Major Gifts

Learn how your organization can identify major gift prospects, ask for major gifts, and cultivate relationships with major gift donors.

What is a major gift?

Major gifts are the power players in the fundraising world. They can change the game for a nonprofit in the best way possible. Whether you work in advancement at a university or development at a museum, if you’re in fundraising, you understand the prominent role major gifts play. They are often the largest single donations that an organization receives.

Because of their relative scarcity yet immense fundraising potential, major gifts are extremely important for nonprofits. The stewardship, solicitation, and cultivation processes are all equally crucial for major gift success. This guide will explain major gifts strategies, highlight major gifts metrics, go through the role of a major gifts officer, and much, much more!

What Constitutes a Major Gift

Major gifts are as they sound. If we want to take the simplify-by-synonyms route, we can define major gifts as big, important donations.

At their core, major gifts are the largest donations an organization receives.

The definition of a major gift is simultaneously easy and difficult to pin down. You just read the pared down, general explanation of the term, but in action, major gifts as a donation type are far more varied.

A major gift at one organization is a mid-level donation at another and so on. A new, small nonprofit might count anything over $2,000 as a major gift, whereas an established, international organization could say anything under $100,000 isn’t a major gift.

You’ll have to look into your own donor pool and gift history to determine what constitutes a major gift at your nonprofit.

Not to be too obvious, but major gifts are, in fact, major. There may be mixed opinions in the community on the validity of the traditional donor pyramid, but despite its standing, if you are new to major gifts, the pyramid is a great way to explain how important they are.

From bottom to top, the pyramid is generally organized as follows:

  1. Occasional donors and event participants
  2. Annual and recurring donors
  3. Major gift donors
  4. Planned gift donors

Definition of Major Giving

Outside of massive bequests (lucrative planned gifts), major gifts are at the top of the pyramid and are relatively scarce because of that. Excluding planned gifts, major gifts are the largest donations your organization receives in a year. Usually, nonprofits have a dollar amount range that encompasses all major gifts.

As your major gift initiative improves and advances, the range will shift upward.

Determining Your Organization’s Major Gift Size

To determine the major gift size range at your nonprofit, you will need:

  • An accurate and up-to-date database.
  • Records of your top individual donors.

Once you have the first two points in order, it is time to learn what constitutes a major gift at your organization. Just follow the steps outlined below.

  1. Pull the 5-10 donors who have given the largest gifts to your organization.
  2. Examine the range of those gift sizes.
  3. Eliminate any outliers — if all the gifts are between $7,000 and $11,000, except for one at $25,000, eliminate the $25,000 gift from your list.
  4. Accounting for the remaining gifts, estimate a major gift minimum. Using the numbers from the previous step’s example, you might say $8,500.
  5. Go back to your database and test that number, $8,500 in our scenario. You will look for how many gifts of that amount or greater have been given to your organization in the past year.
  6. Decide if that frequency is in the major gift sweet spot. Remember, major gifts are scarce, but they are not so scarce as to be nonexistent. Make sure you do not set the major gift amount bar too high. If you are seeking major gifts, you have to have major gift opportunities. Conversely, if you search that dollar amount and there are too many donors giving that amount, you need to raise it. 

Once you move your estimate from the theoretical to the concrete, you can adjust as needed. For instance, your number based on your data might be on the low side if you have never actively sought major gifts.

When you begin making the asks and securing the donations, if you notice that your fundraisers are converting nearly all of your prospects into donors, that dollar amount should be higher. To make the most of your major gift efforts on an ongoing basis, track metrics just like the conversion rate listed here.

Remember, you can’t compare major gift thresholds across organizations. There are far too many variables to do a side-by-side evaluation. To a small nonprofit, $5,000 is going to mean a whole lot more than it would to a much larger organization.

It is not the amount that matters. What matters is that you are seeking major gifts in the first place.

Identifying a Major Gift Donor

Before you can go through the major gift donor acquisition and retention processes you have to find your prospects. Most say that for every four or five qualified prospects, your fundraisers will be able to secure one major gift. If you want to be able build that qualified prospect list, you will have to know what to look for.

Just as you have to learn what constitutes a major gift at your nonprofit, you also have to know what constitutes a major gift donor.

Most are inclined to rank one identifiable trait far ahead of the rest when searching for major giving candidates — wealth.

Yes, wealth is important, but major giving does not start and end with wealth. Wealth is half of the equation.

Someone donating a major gift to your nonprofit:

  • Has to possess a connection to your mission and your work — This tie can manifest in many ways. The major gift donor might be a long-time supporter, someone who has given multiple smaller gifts over the years. The donor could also be a person who has been directly affected by your organization, like a graduate of a university. The major gift prospect could even be a member of your community who has a vested interest in your cause, like an environmental issue or the arts. It is difficult to predict what will bond a prospect to your nonprofit, but you should be able to identify those bonding factors in your candidates as you search for qualified prospects.
  • Has to have the means to donate a gift at your nonprofit’s major giving level — This second half is the wealth component. A qualifier for major giving, to some extent, is the financial capacity to donate such a large gift. The relevance of your prospects’ financial situations is going to change according to how high the dollar amount is set for major gifts at your nonprofit. For example, if your nonprofit is just starting off and has a small operating budget, major gifts at your organization might be set around $1,500. The pool of prospects for that dollar mark is much deeper than for a $50,000 major gift threshold at another organization. It is all relative. 

Your major gift prospects are going to be incredibly valuable no matter how much you expect them to give. Your cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of them should reflect that. Personalized, attentive, and professional handling of major gift prospects is the surest way to big fundraising gains.

Now that you know what constitutes a major gift and what constitutes a major gift donor, it is time to go out there and get to work!

Major Gift Strategy

major-gift-strategy-1

Have you heard about the 80-20 split? What about the 90-10?

Both splits mentioned are often referenced in conversations about major gifts. They’re popular statistics floating around the nonprofit sector that state that 80% of an organization’s funds come from 20% of their donors (or, 90-10).

The exact statistical percentages fluctuate, but the principle remains constant. You need a major gift fundraising strategy because major gifts are fundraising game-changers. A single major gift can drastically increase the amount of funds your nonprofit receives in a year.

When you start to implement major gift strategies and secure more and more major gifts, your fundraising numbers will climb to previously unimaginable heights.

Here's the question at the center of this article: Why does a nonprofit need a major gifts strategy?

Ready for the short answer? Nonprofits need major gifts strategies because major gifts are game-changers. 

The reasons for a major gifts strategy are plenty. You could write a book on the benefits, but these five points should be sufficient to convince you that your team needs to start strategizing ASAP. 

When developing your major gifts strategy, it’s important to keep in mind the following data points to be on the lookout for. These data types can signal a major gift or planned giving donor.

  • Previous donations to your nonprofit.
  • Past giving to other charities.
  • Donations to political campaigns.
  • Relationship with your nonprofit.
  • Real estate and stock ownership.
  • Business ties.
  • Volunteer involvement.

Now let’s get started!

1. Major gifts are some of the largest donations your organization will receive. 

Excluding once-in-a-blue-moon, gigantic donations, major gifts and planned gifts are the largest donations an organization receives. 

Any gift that has a significant, positive effect on your organization's fundraising is a major gift. The exceptions to this rule are planned gifts, which are decided on in the present and given in the future and constitute their own category of giving.

Your nonprofit might be growing and performing well with a large pool of small to mid-level donors, but if you want to move up and be able to accomplish bigger and better aspects of your mission, you need to incorporate major giving. 

To use an example with easy calculations, imagine that your organization regularly receives gifts right around the $25 range and rarely over that mark. A major gift of $1,000 from one donor is equivalent to 40 gifts of $25.

The extra effort it would take to secure just one gift balances out when you consider just how many small gifts you would need to reach that number. Find the time and resources to combine both efforts and your fundraising total jumps up by $2,000 from 41, not 80, donors. 

2. Major gifts will make up a huge portion of your yearly fundraising total. 

Have you ever heard of the Pareto principle? It's perhaps more commonly referred to as the 80-20 law. Essentially, the principle claims that 20% of an event's causes make up 80% the event's effect. 

What does that mean in practice? Well in sales you could say that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers or in business you might say 80% of your profits come from 20% of your clients. 

The principle is popularly extended to major giving as well. Many organizations see approximately 80% of their fundraising total coming from 20% of their donors. And you know who those donors are...major gift donors. 

There's even a defensible stance that the comparison is much more drastic, which argues that the break down is closer to 90-10 for major gifts. Regardless of just how extreme you think the disparity is, for mature nonprofits, that percentage is usually somewhere between 80 and 90.

Major gifts are just that significant. They can control approximately 80% of your fundraising totals. That's far too big a number to be ignored. 

3. Major gift programs give interested supporters guidance in the allocation of their funds. 

There will always be major gift donors out there. The true question is then, is your organization taking advantage of the opportunities available?

With a clearly defined major gifts program, your nonprofit can capitalize on interest from your supporter pool. 

When you establish your program, you are determining the:

  • Parameters of major gift size. Those interested will want to know how large a donation has to be to count as a major gift. 
  • Programs and options that donors can allocate major gifts to. Someone might be okay with giving a large sum of money to your general fundraising budget, but more often than not, you'll be working with donors to find the right place within your organization's needs to allocate their funds to. 
  • Timelines for giving. Let donors know if they can allocate their gifts over multiple years. Maybe someone wants to give a total of $25,000, but only has the available funds for $5,000 this year. One gift of $5,000 is still beneficial, but multiple gifts totaling $25,000 over a multi-year period is even better. Remember, the guidelines of your major giving program do not have to be rigid. 

Implementing a major gifts strategy pushes your organization to investigate and answer these questions so that interested parties don't go elsewhere with their funds. If a donor supports two nonprofits and their respective causes equally and has major giving level money to spare, that donor is going to give to the nonprofit that makes its major gift aims apparent. 

4. Major gifts differ from organization to organization. 

There's a common excuse that nonprofits use when justifying why they do not actively seek major gifts. Those nonprofits claim that major gifts are for large organizations and are beyond the scope of a smaller, newer nonprofit. 

For those who feel that way, I've got great news! Any organization can seek major gifts because the parameters of major gifts are defined by the respective fundraising capacities of the nonprofits seeking them. Whereas one nonprofit counts anything over $3,000 as a major gift, another might say major gifts have to be over $75,000.

The exact size of the gift is not the most important principle driving major giving. What's more critical is the action of securing gifts far larger than your standard. Elevating average gift size is an excellent formula for growth over time. 

5. Major gift prospects are hiding in plain sight. 

You hear numbers about how few major gift donors you'll have in comparison to your annual fund donors. Those numbers make it easy to write major gift donors off as too rare to worry about actively soliciting. 

Here's the catch. If you actually know the donor qualities you are looking for and how to look for those characteristics, you won't have trouble finding major gift donors. Sure, the process of going from cultivation to solicitation to stewardship is not without its challenges, but troubles with identifying major gifts prospects should not hold you back.

Depending on what constitutes a major gift at your organization, you'll be looking for a combination of:

  • Wealth, aka giving ability
  • Interest, aka giving willingness

When someone has the means to give a major gift to your organization and a strong enough connection to philanthropy (and your particular mission) to follow through with the process, that person goes on the prospect list. 

To start your search, you'll begin with your pre-existing pool of donors. As long as you have kept track of donor data in your CRM, you'll be able to sort out the major giving prospects from your list of donors. 

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That wraps up these five reasons why you need a major gifts strategy. As you can see, the fundraising potential is there for the taking. 

Major Gifts Officer

Duties of a major gifts officer usually include:

Cultivating relationships with high-quality prospects and donors

Working alongside development staff to secure donations

Cultivating relationships with high-quality prospects and donors

Your major gifts officer is going to lead your major gifts program. In nonprofits without full-blown major giving programs, the major gifts officer still coordinates a similar effort, just on a less comprehensive scale.

Major gifts officers are usually experienced fundraisers who have backgrounds in lower-level major and planned giving positions.

Officers have to be persistent, driven by donor need, and goal-oriented. When you find someone who balances that combination of skill-set, qualifications, and personality characteristics, you’ve found your major gifts officer.

If you want to succeed in major gift fundraising, you need a staff member to lead the charge. For most nonprofits, that position is filled by the major gifts officer. 

To help dissect the role of the major gifts officer, this post has been divided into five frequently asked questions about the position. 

Let's begin with the first and most obvious question...

FAQ #1: What is a major gifts officer? 

As was described briefly in the opening of this post, a major gifts officer is a leader of an organization's major giving efforts. 

In practice, that means that a major gift officer identifies and seeks out major gifts as they are defined by the given nonprofit's current fundraising status. For example, a major gifts officer at a small nonprofit that is new to major giving might be in charge of all gifts over $3,000, whereas at some of the more developed institutions, like large universities, major giving might be anything over $125,000. 

Major giving is housed in the development department of an organization, and therefore, major gifts officers most commonly report to the chief development officer or someone of a similar level. When a major giving program is in an advanced stage, the nonprofit might even have a major giving team. In that case, the major gifts officer(s) would report to the director of major giving. 

We'll investigate the specifics of the role and the job requirements as each frequently asked question is addressed, but before moving on, as a note, it is important to mention that if your organization is on the smaller side and hiring a major gifts officer is too costly for your budget, you have options. 

Those options include:

  • Pairing major giving and planned giving, so that you hire one officer to cover both lucrative fields of fundraising. 
  • Adding the major gifts responsibility to another member of development's position. 
  • Building a team from your existing staff to launch your efforts and coordinate major giving until the program has produced enough funds for you to hire a full-time major gifts officer.

No matter the major gifts officer arrangement your nonprofit makes to actively seek those funds without sacrificing too much time and too many resources, your efforts are going to need a leader. 

Depending on the option you choose, the requirements you establish for the position are going to change. A fundraiser who is taking on additional responsibilities and shouldering some of the weight of a major giving program will not need to have the same background and knowledge as a person you're hiring to specifically be the major gifts officer and launch your major giving program. 

The remainder of this post will deal with the position of major gifts officer (and positions with different titles but equivalent responsibilities) exclusively. If your organization is not at a place to include that role, you can scale back some of the responsibilities, qualifications, and experiences as needed. 

FAQ #2: What are the job responsibilities of a major gifts officer?

In a broad sense, major gifts officers are responsible for managing a portfolio of major gifts prospects and donors. 

That role plays out in a multitude of ways, including:

  • Identifying prospects for major giving.
  • Cultivating the list of major giving prospects. 
  • Guiding (and often times running) the solicitation process and securing major gifts.
  • Working alongside the rest of the development team to reach year-end fundraising goals.
  • Setting out realistic goals for the nonprofit's major giving efforts.
  • Reaching/exceeding the goals set for the major giving initiative.
  • Managing relationships with major giving prospects and donors.
  • Reporting major giving progress to the board and various higher level employees.

Essentially, if it pertains to major giving, the major gifts officer should have a hand in it. 

FAQ #3: What knowledge, abilities, and skills should a major gifts officer have?

Let's get right into it with this question. Here's a collection of knowledge, abilities, and skills a major gifts officer should have:

  • Exemplary interpersonal skills -- If a fundraiser is going to be leading your organization's efforts to secure some of your most valuable gifts, that officer has to be able to handle the various conversations, presentations, asks, and other duties, that come along with the role. 
  • Top-level written and oral communication skills -- A major component of the role is pitching major gifts to various prospects. That process will require both verbal and written communication tactics. Those moments are opportunities for your nonprofit to impress during the process, but they have an equal opportunity for a mistake to do just the opposite. 
  • Excellent leadership and team skills -- Sometimes the job will call for the major gifts officer to lead an initiative, while in other instances the officer might have to work with a team under another development leader. The major gifts officer should be able to switch hats easily and readily. 
  • In-depth fundraising knowledge -- This point is as direct as they come. You can't be a major gifts officer if you don't have a complete knowledge of fundraising. Sure, some components of the job have to be learned as they are experienced, but the fundraising foundation has to be there. 

Additional traits to look for include:

  • Comfort with multi-tasking
  • Perseverance 
  • Commitment to your cause
  • Passionate about nonprofit work
  • Self-motivating

With these traits in mind, you should have a solid idea of the characteristics that make up a major gifts officer. 

FAQ #4: What prior experience does a major gifts officer need to succeed?

The position of major gifts office is not entry-level. One doesn't simply start a career in fundraising with the skills to acquire game-changing gifts on a consistent basis. The ideal candidate will have the following experience:

Education

Although universities don't offer degrees in major giving, your major gifts officer should still possess a bachelor's degree. It is even better if the officer also has additional degrees and certifications, like a master's degree in fundraising/fundraising management. 

However, nonprofits should recognize that with the field of fundraising in particular, there's no better indication of a person's ability to secure gifts than his or her fundraising track record. So, in the instance of a major gifts officer position, experience should trump education.

Job History

The experience needed to be a major gifts officer spans many aspects of fundraising. There will be variations from nonprofit to nonprofit, but the list below should touch on most of the necessary prerequisites.

Major gifts officer prerequisites include:

  • 5+ years of fundraising experience.
  • A proven track record of securing large gifts.
  • A background in cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of high-quality donors. 
  • Time in a leadership role.
  • A history of properly managing multiple responsibilities.
  • Experience in making cold calls and initiating relationships with donors. 
  • A deep knowledge of major giving and the kinds of prospects that suit it.

That list, combined with the education factors, should help drastically narrow down the major gifts officer candidate pool.

Being a major gifts officer is a challenging profession, and as such, few people are fully qualified for the role. 

FAQ #5: How do you hire a major gifts officer?

When it comes to managing something as important as your major donors, hiring a top-notch professional is undoubtedly the only option for your organization. 

The first step to hiring a major gifts officer is to create a clear, detailed job description. With a description that clearly states the role, requirements, and responsibilities, as well as your nonprofit's culture, is important if you want to attract the most qualified applicants.

Use this template from Aly Sterling Philanthropy, to see how to structure your own job description.

Once you have your job description, you'll want to post it in multiple locations to spread the word about your open position. 

Use outlets, such as:

  • Nonprofit job boards.
  • Your organization's newsletter. 
  • Your website.
  • On social media (think: LinkedIn)

Along with your job posting, you should also include a downloadable resource with information that isn't covered in your job description. These resources are perfect for candidates to print, reference, and keep on file. 

Develop an executive search committee to conduct interviews and evaluate candidates. Make sure to establish what your nonprofit's ideal major gifts officer so that you can compare applicants with your requirements. 

These five answers to frequently asked questions about major gifts officers should fill in most gaps you might have had in your knowledge of the role.

With these answers, you can start to see the shape a major gifts officer role would take at your organization with your specific major giving initiative, goals, and limitations. Remember, like with any team member, the major gifts officer has to fit with your nonprofit's mission and needs, first and foremost. 

Donor Cultivation Strategy

Major gift donor cultivation strategies  include:

Put a cultivation plan in place

Identify your major gift prospects

Hold meetings and get-togethers

Track all interaction and adjust accordingly

Before you can make an ask and secure a major gift, you have to cultivate a relationship with the donor. The scope of cultivation is defined somewhat differently, depending on whom you ask.

For the purposes of this guide, donor cultivation refers to the process leading up to the ask. Making the ask itself is solicitation. And finally, once a major gift has been donated, you enter the stewardship phase.

After you’ve done the hard work of cultivating a relationship with a major gifts prospect, it’s time to transition to the solicitation phase.

Learn more about these 4 major gift donor cultivation strategies

Soliciting Major Gifts

Major gift solicitation best practices:

Map an outline of how the conversation will go

Show the prospect that you know him or her

Have a specific ask amount and a backup amount in mind

Engage the prospect in a true dialogue

Be ready for the next steps

When it comes down to actually making the ask for a major donation, it can be very intimidating. Asking for money is never easy, but when you’re asking for a large sum, it can be even more difficult.

Even when you’re asking for all the right reasons, the situation can be stressful.

It can be intimidating and nerve-wracking to sit across a table from someone and say a variation of, "Excuse me, would you mind donating $12,000 to our organization?" 

Even with a prospect whom you know well and who is connected to your cause, solicitation has its challenges. The process gets easier with time, partly from experience and partly because you'll develop best practices as you learn. 

Combat your anxieties and worries with our five secrets to the perfect major gift solicitation.

1. Map Out a General Outline of How the Conversation Will Go

Scripts are handy. In the nonprofit world, resources are limited and efforts are all hands on deck. You often rely on people to fill roles that they're unfamiliar with. That's when scripts become so crucial. 

For instance, if you need auction items for a gala, you can write out a phone script that volunteers can use when cold calling local stores and businesses for in-kind donations. 

That script acts as a conversation safety net and provides quality assurance. A script can do the same thing for your major gift solicitation. 

Now, you might be able to get away with a word-for-word script over the phone, but that won't work in person. For major gift solicitations, instead of a script, use an outline. It will have the same purpose as a script but will keep the authenticity of a free-flowing conversation intact.

Even if you never end up looking at the outline during the proposal, simply the act of putting a plan on paper will ease your nerves and help you prepare.

Additionally, if your major gift solicitation involves multiple representatives of your nonprofit, the outline will ensure that the whole team knows what is expected. 

The formality of your presentation will be guided by the kind of relationship you've developed with the prospect, but even if the ask is more casual, you have a higher likelihood of securing a gift when you demonstrate competence and confidence.

You don't want a qualified prospect to hesitate because your team mixed up who does what during the presentation. Mishaps like that reflect poorly and can unfortunately hinder your ability to secure the major gift. 

With an outline, everyone knows their role, and your presentation will run like a well-oiled machine. 

2. Show the Prospect That You Know Him or Her

Major gift donors are a big deal, and they have to be treated as such. You certainly don't want to mix up a major gift donor's name or use the wrong salutation. They say the devil is in the details. Remember that so your nonprofit doesn't slip up when it comes to personalizing an ask of this magnitude. 

Donors appreciate the little things that prove that your fundraisers have been listening and paying attention during their past experiences with your nonprofit.

You can ensure that your team shows major giving prospects just how well they know them by:

  1. Keeping track of valuable information from your prospect research.
  2. Incorporating what you learn during the cultivation process into the ask. 

Let's look at those points one at a time. 

  1. Keeping Track of Valuable Information from your Prospect Research 

Prospect research uncovers your major gifts prospects, and it also provides plenty of additional insights into the prospects' contact details, biographical information, business affiliations, and many more valuable details.

With that kind of knowledge, your major gift team knows, for example, that Ms. Smith is now Mrs. Jordan or that Janet Jacobs is a good friend of one of your board members.

Recording the former detail ensures that your team doesn't send a major gift proposal that incorrectly addresses the prospect, while the latter detail implies that having that specific board member involved in the solicitation process might make Janet Jacobs more likely to donate. 

  1. Incorporating What you Learn During the Cultivation Process into the Ask

A prominent component of the major gift cultivation process is building relationships with prospects. Major gift prospects need to get to know your organization and your mission before they commit to leaving a sizable gift, and your organization needs to get to know your major gift prospects in order to make the right kinds of asks.

During cultivation, your fundraisers spend a good amount of time conversing with and meeting with the major gift prospect. Track all interactions in your CRM to ensure that the ask itself is coming from the most well-informed angle possible. 

3. Come with a Specific Ask Amount in Mind and Backups to Account for New Information You Learn

To secure a gift you have to ask for the gift. That's fundraising 101. In the case of major gift solicitation in particular, the intimidation of making a direct ask leads fundraisers to talk around the action instead of just flat out saying, "Would you be interested in donating X amount to fund Y?"

Physically stating the ask is a bridge easier crossed when you have a specific dollar amount in mind. Using giving calculations and formulas combined with the knowledge you gained during the cultivation process, your team should be able to determine a good, specific starting number. 

There's a fear that asking for too much will turn the donor away, which it can. However, asking too little is just as relevant of an issue. It is more common than not that a fundraiser will leave a meeting, gift secured, and recognize that his ask was too low. Trust your research and instincts when crafting a number and don't let discomfort with asking for a lot of money cloud your judgment. 

On a similar note, you also want to ensure that your ask amount is adaptable depending on the situation at hand and how the donor responds to your initial number. Be prepared to do more than just lower the number. 

You want to:

  • Recommend a program for the prospect to give to, but offer options if that is not the right fit.
  • Prepare alternative giving methods, like a planned gift.
  • Be open to a longer timeline, like $50,000 over two years instead of all at once.

Essentially, your preparations should allow you to pivot if need be. At this point in the process, you know the prospect well enough that you can take the ask in a new direction if your first effort hits a roadblock. 

4. Engage the Prospect in a True Dialogue

Part of being able to adapt during the ask is engaging the prospect in a true dialogue. 

It is easy to slip into default pitch mode. You get to talking about your organization and 15 minutes later, after your spiel, the prospect's eyes have glazed over and you realize you have basically been talking to yourself. 

Your solicitation will have a much bigger impact if you make it a conversation. 

Talk to prospects about their:

  • Charitable interests
  • Ties to your organization
  • Current giving inclinations

Let their responses frame your conversation. 

Successful solicitations should be donor-centric, because, at the end of the day, this process is all about the donors. 

If major giving donor solicitation is a car, the fundraisers might be driving, but the donors are the navigators. You can't leave the parking the lot without their directions. 

5. Be Ready for the Next Steps

In coordinating a major gifts effort, you'll need to be ready for what comes next after the prospect agrees to make a donation. 

Your fundraisers making the ask should know what to do in the immediate aftermath, as well as how to follow-up. A major gift donor might write your organization a check on the spot, but there's also a strong chance that the donor will take alternative route.

Think about how the scenario changes if the donor has decided to split up a $150,000 donation across five years. What does your team do next? 

As your staff works through the solicitation process, the steps after an accepted ask lead to the receipt of the donation itself. Soon after, the donor is added to your stewardship program. 

Much of the discussion surrounding major gifts solicitation is about the moments leading up to the big question and how you handle that ask, but there's also the transition stage from ask to stewardship. How you go about handling that process can affect the way your brand new donor sees your organization and thinks about leaving future gifts. 

Take these five major gifts solicitation strategies into account and confidently move forward with your program. The more asks your team makes, the better they'll get at the process. Pretty soon, your list of strategies will become highly customized and expand far beyond these five. 

Writing Major Gifts Proposals

We’ve already covered our secrets to major gift solicitation success. That section was largely focused on in-person asks. Another viable option, as a supplement to your cultivation practices, is making your formal major gift proposal in a letter.

Written major gift proposals are best used following an informational meeting. They draw from the knowledge gained during prior conversations and then get right to the specific major gift proposal.

The best major gift conversion rate comes from face-to-face asks, but if they are not possible due to financial constraints or other circumstances, your organization needs to make sure it makes the most of its proposal letters.

Even if you do go the in-person route, your presentation will require formal, written documentation as a complement.

No matter which situation you find yourself in, you’ll need the tools to write out your major gift proposals.

Read this article to learn more about writing a major gift proposal

Major Gifts Calculator

major gifts calculator

Major gift calculators, or gift charts, are an excellent planning tool for organizations that are mapping out their gift needs for a campaign.

The calculator takes your goal amount and determines how many gifts you’ll have to collect to secure that much funding. It disperses the amount across giving levels and even estimates the number of prospects you’ll need versus the number of gifts you’ll actually secure.

It is by no means a hard and fast rule, but it is a good predictive model of how many major gifts your fundraisers are going to want to target.

As you can expect, the smaller the gift amount, the more gifts of that size you’ll have to acquire. The charts often account for one top gift, a small collection of major gifts, more mid-level donations, and so on, continuing the pattern.

A quick look at your chart will tell you if your fundraising goal is too lofty or just the opposite. Make modifications to your campaign as needed.

Learn more about creating and using a major gifts calculator

Planned Giving & Major Gifts

Similarities between planned gifts and major gifts:

Some of the largest individual donations an organization can receive

Require careful cultivation and practiced fundraising techniques to secure

Have similar prospects with corresponding wealth markers & philanthropic tendencies

Major gifts and planned giving share so much fundraising DNA that organizations will often combine the role of the major gifts officer and the planned giving officer into one position.

Why?

At this point in the guide, you know what major giving is, but let’s briefly define planned giving. Planned giving is the allocation of gifts in the present to be given in the future, often through wills.

On the surface, they pair well together. They are even solid candidates for a combined program. Remember though, planned giving donors and major gifts donors are separate entities and should be treated as such. As soon as you blur the line between the two gift types, you start to sacrifice quality leads on both sides.

It's quite common to see an organization house planned giving under the same umbrella as major giving.

Why, though?

They are different types of gifts, and they occupy separate tiers on the donor pyramid. And yet, they are often grouped together to the extent that some organizations even hire a joint planned giving and major gifts officer. 

This article will answer the "why" behind the connection between planned and major giving and explore the ways in which these two giving types differ. 

First though, we should walk through the definitions of each type of giving. 

Definition of Major Giving

Major gifts are the crème de la crème of donations an organization receives. Outside of the absolute largest gifts a nonprofit secures, major gifts are consistently the biggest donations an organization will collect. These gifts are relatively rare, but they can account for most of a nonprofit's fundraising totals for any given year.  

The specifics of what defines major giving from organization to organization are always different. For example, you can't universally state that anything over $25,000 constitutes a major gift. If you do, you're underestimating that amount for a number of nonprofits and excluding other smaller organizations that are years away from consistently securing gifts over $25,000.

Even though the definition of a major gift is fluid depending on the nonprofit in question, major gifts are always important, powerful, and deserving of careful cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship.

Definition of Planned Giving

Planned giving encompasses all the ways in which a donor chooses to make a future gift in the present. There are generally two paths planned gifts take from decision to allocation:

  1. A supporter decides to leave a planned gift to a nonprofit in his/her will. After the supporter has passed away, that predetermined amount is gifted to the organization.
  2. A supporter establishes a planned giving arrangement with a nonprofit. Through the arrangement, the supporter gifts a large sum of funds to an organization. The organization then pays the donor a set amount of money from those funds until the donor passes away. When the terms of the payment are complete (usually upon the death of the donor), the nonprofit keeps the remaining funds.

The gifts are often termed legacy gifts because they leave a lasting impact on the recipient organization in honor of the donor. 

Although planned giving is relatively easy to explain at face value, it can get complicated very quickly once the details surrounding wills, trusts, and tax exemptions enter the equation. 

What's the relationship between planned giving and major giving?

When you look at the definitions one after another, the similarities between the two giving types become obscured. Let's shine a light on those similarities! 

Major giving and planned giving are often part of the same sub-department of development at organizations because both:

  • Are some of the largest gifts an organization will receive. Major gifts, as was heavily emphasized in the definition section of this article, are big gifts. Planned gifts are often even larger, although that is not exclusively true. When someone donates a planned gift, it's a legacy donation allocated after the donor no longer needs the money. So, by that standard alone, you can see why they'd tend to be on the grander side of the gift size spectrum. Plus, if someone has the funds to set up the type of planned gift that pays back out to them over multiple years, you're talking about high-net-worth individuals with corresponding high-net-worth funds to donate. 
  • Require additional cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship strategies compared to annual fund donors. Gifts with high dollar signs are often donations that take additional effort to secure. Receiving planned and major gifts is hard work, but certainly worth the effort. When your nonprofit can suddenly fund new programs and start brand new initiatives to further serve your mission, the time and energy it took to acquire these gifts will have been time well spent. 
  • Sets of prospects share similar qualities. Although major gifts donors and planned gifts donors don't share all of the same traits, they do have many in common. This is especially true for those planned giving donors who leave major gift size (or bigger) donations. Typically, these donors will have a mix of traditional wealth markers. But the most important trait to look for in these prospects is past giving to your organization. If someone has a proven history of donating to your nonprofit, there is a much higher likelihood that that person will give another gift and be open to upgrading their gift size.

Because of the combination of those three similarities, organizations will sometimes conserve resources and assign the same team (or team member) to both planned and major giving. This marriage can work well, because it keeps the messaging and practices uniform across all avenues of large gift solicitation. 

However, nonprofits need to be careful, because planned and major giving do have unique, individual aspects that should not be addressed in the same way. 

What are the distinguishing characteristics of planned giving and major giving?

An alternative title to this section could be, "Reasons why you should keep planned and major giving separate." 

The three distinguishing characteristics to keep in mind as you decide how to allocate your time and resources to the two types of giving are:

  1. Planned gift donors don't have to be traditionally wealthy. As grim as it is to type in such a straightforward manner, the fact is, planned gifts are left when the donor has passed away and no longer has any use for them. Because of that, someone who has a limited income and is a strong supporter of your nonprofit and your cause can leave a planned gift after death when he or she isn't restricted by budget constraints. Often, those gifts are far larger than any donation the supporter made prior.
  2. The required technical know-how varies. The legal and fiscal complications that can arise during the planned gift process require a certain level of expertise. Organizations will even bring in outside legal consultants to handle the most perplexing aspects of allocating a planned gift. While major gifts are not without their own similar complexities, they are not on the planned giving level of legal difficulty. 
  3. People don't tend to leave planned gifts for the same reasons that they would donate a major gift. A planned gift is a legacy gift, and that drastically affects the reasoning behind leaving one. There's a separate logic that goes into leaving a planned gift for the future, instead of allocating a major gift in the present day. Both decisions have serious heft, but the mindset that drives those decisions is far from similar. That difference has to be reflected in the way your nonprofit cultivates and solicits those donations. Personalization is key, and personalization is far harder to accomplish if you are trying to make a major gift ask using planned giving compatible language. You back yourself into a "square peg, round hole" corner. 

As you can see, there are solid arguments for saving resources and combining your planned giving and major giving programs, and there are equally convincing reasons to keep the two separate. The solution in your particular case will boil down to your nonprofit's current situation. More likely than not, you'll find a happy medium somewhere between the pendulum swing from planned giving and major gifts. 

Major Gift Metrics

Major gift metrics to start tracking today:

Asks made

Face-to-face visits per month/quarter/year

Amount raised

Percentage of prospects in each stage of the donor pipeline

We went over this in the definition section of this guide, but it can’t be stressed enough that major gifts are the most game-changing gifts a nonprofit can solicit.

One major gift can be the difference between making and missing your annual fundraising goal. To ensure that miss doesn’t happen, track major gift metrics and constantly seek ways to improve.

Use these four major gifts metrics, in addition to your other fundraising metrics like ROI and social media engagement, to understand the nuances of your organization’s performance and improve any troublesome areas going forward.

Learn more about these 4 major gift metrics