5 Major Donor Cultivation Strategies

Mark Kelly
September 23, 2015

Solicitation is at the center of the major gift acquisition process. It's the point at which a prospect becomes a donor. But, until the ask is made and the prospect makes that commitment, he or she has to be cultivated. Donor cultivation is basically building a relationship with a prospect. You don't simply call someone up and ask for $10,000 at the end of the conversation. You have to get to know the donor, and the donor has to get to know you and your nonprofit. 

Major Gift Donor Cultivation

Leaving a major gift requires careful thought and a strong conviction in the organization the gift is being left to. Both halves of that equation are grown over time. 

The better your cultivation is, the better chance you have of converting the donor when the time comes to make your ask. 

Make the most of major giving with these five donor cultivation strategies: 

  1. Put a cultivation plan in place.
  2. Consider hiring a major gifts officer. 
  3. Identify your major prospects for donor cultivation. 
  4. Hold introductory meetings and subsequent get-togethers. 
  5. Track all interactions and adjust your donor cultivation strategy.

Let's jump right into the first step: create a stewardship plan!

The first step for you nonprofit is to put a donor cultivation plan in place.

1. Put a Cultivation Plan in Place

You can't move forward with any fundraising process if you don't put a plan in place first. And that's certainly true of major gift donor cultivation.

Your team should start with a general cultivation plan that is malleable depending on the prospect you are working with at the given time. Then, as you head into the cultivation stage with various prospects, the plan should be adjusted as needed.

Your plan should account for many variables, including the answers to questions, such as:

  • What constitutes a major gift at our nonprofit?
  • What is my organization's relationship with this prospect?
  • What does the ideal gift from this prospect look like?
  • How many interactions (meetings, phone calls, emails, etc.) do we estimate it will take to build a strong enough relationship to make an ask?

In other words, given what you know of your potential donor from your prospect research, you'll be mapping out an educated assumption of what the cultivation process will be. 

We'll get to the identification process in the next point, but you should have a cultivation system in place before jumping into the process. As those questions pointed out, the system needs to be flexible to prospect personalization. However, having a solid plan established increases efficiency by streamlining any redundancies, minimizing errors, and making evaluation and improvement easier.

Your development staff should know what to expect during cultivation, from start to finish, including an understanding of:

  • Prospect selection
  • Initial contact
  • Meeting formats
  • Team members who need to be involved
  • Proposal templates
  • Plus, so much more.

Your nonprofit's CRM will be your greatest resource when drafting and implementing your cultivation plan.

Using this dynamic software, your team can track all of its interactions with supporters. Even better, you'll be able to quickly reference all you know about individual constituents (like their giving history, occupation, marital status, and more). 

As you craft your cultivation plan, be sure to determine how you'll leverage all that your nonprofit CRM has to offer. Additionally, you might find that you need to reevaluate your supporter data strategy to start maximizing the potential of your CRM.

The bottom line? Your nonprofit's CRM should play a big role in determining your cultivation plan as well as carrying it out. Don't delay in making use of this essential resource! 

Your nonprofit should hiring a major gifts officer for donor cultivation.

2. Consider Hiring a Major Gift Officer

As you create your major gift cultivation plan, you might realize that you need someone to lead your major gift initiatives. That's where a major gift officer comes in!

A major gift officer can help take your major gift cultivation to a new level by: 

  • Identifying major gift prospects. We'll dive deeper into the subject in the next section, but being able to pinpoint donors with the willingness and capacity to contribute a major gift will make soliciting donations much easier for your team. 
  • Cultivating relationships with major donors. Developing relationships will help you gain long-lasting supporters that are dedicated to helping your mission succeed.
  • Developing a solicitation strategy. Asking for gifts from major donors requires a different process and a major gift officer will know how to approach the situation in the right way. 

With a major gift officer at the helm, you'll have an expert who will be able to lead your team in the right direction. 

Plus, when you have a professional dedicated to your major gift efforts, your organization can put more time and resources into cultivating relationships with potential major donors. 

If you're not sure where to look to hire a major gift officer, your organization can always hire an executive search firm to guide you through the hiring process. Here are a few recommendations from DonorSearch.

An executive search firm can help your nonprofit fine-tune your job description, recommend places to post your open position, and conduct interviews for you.

Nonprofits should identify your major prospects for donor cultivation.

3. Identify Your Major Gift Prospects for Donor Cultivation

Cultivation of a major gift donor is an extensive process. You can't afford to spend the time cultivating an unqualified lead. Your prospects should be qualified before they even enter the cultivation stage. 

So, prior to cultivation, you're going to want to build a major donor prospect list. 

You have three main options for how you proceed with your major gift prospect identification. 

Investigate Your Own Donor Pool First

Some of your strongest candidates are going to be right there in your own donor pool, whether they're mid-level donors who have the capacity and willingness to make the move up or event attendees who are major gift donors elsewhere.

Cultivating a major giving relationship with a donor who is already committed to your organization is not nearly as challenging as starting fresh with a new donor. 

To get started, you might have to conduct a wealth screening to determine which donors have the capacity to give. A wealth screening takes many factors into account to see if your donors can give more. 

Some of these factors include: 

  • Giving history to your nonprofit and other organizations. 
  • Business affiliations
  • Real estate ownership
  • Political giving
  • Stock ownership

To help you conduct your search, you can always use a wealth screening service, like the ones on this list from Double the Donation

Once you have more insight into your donors' giving capacity, you can craft the ideal solicitation strategy. 

Perform Prospect Research

Technically, researching your own donor pool is prospect research, but in the context of this tip, prospect research is investigating prospects outside your donor pool.

In order to start cultivating relationships with new supporters, it's important to gain as much information on them as you can. Therefore, your research should go beyond determining if they're good candidates. 

Prospect research should also be about getting to know their interests, hobbies, and causes they're passionate about.

When performing prospect research, your first step is to determine whether you can conduct this process on your own or if you'll need to hire a consulting firm to guide your efforts.

If you already have an established research team in-house, you probably won't need to enlist any outside help. If, on the other hand, your nonprofit is just dipping your toes into donor research, a consulting firm with specialized experience might be the perfect solution!

If you're working with a prospect research consultant, they'll likely use a combination of public and proprietary charitable databases to learn more about your prospects. 

However, if you're conducting the research on your own, there are several do-it-yourself ways to learn more about your donors' philanthropic activity.

A simple, and often overlooked, method is to research other nonprofit's annual reports. Often, organizations highlight major contributors in their reports, detailing not only how much the donor gifted but also what projects that person is passionate about at the nonprofit. 

Look at nonprofits that have similar causes or projects to get a sense of the major donors that might be willing to support your organization as well. 

Keep in mind that this can be a great way to gain basic information on potential donors, which your team can then use to obtain additional information in public charitable giving databases.

Ask for Referrals

You have a wealth of contacts and connections to major gift donors at your nonprofit. Between your board, your leadership, and your most active supporters, you should be able to locate some great prospects. Plus, an introduction from a mutual contact helps establish your organization's credibility before you even start talking. 

The best solution is likely a combination of the three, based on the current status of your donor pool and your relationships within the sector. 

Remember, you'll be looking for prospects with the willingness and ability to give. Finances are definitely a factor, but just because someone has the means to give, that does not mean that prospect will give.

Part of your cultivation strategy should be planning introductory meetings and subsequent get-togethers with donors.

4. Cultivate Donors With Introductory Meetings and Get-Togethers

Once your plan is set and your prospect is selected, it's time to hammer out the specifics of your proposal. 

It's time for moves management. What is moves management, you ask? Well, let's define moves, at least in the nonprofit sense, before defining moves management. 

Moves are meaningful steps your nonprofit takes to build a relationship with a prospect. When preparing to make a major gift ask, you'll be making several moves. When that happens, you have to ensure that you have a way to record, organize, and track all that occurs. That's when you'd use moves management. 

Your CRM will be essential to the successful execution of moves management. 

This point was touched on briefly in the planning section of this article, but let me explain it further here. Proper tracking of prospect interactions during this process can make the pivotal difference in your organization's handling of a future donor.

All members of your team and the prospect need to be on the same page. To assure that everyone is fully aware of what has happened, any time the prospect interacts with your nonprofit, it should be tracked in your CRM. Document whenever a move is made. 

Now on to the actual moves. In this case, you're likely to follow a similar trajectory to the one detailed below. 

  1. Begin with an initial, introductory meeting. That might be 30-minute coffee conversation or it could be a 15-minute phone call. Depending on the prospect's previous experience with your organization and how the conversation goes, your subject matter can vary. Generally though, this is when you'll explain your organization's mission and fundraising plans for the near future, while letting the prospect know you're interested in his/her involvement. 
  2. Continue to develop the relationship with various other get-togethers and opportunities for involvement. This next step will be highly personalized according to your organization, but the trick is to get the prospect engaged. Offer volunteering opportunities, send invites to events, give a tour of your office, pick up the phone for a check-in call, and make various other moves. Make sure that your organization is a part of your prospect's world. 

When you feel confident in your relationships, you'll be able to move the prospects along the donor pipeline to the solicitation stage. 

Organizations should tack interactions and adjust their donor cultivation strategy accordingly.

5. Track Major Gift Metrics and Adjust Donor Cultivation Strategy Accordingly

Launching a major gift program can be a massive undertaking. You can ensure that your organization is doing all that it can to optimize the whole process by tracking success metrics (aka key performance indicators, KPIs).

You surely already have a set list of KPIs that your team uses for evaluation, so along with the addition of major giving to your fundraising initiative, add in major giving metrics. 

The four major gifts metrics below are a good place to start.

1. Asks Made

Definition of the Metric

Just as it sounds, asks made tracks the number of times a given fundraiser (or, all of your fundraisers) explicitly asks for a major gift in a certain time period. Nonprofits will typically set monthly goals for and be very actively engaged with this metric. 

To count as an ask, the fundraiser has to deftly and directly conduct the solicitation. A donor in the cultivation process cannot be recorded as an ask. The ask is a very singular moment. 

Reason for Using the Metric

A proactive ask strategy is the best way to ensure that your major gifts program grows. Tracking asks made on a monthly basis guarantees that ask frequency is always a part of the planning conversation. 

There's somewhat of a worry that encouraging frequent asks might rush the cultivation process and end up generating unwanted results. There are two main concerns:

  1. The fundraiser makes an ask too early. Due to the rush, the donor is not ready for the ask and turns down the fundraiser.
  2. The push for a sped up time line puts the fundraisers in a position where they are not asking for the maximum amount and are, instead, settling on a lower number.

Both potential problems are valid points, so your major gifts team has to be aware of the pitfalls and consciously avoid them. Yes, asks should be consistent, but they should never be rushed. At the end of the day, quality wins out over quantity. 

Method of Tracking the Metric

Asks made is a fairly easy metric to track. Fundraisers can include this on the team's major gifts activity spreadsheet. Just remember, only mark actual asks. Leave off any cultivation-in-progress. Those don't count yet. 

Unlike many metrics, asks made does not necessarily need to increase every tracking period. Over time, as your major gift initiative grows, your asks made should increase, but on a month-to-month basis, that won't always be the case. 

Set your monthly goals according to other fundraising initiatives, the statuses of donors in your pipeline, and upcoming events. Target reaching or exceeding those goals. (You can use your donor management software to help with this!)

Then, across a larger time period, use this metric in conjunction with other major gifts metrics to determine if it's time to raise the volume of your asks. 

2. Face-to-Face Visits per Month/Quarter/Year

Definition of the Metric

Just like you can't secure a gift without asking for it, you can't build a relationship with a donor if you don't meet with the donor. There are numerous ways to get in touch with major giving prospects, such as:

  • Calls
  • Letters
  • Emails
  • Meetings

This metric tracks meetings in particular because face-to-face time is an invaluable resource. To put things bluntly, major gifts are a big deal. Such an important solicitation warrants in-person time, if at all possible. 

Reason for Using the Metric

There are a few reasons why a nonprofit might not meet its major gift prospects in-person as often as is ideal. 

  1. Time and resources are always on short supply in the nonprofit world. Face-to-face visits take up plenty more time and resources than phone calls or letters do.
  2. There can be some solicitation reticence on the part of those new to major gift fundraising. Making an ask in-person is nerve-wracking enough, but that anxiety is compounded by the fact that the ask is for such a large donation. In those situations, a well-written, well-executed letter can feel like a far superior option.

Letters have their place in the solicitation process, but they can't replace the power of face-to-face ask. As far as time and resources go, as your program grows, you should be able to work in more meetings because you'll have a better sense of the process and greater funding. 

Although both points are valid, in-person meetings with prospects should be a priority, and tracking them is a good way to boost their priority level.

Method of Tracking the Metric

You will track this metric in much the same way as the asks made metric. One caveat, though, is that it could be helpful to both look at face-to-face visits on a broader scale, like organizational totals, as well as from donor to donor. 

Tracking how many visits staff members have with a prospect before making the ask is crucial in optimizing the cultivation and solicitation processes. Compare visit count to conversion rate to find the average amount of visits your prospects require. That gives you a concrete, researched goal to go after. 


Annual Development Plan Checklist


3. Amount Raised

Definition of the Metric

You're already looking at how much money your organization is raising year-over-year. This amount raised metric is just like that but specific to major gifts.

As your organization and your major gifts fundraisers learn the ropes and finesse the cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship strategies of major gifts donors, this number should concurrently rise. 

One final part of the definition to note...amount raised is sometimes referred to as gifts secured. 

Reason for Using the Metric

If there are problems with your program, you'll see the effects in this metric. You might not be able to deduce exactly where the issue is -- that's what the other metrics are for -- but decreases or stagnancy in major giving will tell you that you need to be troubleshooting in the first place. 

How can you judge the success of your program if you don't know how much money it has raised? With amount raised, you can reverse calculate the fundraising return on investment (ROI) and cost per dollar raised (CPDR), for example. 

Method of Tracking the Metric

As was mentioned in the definition section of this metric discussion, you can track major gift amount raised alongside your total amount raised. 

You will have set the parameters of major gift amounts prior to starting your initiative, so use those numbers as a filter to pull the amount raised total for major giving. 

4. Percentage of Prospects in Each Stage of the Donor Pipeline

Definition of the Metric

If you end up securing a gift from a prospect, that prospect will travel through four stages in your donor pipeline. 

  1. Identification: This time is when the prospect is determined. Using prospect research and a combination of other factors, your fundraising team will be able to isolate the best candidates for major giving. 
  2. Cultivation: Once the prospect is identified, your fundraisers take up the task of building a relationship with the prospect. Sizable donations aren't normally secured through a cold call. Your nonprofit has to go out and develop relationships with the prospects and learn about them before they can move to the next stage.
  3. Solicitation: This is the ask portion of the process. Solicitation usually involves a formal presentation and proposal. 
  4. Stewardship: Regardless of how the prospect reacts to the ask, stewardship will be needed. If a prospect turns down the ask, your stewardship afterwards is going to determine if that prospect stays engaged with your nonprofit or pulls away totally. On the other hand, if a donor says yes to the ask, your exemplary stewardship is your ticket to retaining that donor. It's the first step on the way to repeat major gifts.

This metric looks at the percentage of your prospects/donors in each of these four phases.  

Reason for Using the Metric

Tracking percentages in the donor pipeline helps your organization with its efficiency and effectiveness. 

Knowing how many donors you have in each stage tells you if you are moving donors along at the right rate and if you have any weaknesses by stage.

It's a great metric for evaluating the overall fluidity of your program.

Method of Tracking the Metric

To track this metric, you'll need to know the total number of donors in your major gift pipeline. In the identification phase, make sure you are only counting prospects for major giving, not your entire prospect pool. 

Over the course of your major gift efforts, you should see more and more supporters in the stewardship phase. Retention of major donors needs to be a major priority.

There are certainly more metrics you can be tracking for major giving. Pick and choose which of these make the most sense for you organization and complement the performance indicators you're already using for your other activities. We all have multiple ways we can improve, so we have to seek out an equal number of avenues for evaluation.

These six strategies will guide you through the cultivation process. And remember, donor management software can ease the steps. Each has its own merits, but if there's one note that we should conclude a cultivation discussion with, it is this...

Cultivation is a slow process. 

To borrow from a childhood fable, be the Tortoise, not the Hare. 

If you want to unlock more supporter management and fundraising tips, check out these additional resources:

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