Don't be left in the dark.

Little Green Light is a cloud-based donor management system for fundraisers.
Subscribe to get our latest product updates, best practices and tips to grow your nonprofit.

10 techniques for raising major gifts

Posted June 9, 2014 by Hunter Williams

I just returned from the NCEA (Catholic Educators) conference in New Orleans, which brought together a large group (over 6,000) of dedicated professionals. Several presentations were about advancement and fundraising, and a lot of the focus was on major gift giving and cultivation of these donors. I thought I’d share some of the key insights I picked up.

– Call it Advancement, not Development. The role of the fundraising professional is to advance the mission of the organization. This is a much broader responsibility than simply raising money, which is just a means to an end. There needs to be a strategic plan that lays out what the organization will accomplish and what it will take to accomplish that mission. Then seek contributors to join on the path to deliver that mission.

– Similarly, seek investments, not donations. We’re not begging for money, we’re asking people to invest in the mission, to join us.

– All donors aren’t equal. We don’t want to dismiss any of our donors, of course, but the truth is that a very large percentage of gifts come from a few people. One speaker said the old 80/20 rule has become more like 95/5 … 95 percent of contributions will come from 5 percent of donors. Every community has contributors with big potential to give. There are 9 million Americans with over $1 million “in the bank” (not including real estate).

– Techniques that will get small investments are direct mail, phonathons, events, online donations. Large investments always rely on personal meetings. Ideally the advancement director and the head of the organization meet in person with the donor individually (or with their spouse, whichever they prefer). Think about the proper setting and spend a lot of time cultivating that relationship before making the ask. Narrow your list of major donor prospects to just 10-15 people for the entire year.

– Get out there. One speaker said he heard this long ago and still does it … put an index card on your desk that says, “if you can read this, you’re not doing your job,” meaning you need to be out meeting with people. At schools it’s very easy to get caught up doing all the smaller things (like running events). Don’t let the principal (or executive director) suck you into managing events, etc. because then you’ll never be out developing those personal relationships that will result in the major gifts. Tell the principal what you are doing and how you prioritize your work.

– Build personal relationships with your constituents. Building a relationship is reciprocal (give and take), just like building personal relationships with friends. Consider the people in your own life. You might have a large group that you interact with through annual holiday cards. That’s a great way to reach a lot of people. But if your only interaction with them ever is sending Christmas cards, then pretty soon that’s all you’ll get back in return. Nobody would call you to go and see a movie (let alone other activities and commitments indicative of a growing relationship). You need to develop that personal connection by meeting in small groups and one-on-one and by giving the person something of value to them.

– State a good case for your cause. You can start with the logical fact-based case (such as “We are short $800 per student so we need donations”), but you have to make an emotional connection with your donors. “The world needs people like those who come out of this school” goes much further to get at the benefit, and “you can help make this happen” ties it back to the donor’s actions. It’s also critical to inspire action, and often recognition can do this. For really large gifts, it’s putting a name on a new classroom or lab.

– Make the ask. One presenter said he wants the head of the school to be the one making the ask. The advancement director helps lay the groundwork and moves the relationship along, but the ultimate ask should come from the ultimate authority at the school (at least for the biggest gifts). Holy Cross has also come up with a “rule of 7,” meaning there should be seven touches and “thank you’s” to the contributor before asking them for money again.

– Look to your most loyal contributors for planned giving (bequests in a will). People who give consistently year in and year out are likely to be good prospects to make legacy gifts in their wills. Stories abound of the faithful contributor who gave consistently but in low amounts, who surprised the organization with a large gift in his or her will. Go meet with these loyal contributors. Ask why they give. Cultivate that relationship. In line with recognition, create a legacy society of some sort in which you honor those who have made that ultimate gift.

– Sign your letters by hand. Hand signing letters is critical in direct mail campaigns. Personal P.S. notes are even better. Use real postage, not indicia.

Primary contributors to these pearls of wisdom include:

– Larry Furey, Partners in Mission (
– Schuyler Lehman, Mission Advancement Partners (
– Michael Guillot, Gadd Guillot (

Ready to try LGL? Get your first 30 days free. No credit card required.