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Look Beyond the Major Dollars to Find Your Major Donors

When I’m not collaborating with nonprofits, I’m traveling the world. I have visited 46 countries (and counting). Beyond the interesting food, good people, and amazing cultures, my favorite thing about traveling is the opportunity to change my perspective.

On a recent trip to Guatemala, I spent two full days on the wrong time zone (my watch and phone didn’t sync) and was two hours late for everything, but people were flexible and patient. This experience expanded my philosophy on time beyond our hyper-punctual American culture.

I have worked on behalf of quite a few nonprofits over the years (over 75 nonprofits and counting), and, like my travel experiences, I’m finding that my perspective about major gifts is evolving with every nonprofit I partner with on fundraising strategy. 

During my days as a Major Gifts Officer, I spent time building relationships based on lists that were prioritized by their connection to the organization, interest in the mission, and—of course—capacity to make a “major” gift. I often started at the top of the list and looked for those who had a good mix of those factors (linkage, interest, and ability).

Many organizations have traditionally defined major gift prospects by dollars. Some take a percentage of their total database (i.e. the top one percent of all annual gifts over the past five years), a specific dollar amount (all donors giving $1,000 or more), or the capacity ratings from a wealth screening. 

While these numbers are good indicators of what a donor can give, they don’t capture someone’s passion for the mission. 

These simple definitions can lead organizations to chase after phantom donors who gave a gift once or attended one event, but who show little-to-no current interest in the organization. Dollars are an important element of fundraising, but relationships are more complex than that. I have worked with organizations that have inspired me to rely less on simply dollars to define their major donors. Instead, I’m expanding my definition of major gifts to more substantially reflect engagement.

Here are some of the elements of engagement and relationships that I encourage you to elevate in your organization’s major gifts formula (alongside the numbers):

Volunteering and committee involvement (current and past) for your organization or other organizations

In-kind donations (time and talent)

Consistency in giving (how many consecutive annual gifts of any size has the donor made to the organization?)

Recent event attendance

Current and past board involvement

You can start expanding your major donor prospect list by adding fields to your database for the above categories. Some organizations will assign numerical ratings to these categories to make sorting and prioritizing lists easier. For example, you could take each year they have served as a volunteer and assign one point. These categories will help you to uncover the supporters among you who are deeply passionate about your mission. You may just find that some of your most significant potential donors have been with you all along.

Let’s keep this conversation going. We want to hear your questions and ideas about major giving. We’re here to connect.


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