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Cultivating Major Gifts: 5 Things to Know

Cultivating Major Gifts: 5 Things to Know

What’s a major gift? For some nonprofits, it’s $100, and for others, it’s $100,000, or maybe more. Regardless of the amount, a person whose specific responsibility is to cultivate major gifts for a nonprofit is in a position like few others. It requires focus, flexibility, intent, and a lot of luck.


Fortunately, how to successfully cultivate major gifts can be learned over time. Here are five things that every major gift officer needs to know:

Obtaining major gifts is a long, continuous process that relies heavily on people and communication. This means that while keeping an eye on the hard data certainly matters, much of your success will be determined by your state of mind and how you approach potential major donors. Let’s explore how these five must-know things can impact your nonprofit’s major earning potential.


It’s not about the money.


It’s very easy to get caught in the trap of thinking of major gifts solely in dollar amounts earned. It’s even easier for your boss or board to see everything you do in terms of money, not mission. After all, your success is likely not measured in how many meals your shelter provides or the health of the stream that runs through the property you steward. Instead, you are likely responsible for obtaining X number of gifts of over Y amount, totaling no less than Z dollars.


When it’s all about the money, the first thing you instinctively look for is low-hanging fruit. Sorry, donors are not money trees. There are no species of donor that produces low-hanging fruit, even for the smallest of gifts. In fact, if the gift is easy to get, that probably means that you are not asking for what you should or as much as they can give. It might even mean your donors gave you a gift just to make you go away—and that your donor has fallen into the “it’s all about the money” trap, too. (And if that’s the case, you’re not doing your job.)


In the end, the dollars you help bring to your nonprofit translate into the nights off the street for a homeless man, the great feeling a kid gets when their baseball gets by the shortstop, and the number of years of life a cancer patient can enjoy with the latest treatment. Not seeing that connection is a fast path to discouragement.


There are no gifts without CIA. 


No, not that CIA. Capacity, interest, and access. Every donor needs the capacity to make the gift you request. Every donor must have at least some interest in what your mission does. And you need to have access to each donor in order to make your solicitation.


Your job is to line up the C, I, and A. Find someone who has the means to make a big gift, loves your mission, and is somehow connected to your nonprofit or someone who loves your nonprofit.


You might think that starts with C, capacity because your job is all about people with big C—lots of money to make big gifts. Well, yes, kind of. It turns out that it is much easier and more effective to start with I, interest. People with a big I for your nonprofit will often make larger gifts than expected.


In 1996, Drs. Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko wrote a blockbuster book called “The Millionaire Next Door, The Surprising Secret of America’s Wealth.” In 2001 Dr. Staley followed it up with “The Millionaire’s Mind.” These both showed us that a lot, maybe most, people with money don’t show that they have money. They don’t live in big houses or drive fancy cars. They live well under their means. The McMansions and Mercedes? Sure, some are owned by the financially successful who eat at fancy restaurants with plenty to spare. But a lot are owned by people who are in heavy debt, who live, like a lot of people, paycheck to paycheck.


By starting with donors who show an interest, you may end up in touch with someone with a higher capacity for giving than you initially anticipated.


Relationships count, a lot. 


While your job title and business card say, “major gifts,” you’re really a confidant, teacher, theater director, partner, and more. “Major gifts” just reflect what you do as part of the development process. It’s a multi-faceted job.


For example, a major gifts officer might take a “theatre director” style approach. A good major gifts officer will enlist lots of people in the process of building a relationship with the donor. It could be the executive director, a program head, a board member, or a close friend and ally of your mission. As a major gifts officer, your job is to coordinate these people through “moves.” A move is simply an action meant to take someone closer to making their gift. It could be going to an event, having lunch with a board member, or getting a thank you note from a mission recipient. It’s important to remember that moves are not random. They’re also not cynical. Their systematic nature speaks to your own need to be as efficient as possible in working with many prospects at once.


How about a “teacher” style approach? Chances are you teach all the time. You educate donors on the importance of your mission as a whole and individual parts that need their gifts, as well as the role of the people carrying out the program that impacts your mission recipients. It’s certainly not classroom learning. It’s experiential. Tours, meetings with staff and clients, maybe even serving in your mission directly. It’s all education in the curriculum you developed just for them.


You are a “confidant,” too. As an outsider to a donor’s family and business, they might tell you things you would never know otherwise. Some donors will tell you about problems they’re facing at work. Others will update you on a family dynamic that’s been bothering them for years—and may impact their gift to your nonprofit. Another may lay a bundle of stock certificates on the table and say, “I inherited these and have no idea what they’re worth,” because you’re the only “money person” they know! Having this knowledge is a sacred trust. While you are not legally bound to keep it all confidential, you are ethically bound. To maintain trust, it is essential that you maintain confidentiality.


In the end, what you really are is a “partner.” A lot of people think that because they ask for money, they are not as important as the people who give. Not true. It is important to remember that you bring something essential to the table: your mission.


Most people decide to make a donation because they believe in a cause. Their giving fulfills a need of theirs, whether to pay back a program that helped them, boost their social standing, improve a community they care about, or any number of other reasons. Yet their capacity to fulfill that need is limited. For example, they may be too busy, or may not have the skills or patience.


You represent the organization that can fulfill the need to carry out their dream, and in doing so, make them feel good about themselves. We all want to feel our life is meaningful. You can be the conduit to help them fulfill this need, as their partner.


Planned giving is not a black art. 


The mystique that seems to exist around planned giving could be one of the most harmful factors in charitable gift fundraising, causing great causes to lose millions each year. Yes, planned giving can be complicated. Yes, as a major gifts officer you need to grasp the basics, such as how bequests work and the kinds of life income agreements. Thankfully though, that level of knowledge is easily attained.


What counts most in planned giving isn’t what you can learn from a seminar or conference on the intricacies of charitable annuities. Instead, it’s one of the most important skills for a major gifts officer - building relationships that lead to trust>


More than any other kind of gift, a planned gift relies on trust. A donor making a planned gift is placing trust in you and your nonprofit to do right by them after they are gone. No “technique” can substitute for trust. You hold their legacy in your hands.


It’s never about you.


Resist the temptation to take sole credit for the gift with an “I did it by myself” attitude. Although you obviously work hard, and often behind the scenes, it’s important to remember that you never work alone in major gifts.


Major gift cultivation starts with the people who identify prospects, whether that’s a formal prospect research staff member or an informal tip from a board member or volunteer. You also rely on staff and volunteers to introduce the prospect to you, or someone in your nonprofit, who then cultivates a donor by showing the prospect why your mission deserves their support.


When the time is right, either you or maybe someone who knows the donor better, make the solicitation. Then, when it's all done, you, along with others across your organization say, “thank you.” Behind you, all the way are countless others, such as an assistant who got out a “thank you” letter, the event planner who created the gala that honored your prospect, or the accountant who made sure that your donor’s other gifts were properly allocated and tracked so that you can report your good stewardship to the donor, and likely a few more members of your staff and, of course, volunteers.


Maybe the major gift officer’s slogan should be “I am number two”?


Are there other things to know? Absolutely. But these five will take you a long way towards the biggest gifts for the most important mission you know—yours.


Remember that major gift cultivation takes time and continuous development to drive successful campaigns by identifying new prospects, building existing relationships, and keeping the cycle going strong, all without losing sight of your mission.