Eight Things to Know Before Fundraising for Major Gifts

‚ÄčAt every independent school, large or small, urban or rural, old or new, fundraising success depends upon major gifts. Therefore, establishing an ongoing major gifts program is the most important professional responsibility of all development directors at all times. Here are eight points to keep uppermost in mind.  

1.     Who your major gift prospects are
Your major gift prospect has the capacity to give that puts him or her in the top 10 percent of your prospect pool. At some schools, this person may have the potential to contribute $10 million; at other schools a major gift is in the $10,000 range. If you have an ongoing major gifts program, that essential 10 percent is likely to give 90 to 95 percent of your school’s total voluntary support.
2.     How you find your major gift prospects
Prospects for a major gift have three characteristics: They are affluent; they are philanthropic; and they are committed to your school. Identifying them begins with donor research using the vast variety of sources in the public domain. Many can be found on the web if you search for “donor research.”
Volunteers can contribute to this process by helping to identify prospects and evaluate both their giving potential and readiness to give. Often prospects identify themselves, for example, by making a particularly generous contribution to your annual giving program. Sometimes they are known philanthropists in your community. Major donor research should be ongoing rather than only during a capital campaign. It is important to document and retain information and advice gleaned during this process in order to strengthen major gifts philanthropy in the years to come.
3.     How you get them ready to give
Select a small number of top prospects, perhaps five to 10, to focus on in the first year. Once your development office has researched them, cultivation is the next and most important part of the process. Cultivation follows research and precedes the gift request. It is the process of building a close relationship with a prospective donor, turning him or her from an outsider to an insider. An outsider may be informed about your need for major gifts; an insider feels motivated to help. The best cultivation is face-to-face, frequent, and documented in your computer records so that you can plan next steps and preserve information for future reference. Personal, individualized major donor cultivation is a perquisite to solicitation success. Without effective cultivation, the prospects will know less, care less, and give less.
4.     Who should help
No development officer can build a close relationship with major gift prospects without help. The process almost always includes reliable assistance from the school head, trustees, and other volunteers. Most top prospects expect to meet with the head of school. The board’s role is important as well. Hopefully, even board members who are reluctant to ask for money will be willing to take on one or two cultivation assignments each year. Think about who will be the most effective in reaching out to a particular potential donor and ask that person to help. It takes time and thought to court a top major gift prospect.
5.     What the cultivators should do  
Cultivation is candid. The cultivator might say, “We’d like to bring you into the inner circle of our school. May I take you out to lunch to tell you about our plans and to seek your advice and counsel?” The cultivator’s goals are to seek the prospect’s friendship and respect, and persuade the prospect to become personally interested in the school’s welfare. Be clear that the visit will not be a solicitation. That comes after a successful cultivation effort when the major donor prospect is knowledgeable, interested, caring, and ready to commit.
6.     How you solicit major gift prospects
All effective major gift solicitation is done in person. Ideally you want to find the right person to ask the right prospect for the right amount at the right time. It’s best to visit with a team of two. Often one is the head of school or development director and the other is someone whom the potential donor knows and respects.
It’s essential to have a strategy session in advance during which the development staff and the solicitors agree about the amount to request and the project that is likely to have the most appeal. During the strategy session, the two solicitors role-play the conversation they hope to have, and agree upon which one will ask for the gift. The best solicitors have already made gifts. They are deeply committed to the school and comfortable asking for support. They are enthusiastic about bringing together a generous donor and a worthy cause. Every experienced solicitor has encountered a prospective donor who says, “No.” The key is to remain flexible, to offer alternatives, to ask questions. Quite often an initial “no” eventually turns to “yes.”
7.     What you should do after the gift is made
Congratulations! You have received a major gift. Now you are ready to steward the donor. Stewardship is cultivation after the gift. It is the process of maintaining and nurturing the donor’s relationship to your school, of making him or her feel good about the gift. Good stewardship includes:
  • prompt, accurate, and warm thanks;
  • the assurance that the gift is having a significant impact on the school and is being used as the donor requested; and
  • ongoing expressions of appreciation and public acknowledgement (if the donor wishes).
Perhaps the school head or the board chair will call the donor soon after receiving the major gift. Most schools have many fewer major prospects than colleges and universities do. Therefore, your major donors are treasures. They should always know that they are important and needed, because they are!
8.     How you focus on major gifts in a small office
Here’s an anomaly: Major gifts are a particular challenge for a small development office but, at the same time, they are the best way to increase voluntary support. Even if you are a development director who manages annual giving, alumni relations, events, and communications, you should spend 20 percent of your time on major gifts.
Ask your school’s leaders, “Do we want to raise significantly more money?” Perhaps you can find a donor who will underwrite the program for the first two years so that you can hire an office assistant. Identify tasks that can be done by volunteers or done less frequently. Share with your school head the results of major gift philanthropy at other institutions. Explain that major gifts from a few will inspire others to make major gifts so that the program will grow from year to year. Start small but remember: Every school that fulfills its fundraising potential focuses on major gifts.
Helen A. Colson

Helen A. Colson is the president of Helen Colson Development Associates, a consulting firm serving independent schools.