Four Secrets to Major Gift Fundraising

By David A. Mersky

Recently, I reached out to a former client, now friend, as she was about to experience an important moment in her life — her eldest child was graduating from middle school that evening. I’ve known her and her family for years and I called to wish them well.

She is the Chief Development Officer of an independent school. After catching up a bit, I asked how things were shaping up for her coming fiscal year.

She explained that she is facing an unrealistic goal. Her Board, challenged with increased expenses and not wishing to raise earned income (tuition), decided they would simply raise the target number for development to make up the difference.

In essence, the fundraising goal for the coming year is based on balancing the budget, rather than as a result of a donor-centered analysis and a realistic appraisal of what is possible.

Your Input Determines Your Output

Faced with this challenge, my friend and her team decided to do the best they could. In the coming year, she convinced the leadership of the school to expand staff to enhance their fundraising capabilities and meet the new goal. This was very smart. By changing the game and adding resources to increase revenue, she has moved to solve a short-term challenge with a long-term solution.

It’s worth noting that this won’t occur immediately. Indeed, we counsel our clients when hiring that they should expect new staff to generate zero revenue in year one, achieve breakeven in year two, and experience 5, 10, or even 15x revenue thereafter. Hiring front-line fundraisers is a worthwhile, but long-term investment.

Further, and beyond revenue generation, the investment in staff creates an increased capability to connect with donors on a more personal level. In its current state, my friend’s team lacks the bandwidth to maintain connections and deepen relationships with its donor base. Absent that connection, past, present, and potential donors may find other places to go that are better equipped to show the love they seek.

My friend’s insightful response to her current situation demonstrates an understanding of what it takes to be successful in major gifts fundraising. Specifically…

#1. Fundraising is not Transactional

Philanthropy succeeds as a result of long-standing and deep personal relationships.

For example, if I want to see a play, I go online and buy tickets. It’s a transaction, one in which most theatres do not see anything other than an exchange of money for a seat in their inventory.

Great theatre programs, on the other hand, are always thinking about how to build and sustain a relationship. They invite patrons to join the newsletter list and subscribe as a season ticket holder. That connection may lead to additional and greater dollar purchases, involvement as a volunteer, or a gift at the end of the calendar year.

It’s the difference between a Broadway theater (a business) and the Seacoast Repertory Theatre (a wonderful, worthy cause).

#2. Donors Need to be Invited to Act

There is a widely held belief that above all, donors need to be educated — about the cause, the mission, and the history of the organization. This is not the case and it is the wrong goal.

Rather, donors must be asked to give in a way that is impactful in their own lives — to become a “heroic” donor whose gift makes a difference to the organization and the people whom it serves.

With a larger staff of people, an organization can share with each significant contributor a deeply personal story about the impact that donor’s gift will have. By meeting with donors individually, one can uncover what motivates them to support the organization and let them know that without their generosity, the work could not continue.

#3. Fundraising is a Two-Way Street

Done well, fundraising is a conversation, a give and take. Great fundraisers are not waiting for their turn to speak — they are actively listening, so they may respond to what the donor is saying in a considered and authentic way.

If we want major donors to give, we must give them something in return. Not tangible gifts (e.g., swag in the form of a coffee mug or paperweight), but instead, the knowledge that they are making a difference… changing the world… perhaps even saving a life.

In doing so we provide a psychic benefit and an enhancement of the donor’s sense of self-worth.

#4. Each Donor Requires a Customized Goal

By increasing the bandwidth of her staff, my friend is going to have additional eyes, ears, hands, and legs available to engage in “campaigns of one” with individual donors. That’s critical; successful major gift work is much more than simply asking, asking, asking. It requires:

  • Plan. A detailed, strategic plan for each donor that outlines the financial goal and tactics.
  • Engage. Fundraising is a contact sport; it necessitates getting out there.
  • Ask. Nothing happens if you don’t ask — this is the CTA—the call to action step.
  • Thank. Not once or twice — a minimum of seven touches during the year in which one demonstrates appreciation, acknowledgement, and recognition. Without those, you don’t have standing to come back again.
  • Report. Regularly, transparently, and authentically sharing the impact the donor’s gift has had and will have.
  • Repeat. Major gift giving is a cycle that repeats annually.

Change the Game

Donations and the amounts given don’t increase if you always do what you have always done. It necessitates a change in approach and tactics.

I am confident that when I call my friend next year to check in, she will be able to tell me how successful she has been. Not just by the dollars raised, but also by the actions taken, the relationships deepened, and the donors who now see themselves as true heroes to the organization they so eagerly support.