Cultivating Major Donors

May 7, 2002 – by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

“We need $1,000,000, and I just discovered a newspaper article about this really wealthy person I’ve never met before. I called her up and she agreed to meet with me. I was so incredibly convincing that she pledged $1,000,000, right then, to our campaign.”

Wow! Dreams really can come true!

Impossible? No, nothing is impossible. Highly unlikely, however!

Why? Major givers are those individuals who have a deep passion for your mission and a relationship with your organization that is one of the most important in their lives.

Major donors give in order to bring compelling dreams to life. They make gifts to those organizations that they believe have the capacity to deliver efficiently and effectively on those dreams.

They are convinced not only by a powerful idea, but also because of their personal experience with the organization and the people who represent it.

This level of trust and engagement doesn’t happen overnight. Donors are not suddenly convinced of your worthiness and trustworthiness just because you showed up today to ask for a gift. Their confidence in you and your cause are the result of many months, more often years of interaction.

Because donors make major gifts when they are ready, your challenge is to prepare donors so that they will be ready to make a major gift at the same time that your nonprofit is in need of that gift.

Like flowers growing in your garden, you need to nurture and cultivate your donors long before they will blossom into major givers.

To do that, you need to design a cultivation program individually crafted for each of your major gift prospects. This program, which you will implement over many months and years, is designed to help donors climb the ladder of understanding of your mission while allowing them to demonstrate a deepening commitment to your work.

As you develop ways to increase donor understanding, remember that you need to design from the perspective of your donors’ needs and interests, not just yours.

Start by learning more about your donors. Get feedback on how well your institution serves their needs. Create opportunities for your donors to have meaningful input into the working of your organization.

Prepare your donors for that input by helping them feel like an insider. Quarterly “Leadership Letters” from your Executive Director or Board President are a start. These personalized letters share important tidbits of information that may not get an airing in your regular newsletter. Consider including brief news from the special commissions that your organization sits on, commendations received, special grants awarded, papers published, or even highlights of key Board members or other major givers. Develop a sense of pride in your prospects that they are associated with such an important and highly recognized institution.

Don’t just do things to your major gift prospects, ask them to do things for your organization as well. If you think of each of your prospects as a vital asset of your organization, you’ll find ways to engage their expertise or connections. Major givers are often individuals who have had a leadership experience in your organization. That doesn’t mean that you have to put every gift prospect on the Board or a committee. It might mean that they host a small event, help introduce you to an important contact, or provide you with feedback on an important issue.

Create lasting memories for your donors. For example, there’s nothing like seeing things firsthand through the eyes of an expert. That might mean an exclusive, curator-led, behind-the-scenes tour of your museum; a riverboat trip into a threatened area with a trained naturalist; or a guided walking tour of the neighborhood that your organization is helping to revitalize. If your donors value recognition within their peer group, combining that outing with lunch hosted by one of your top benefactors cultivates both the host and their guests.

Create a mix of group activities and one-on-one experiences. While you can devote undivided attention to individual concerns in private meetings, there is enormous benefit from having prospects hear the personal testimony of other major supporters (not to mention that having some benchmarks for giving and some friendly competition can also help spur some donors to action).

Pace your cultivation efforts. Don’t try to do everything at once. Your donors have lives beyond your organization. Use a donor stewardship calendar to ensure that there is a regular interaction of varying degrees of intensity between you and your prospect.

And remember to respect the wishes of your donors who shun the limelight. When these “altruists” tell you they don’t want recognition or any money spent on them, believe them. Find no-cost and low-key ways to cultivate and thank them for their support. Preserve their anonymity. If you don’t do what they want, you shouldn’t expect them to do what you want.

So, if you’re thinking about launching a major gifts program, plan ahead — start cultivating your prospects, today.

This article first appeared in Major Gifts Review at

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.