family, community, friends, the media, and other sources tell you?

I was taught by Southern Baptists that money is the root of all evil, that it is strictly private, and that no one should ever talk about it.  When we, as adults, ask someone for money the ghosts of these statements rise up behind us and whisper “Only bad people do that!”  If you keep in mind that the ghosts are there, though, they begin to lose their power.  It’s like stage fright.  Face it once successfully and it starts to go away.

I train many new directors of development in our classes, and there is one more thing that I tell them: We are sometimes reluctant to solicit donors because we feel that we are “asking for charity.”  Put another way, we are asking for something and the donor is getting nothing.  It seems like a one-way transaction.  It isn’t.  Donors generally care about the issues on which we work.  However, they do not believe that they have the time, expertise, training, or resources to tackle these matters themselves.  But they know that you do.  So they are hiring you, in effect, to do what you both want.  They give their gift in return for your work.

What is a major donor, anyway?  A major donor is someone who, when asked directly to make a significant gift, contributes hundreds or thousands of dollars (or more) depending on the size of your organization.  Very rarely will a major donor give to you out of the blue.  This, like the Tooth Fairy, is not a source of support that we can count on.  Someone needs to ask them personally.

How does one find potential major donors?  First rule: Stop looking for wealth!  We want people who are willing to give.  Some are wealthy.  Most of them, and most major donors, are not.  Second rule: Look at the giving records of your existing donors and see which of them are donating in ways that say “Ooh!  Ooh! Look at me!!”  Have they made a single contribution greater than $99?  Was their first gift to you $75 or more?  Do they give, consistently, in response to a high percentage of solicitations?  Look for unusual, positive patterns.  Show your donor list privately to your board, staff, and volunteers and ask if they know of anyone on it they think could give a significant gift.

Next figure out three things about each potential donor.  These are in order of importance.

1) What is their connection to your group?  If they have a relationship with someone in your world, that is the best person to ask for the gift.  If they have no personal connection you can go on the strength of their connection as a donor.

2) What is their motivation for giving?  Why do they care about the group?  Knowing this will help you to frame an appropriate appeal.

3) What is their giving capacity?  How much could they give if they were asked by the right person and decided to make a big gift?  This will help to determine how much you should ask for.

Determine which potential solicitor is the best person to approach each donor.  This is dictated by the connection question.  The answers to the other two questions will indicate how to ask and for how much.  Send a letter to each donor telling them who you are, that you want to meet in person, that you want to offer them a chance to increase their level of support, and that you will call them in the next few days.  Hand address these donor letters.  Hand addressed envelopes will be opened and read.

Call within a week to ask for a meeting.  Ask “When can we get together?”  If they offer you money on the phone, tell them that you really want to talk in person and that if, at the end of that meeting, they still want to give the figure that they named on the phone that you’ll happily accept it.

When you meet, thank the donor for her past support, tell her about the work of your group with emphasis on the issue(s) that interest her, and then offer to answer her questions.  Tell the truth!  Usually the meeting will last about 30-45 minutes.  When you feel the conversation winding down, thank the donor again for her past support and then ask her for a specific amount of money.  I usually make this a statement: “Five thousand dollars would be tremendously helpful.”  Then BE QUIET.  It’s the donor’s turn to talk.

She will say one of six things; suggested responses are in italics.

1) Yes!  Great!  Thank her again, and ask how and when she would like to make the gift.

2) I need to think about it.  Okay.  Ask her if there are any questions you could answer now to help her in her consideration, then ask if you can call her on (pick a specific day in 3-5 days) to hear her decision.

3) I need to ask my partner/wife/etc. first.  Okay.  Ask if there are any questions you could answer now to help them both in their consideration, then ask if you can call her on (pick a specific day in 3-5 days) to hear their decision.

4) That’s a lot of money.  Yes, it is a lot of money.  There are not many people we could ask for such a gift. (She will then move to one of the other five responses).

5) That’s too much.  What would be more comfortable for you?

6) No.  No means no.  Honor the refusal, and thank her for her existing support.

If each potential donor is asked in person by someone with a connection to her you will receive a gift about 50% of the time.  This is the most efficient and successful way of getting large gifts from individual donors.

Buzz Harris is the Director of the Development Resource Center, whose mission is to teach the fundamentals of successful fundraising and governance to nonprofits and NGO’s. The DRC offers inexpensive, web-based distance-learning and in-person courses on fundraising and board service.  Buzz can be reached at

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