Moving Donors Up the Pyramid

My favorite definition of successful fundraising is that it is the right person asking the right prospect to support the right project for the right amount at the right time in the right way. Major gift fundraising is all about getting these rights, well right. And the right way to do that, is to get up close and personal with the people you have qualified as potential major donors.

It’s easy enough for me to sit here and say go out and meet with all these prospects. In real life however, it’s not always quite as simple. This is where what you’ve done with your annual giving program, the way you’ve touched them with your communications, getting mid-level donors engaged with a giving circle, perhaps the cultivation that you’ve done at gala or a golf tournament all comes into play. As does the work you did in identifying and qualifying these prospects in the first place.

You are not unknown to these people. Most of them are loyal donors, donors who have given larger gifts in the past, a small donor who has suddenly, inexplicably, increased her giving significantly—even if the gift is still relatively small.  In fact, we are pretty sure that they love you.  They love what you do, what you accomplish, and what you stand for.  But you probably have little knowledge of them—especially what makes them so passionate about you.

Major gift fundraising is all about getting to know your donors and giving them the right opportunity to make an important gift, not just for your organization but for them.

In short, you need to get to know them…and you do that in the same way you got to know your spouse, your best friend.  By talking WITH not at the. And listening.  You’ve all heard the advice that since you have two ears and only one mouth, you should use them appropriately—by listening twice as much as you are speaking. This goes double for major gift fundraising.

Call and ask for a meeting, using what you do know as a starting point.  “Larry, you’ve been one of our most loyal donors, and I would really appreciate meeting with you to learn more about your affinity for our work and begin talking about how we can help to strengthen that.  I’m going to be near your office next Thursday, would you have time that day for a twenty-minute visit?”

Or, “It was great seeing you at the gala last week.  I’m sorry we didn’t have much time to talk.  Could we remedy that and get together next week or two weeks after that? I really want to hear your thoughts about the gala and, more specifically, how you are feeling about the work we are doing.  Does Tuesday or Thursday work next week?”

Two things—as you noted, this is a I want to learn more about you meeting NOT a solicitation. Don’t ask for anything other than information.  Secondly, make sure you ask for the meeting by offering a specific day or days. You want them to respond to that.

But you’ve called 15 times and they don’t answer their phone.  Or they decline your visit.  If you identified them as a great prospect, don’t give up.  Send a note or an email, and be just as clear about what you want. The other thing to do is to find that right person, the one who can best open the door with this prospect and use that connection to get the appointment.  Do accept that this right person may have every good intention but never quite get to making the call.  No worries, simply use Mr. or Ms. Right’s name—Jeremy asked me to set up a time when the three of us could chat…..


That meeting—and then anywhere from 2 to who knows how many more—is focused on learning what motivates them philanthropically and guiding them toward what you do that will nurture that motivation.

You are going to want to ask a lot of open-ended questions, from “Tell me how you first got involved with us”, to “What other organizations do you support?”Or, “ Would you share with me the very best gift you ever made—and the best thank you ever received?”  You must learn how decisions are made in their family—and then make sure that the right people are always at the table. And you must talk about money from the beginning.  As Warren Buffet, someone who knows a lot about money, says, you should never “waste time…by talking, even preliminarily, about a transaction when price is unknown.”

My advice is to always put a price tag on any project or suggestion of support.  And if they don’t die, Increase that number the next time you speak.  In my 20 years as a front-line fundraiser, no one got angry with me for asking too much, though they did sometimes ask what I was smoking.  There was one donor who did get furious because he felt that I undervalued his worth and asked for too little!

Major gift fundraising is a long game.  You must keep in front of your donors, but that doesn’t mean you have to constantly be meeting one on one with them.  You may have heard the term moves management.  This is a structured process that helps you to move your prospects toward becoming a major donor.  Every “move” pushes them closer.  Moves are intentional, intensely personal, and planned.

But in between moves, remember to “touch” your prospects.  Again, this can be via newsletter, social media, an invitation to an event.  And speaking of events, house or parlor parties are wonderful for engaging and educating potential major donors about new or enhanced programs, introducing them to program staff, and letting them interact with others at their level.

At some point, of course, you gotta ask.  And, because you have been transparent throughout this process, there are no surprises.  You begin by making your compelling case and/or reminding your prospect why this is important to them. Then you specifically talk about their interest, prior support, earlier discussions.  You detail the benefits of the gift.  You ask if you can count on them…and then you zip your mouth and wait for them to say something.

If you’ve moved them along with care and sensitivity, it’s doubtful you’ll get a no.  Bit you may get some pushback.

Listen and acknowledge their concerns or issues.  Be positive and supportive.  Where possible educate them—sometimes that may be simply to tell them who would be the right person to talk with.  Then restate your case and ask if they are still willing to consider making this transformative gift.

Whether you get a yes, no, or maybe, make sure you immediately follow up.  Best case scenario, it’s the first of many thank yous. But in all cases, you are keeping communications open.

Above all, remember the importance of stewardship. Success relies on keeping your donors close, connected, and committed to your mission and cause.

I believe firmly that all fundraising is about gratitude—regardless of the size of gift. But gratitude, recognition, the things you do to say thank you must be appropriate.  For a transformative gift, you might name a building or a program…for a smaller gift you are probably putting their name on a donor wall and for an even smaller gift, perhaps just on your electronic honor role.  Big donors should get spotlighted in your newsletter, individually recognized at an event, invited to attend a very special occasion.

And remember that the donor pathway is circular—your job is to do what you can to ensure that your donors—large and small don’t wander off .






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