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Major Gifts Basics: What They Are and How to Build Your Own Program

Tim Sarrantonio

The following blog is an adapted excerpt from our online guide and e-book, Major Gifts: The Fundraiser’s Ultimate Guide.

What’s a major gift?

A major gift is an individual donation that is significant in amount to your organization’s operational budget. It can be immediate (like a check) or it can be a planned gift (from a will or donor advised fund).

The key is to frame your major gift program as a set of resources dedicated specifically to a small amount of individuals. These resources must absolutely draw on your mission’s strengths, which means you should start your exploration of major gifts by looking at what makes your mission unique.

Sometimes an organization is better served concentrating on an annual fund with smaller individual gifts and special events. Major gifts management is a serious undertaking, so identifying the reasons why you want to embark on this journey are vital before committing any resources to it.

If you decide against instituting a formal major gifts program, it’s still a good idea to create a strategy for working with donors interested in investing large amounts into your mission. A gift acceptance and stewardship policy should be the cornerstone of any development program, regardless of your organization’s size.

How to create a major gift program.

There are a few steps to take before launching a major gifts program. The first is establishing whether or not you should even start a major gifts program. There are some fundraising basics that should be covered before moving into major gifts.

Start with an internal capacity assessment of your organization’s ability to properly manage a major gifts program. Ask yourself internal questions such as:

  • Do you have a mission statement?
  • Are you financially stable?
  • Do you regularly garner support from individuals?

Once you establish that you’re ready, you can do a few things to get ready.

Get Leadership on Board

Without the support of your executive team and your board of directors, a major gifts program will fail almost immediately. You need the champions and faces of your organization to be able to act on the structure and options you’ll be putting in place for major donors to contribute to your organization. Getting them involved in the direction of the program should be your first step.

Your organization should also ensure there is a dedicated contact for your major gifts program. It may be your development director or it may be your executive director, but ensure there is someone on staff who will be responsive to the questions that inevitably come up during the solicitation process.

Define Your Major Gifts

There are many different definitions of major gifts. They can be immediate donations or pledges to your organization or could be long-term beneficiary designations. The basics should cover a way to recognize donors at any time of their gift and policies and procedures for different types of gifts. Beyond cash gifts and traditional pledges, you should also make policies and procedures guide around:

  • Wills
  • Retirement Plans
  • Life Insurance Policies
  • Payable on Death Accounts
  • Transfer on Death Assets
  • Donor Advised Funds

According to major donor and planned giving expert Brian Sagrestano, JD, CFRE, the above items will account for 80% of your major gifts program.

Brand Your Program

Just like each of your campaigns or programs that have dedicated areas on the website or specific brochures, you will want to develop branding specific to your major gifts program. Choose a theme that is consistent with your overall mission and create messaging that is relationship focused, not transaction focused. Consider building a specific section of your website or even a dedicated microsite for the more complicated aspects of planned giving, as well as brochures with reply cards.

Overall Strategy and Major Gifts

Any donation to your annual fund is an affirmation of the work that you’re doing, but there’s a special joy that fundraisers get from those big checks that come in. All donors should be treated with a baseline level of respect and stewardship but there are strategies to obtain and maintain major donors.

Get as Much Data as Possible

The single most important thing that your organization can do in regards to major donors is to collect as much data as possible to properly gauge your ask. At the very least, you should know:

  • Your donor’s name (and nickname, if they have one)
  • Addresses (and which they prefer for mailings)
  • Preferred method of contact

Of course, more information never hurts. The more you have to give your development staff and solicitors, the higher the likelihood that your message will stand out above the rest once those asks are being made.

Track Your Organization’s Interactions

One of the most embarrassing things that can happen with major donors is having several staff members doing the same prospecting. This can lead to multiple asks that might confuse or turn off the potential donor. Tracking your interactions in all forms is key, so ensure that each email, phone call, mailing, and meeting is logged in your CRM.

Create a tracking field specific to your organization for your prospects in order to update all staff on the current state of a potential donor. Some donors have preferred times of the year they give (e.g. bonus time at work) so make that note both in their record and in the prospect. Proper planning and making sure personal attention is paid to the future donor is the key to success.

Give Early, Give Often

When making your primary asks at the beginning of your annual fund, stress that your organization offers recurring gifts. There is a growing amount of research that shows that donors are turning toward recurring gifts on a timeline comfortable to them. Make sure that your donors know that this is an option. Consider creating an appeal to encourage recurring giving or adding a checkbox on your solicitation materials that will be mailed at all points of your annual fund.

Establish a Giving Society

At a certain level of giving, donors expect recognition that goes beyond being listed in the annual report. One great way to do this is establishing a giving society that can be based on giving over a certain amount in one year or have multiple levels with branded names for each. When developing your giving levels for online forms, keep the idea of a giving society at the forefront of this discussion. It isn’t simply a number that people will donate at but a special level of recognition. Make sure to include an area on your website, perhaps on your campaign page, that explains the giving society.

Photo: #WOCinTech Chat


Check out the full in-depth guide on building your major gifts strategy.
Including major gifts best practices.

Download the Fundraiser's Guide to Major Gifts

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