Skip to main content

Major gift fundraising

The cultivation of major gifts

Most fundraisers will have at some point come across the concept of the gift pyramid – a graphical representation of where fundraising income comes from.

The major gifts programme focuses on securing high-value gifts from a small number of prospects with the capacity to give at the highest level. Major gifts may be less frequent and require substantial investment in the cultivation and solicitation of the donor, but they are high value and can be transformational for an institution.

Defining major gifts for your institution

The definition of a major gift varies between institutions and is dependent on a number of factors:

  • Existing levels of philanthropic income
  • The current number of donors
  • The value of the fundraising targets
  • The perceived potential for major gifts after analysis of the prospect pool
  • The impact the gift will have on the institution

Major gifts tend to be transformational and directed at high-value projects. A small organisation, with no history of fundraising and modest pool of prospects, may define £1,000 as a major gift, whereas an established institution with substantial philanthropic income and many high-value fundraising projects may raise the threshold to gifts over £100,000. Whatever level you choose, it should be periodically reviewed.

Who is in the programme?

The first task when planning a major gift programme is to examine your prospect pool to determine who can give a major gift. This can be tricky if your information resources are underdeveloped; but with the support of data analysis and prospect research, it should be possible to segment your prospect pool and identify the most promising prospects. Several factors can be assessed to determine which prospects should be included in a major gift programme:

  • Financial capacity to give
  • Warmth of pre-existing relationship with the institution
  • Giving history with the institution
  • Interest in similar causes

The number of major gift prospects that can be managed at any one time will be dependent on the capacity of your team. Your pool of major gift prospects should be subjected to scrutiny and further research to prioritise the best prospects and ensure that the major gift fundraising capacity is not overwhelmed.

When examining your prospect pool, keep in mind the Pareto Principle (also known as the 8020 Rule), which says that 80 percent of your gifts will come from 20 percent of your prospects or donors. Therefore, the majority of your time and resources should be focused on these major gift prospects or donors.

Getting started: prospect identification and research

Assign a fundraiser to each prospect. For top prospects, you may want to assign a primary and a secondary fundraiser - for example, the vice-chancellor and the director of development.

Then, find out all you can about your prospects and record this information. This is not just about collecting facts but includes researching and analysing these facts, and looking for synergies between the prospect and your institution and for opportunities to strengthen the relationship between the two and links between prospects (as one prospect may be a positive influence on the giving behaviour of another).

Planning your cultivation and engagement strategies

Each major gift prospect merits an individualised engagement strategy. This is a plan of how you might instigate an initial meeting and draw the prospect closer to the institution. It is likely to evolve as the dynamics of the relationship between the prospect and the institution change over time. The example (shown below) is of a simple engagement strategy, but to implement even this version would take many hours of diligent persistence as you carefully manage situations, entice prospects closer to the institution and tease out areas of mutual interest.

Example engagement strategy

Invite Mr and Mrs X to the chancellor’s dinner to see a presentation on the university’s five-year strategy. Ensure that the chancellor introduces Mr and Mrs X to the vice-chancellor who should be briefed to discuss the presentation with them and listen to what areas capture their interest.

Vice-chancellor to invite Mr and Mrs X to campus to see for themselves the implementation of the strategy plan in progress. Design a programme that focuses on their interests such as a tour of the new Engineering Building, lunch with the Dean and the opportunity to meet undergraduates.

Review next steps with Vice-Chancellor and agree follow up action.

Major gift prospects tend to be very busy people, and it can take months to even fix a date for a campus visit. The cultivation of prospects to the point of solicitation can be a long process and may not come to fruition until 18 months to three years after the process begins.

Making ‘the ask’

If you have done your prospect cultivation properly, your prospect should not be surprised to be asked to donate. It is important that ‘the ask’ is a positive experience for both the ‘asker’ and the prospect and that it is made in-person when you are cultivating a major gift.

Decide who should make ‘the ask’ – the director of development, the institution’s leader, one of the prospect’s peer group, a senior volunteer or perhaps a representative of the project that stands to benefit. It may be appropriate for more than one person to be there, but be careful not to overwhelm the prospect. It should be someone with whom he or she has a positive peer-to-peer relationship. It helps if the ‘asker’ is also a donor.

Be sincere, direct and specific. Name a gift level that you think might be appropriate and say exactly how the gift will be used to support your institution. Touch upon how the gift will be recognised, if you feel it is appropriate.

Make sure you have thought about these scenarios before you enter the meeting and how you deal with them. If you do hear a ‘no’, you might, with further discussion, turn this into a ‘maybe’ or a ‘yes’ to a gift at a lower level. Perhaps you at least will be able to keep the option open to speak to the prospect again in the future about other giving opportunities.

You need to be able to read the situation, think on your feet and respond appropriately. You cannot prepare for every response, but good preparation, discussion around possible scenarios and support from colleagues in advance of ‘the ask’ will all help.

Follow through

Whatever happens at ‘the ask’, it is important that you continue the relationship with the prospect on a positive footing. If a gift pledge has been made, you should ensure that the pledge is fulfilled.

  • Continue the dialogue with the donor
  • Introduce a gift agreement if necessary to agree how the gift will be made, in what time scale, for what purpose and with what recognition
  • Do not forget to say thank you in a way that matches the importance of the gift and meets the expectations of the donor
  • If you have come away with a ‘maybe’ or a ‘no’, it would be timely to review the relationship with the prospect and discuss how these might be converted into a ‘yes’ – perhaps by changing the project you are putting forward for support, the gift amount or the timing of ‘the ask’

Back to the beginning

There is a risk that you will let this relationship slide now that the fundraising cycle has been completed. The temptation is to turn to fresh prospects at the beginning of the cycle, but this would be a mistake.

Major gift prospects have (we hope) become major gift donors; and with further cultivation, they can be drawn even closer to your organisation and become repeat donors. Their existing gifts need to be carefully stewarded, and donors need to be return to the beginning of the fundraising cycle and introduced to new opportunities to offer their support.

Establishing a pipeline

Major gift fundraisers need a steady supply of new prospects. These can be found through diligent research and regular examination of prospects who are donating at a lower level or who are not yet donating.

A successful development office will have the infrastructure and skills to move prospects up through the levels of the fundraising pyramid until they fulfill their full potential as donors by reaching the limits of their capacity to give.

Fundraising is a team effort, and fundraisers dealing with lower-level donors need to be moving those donors up the pyramid to the attention of the major gift fundraisers who can increase their levels of engagement and encourage larger and more frequent donations.