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The major-gift cultivation process

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The cultivation process

Simon Pennington, More Partnership

Simon talks about the seven steps of the cultivation process. Download audio file.

The backbone of any successful fundraising operation is an understanding of the cultivation process against which activities and goals can be mapped. This is often referred to as the development, fundraising or donor cultivation cycle. The process has four fundamental phases:

  • Identification and research. Who will you ask and what will you ask for?
  • Cultivation. Building relationships, engaging the prospect and preparing to make the ask
  • Solicitation. Making the ask
  • Stewardship. Recognition and continuing to engage donors

The phases of the cultivation process are also commonly referred to as the ‘4Rs’. Development directors suggest that their time is divided among the phases in approximately this way:

  • Research, about 25 percent of time
  • Romance, about 60 percent
  • Request, 5 percent
  • Recognition, 10 percent

Identification and research

This stage is all about gathering and analysing information. It is the underpinning of your fundraising activity. It can be viewed from two angles: projects and supporters.


You need to identify the projects for which you want to raise funds and to develop a thorough understanding of the importance of those projects both to your institution and to its stakeholders. You need to gather detailed information about the projects and assess how they might appeal to donors, as this will inform your cultivation, solicitation and stewardship phases.


You need to identify who you want to ask for support. Look at the prospects you already know (database analysis, lists of previous donors, etc.) as well as the external donating landscape (e.g., are there any major trusts with interests that match your fundraising projects).

Prospect research and identification is an essential component of the cultivation cycle. It provides fundraisers with the information and tools they need to build relationships with donors. The more you know about a prospect, the easier it is to match the potential donor to the right project, ask her/him in the appropriate way, increase your chances of a donation and build a longstanding relationship.


Cultivation strategies are based on the information that is gathered in the identification phase. Cultivation refers to the methods you will use to build a relationship with a donor. Aim to answer the following questions:

  • How will you make contact?
  • How will you inform prospects about your projects and build a propensity to give?
  • Who will do the cultivating?
  • How will it be achieved and sustained?

Cultivation covers a range of activities from direct mail, telephone and email contact through to events, personal visits and peer-to-peer networking.


In this phase you will make the ‘ask’. There are a number of ways to achieve this – direct mail, telephone fundraising, face-to-face solicitations, peer asking, as part of a legacies campaign or through online communication. This resource provides detailed information on methods of solicitation in the following sections (by type of donor).

As important as asking is your response when the donor says ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You must be prepared to act quickly to accept a gift and thank a donor.

For major gifts, this can be an involved process with a requirement for due diligence and gift agreements, so it is important to have the appropriate mechanisms already in place.

For smaller and regular gifts, it is important to have robust financial systems that can cope with peaks in giving and provide donors with reassurance that their donations are being handled in a professional manner.

If the response is ‘no’, you should have a contingency plan where you might be able to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘maybe’ or ‘not now’. Maintaining a channel of communication with a prospect, for example, would allow you to approach her/him again in the future with other opportunities.


Stewardship is all about maintaining and evolving long-term relationships with donors. Effective stewardship will ensure that the donor knows his or her gift is being valued and put to good use, will appropriately recognise the gift and will ideally engage the donor so that he or she feels even more positive about the institution.

By investing wisely in stewardship activities you can keep donors engaged in a donating cycle and encourage them toward giving more and repeatedly , ultimately increasing your overall pool of donors and prospects and boosting your fundraising income.

The stewardship phase should feed back into cultivating the donor for a future ask, although fundraisers should remember that stewardship and cultivation phases are not just about preparing to make the ask. These phases are about engaging the prospect/donor in the institution. Donors who only hear from the institution with financial requests disengage quickly.