7 Ways to Build a Stronger Major Donor Program
Major donors are extremely important for your nonprofit. Every organization wishes they had more major donors, but very few nonprofits have a plan in place to grow a stronger and more robust major donor program.
If you want to build a supercharged major donor program, you can’t just throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. Yet when it comes to finding and engaging larger donors, so many nonprofits try a never-ending stream of new ideas, without committing to an overall major donor strategy.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at 7 tried and true strategies for building a stronger major donor program for your nonprofit. These are the strategies that should form the foundation of your organization’s major donor efforts. Here they are, in no particular order:
#1 Make Your Major Donor Program Organizationally Important
If you want your major donor program to be successful, you need to make sure it is organizationally important. This means that everyone at your nonprofit understands the importance of major donors and is committed to giving the major donor fundraising program the resources and energy it needs to succeed.
There’s a tendency at many nonprofits to emphasize programs over fundraising, which is a mistake. (Remember, without fundraising, you won’t have any programs to focus on!) Likewise, when it comes to fundraising, there is a tendency to focus on “easy” fundraising methods (like events and e-mail appeals) over strategies that require one-on-one conversations (like major donor fundraising). Don’t make this mistake. Your major donor program is the most important component of your fundraising strategy—and fundraising is the most important thing you do at your organization!
#2 Build a Robust Program, Not a Collection of Tactics.
Strong major donor programs are comprehensive and built around a well-developed strategy. Far too many organizations pull together a collection of tactics and call it a “program” when in fact there was no thought put into how these tactics work together. At these organizations, there are a number of events, letters, calls, and meetings that happen, but there is no moves management system in place and no plan for moving donors through the fundraising funnel.
If you want to build a health major donor program, you need to develop a written plan for your efforts that includes tactics for identifying, approaching, cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding larger givers. You need to use your donor database to track each major donor’s progress through this funnel, and you must ensure that all of your major donor communications and outreach work together to move prospects toward their next major ask.
#3 Invest in Your Major Donor Program
Nonprofits are notorious for nickel and diming their programs and trying to do more with less. While this drive to conserve resources is admirable, it often results in organizations being unable to meet their goals or achieve steady growth. This is particularly true in major donor fundraising.
If you want to find and engage larger donors, you need to invest in your major donor program. Major donor fundraising is people-intensive—cultivating major donors requires one-on-one attention, including phone calls, meetings, and personal notes. No matter how amazing your major gifts officer is, he or she can’t cultivate more than 150-175 donors and do it well.
For this reason, it is imperative that be willing to hire capable major gifts staff and give them the time and resources to build strong relationships with your larger donors. This can be expensive, but if you hire the right people, the expense will be more than offset by the returns from your major gifts program.
#4 Make Sure You Have Major Donor Collateral
If you want your major donors to make large investments in your organization, they need to feel like your nonprofit has a plan and is competent and professional enough to carry out that plan. Approaching these donors with poorly written and hastily designed collateral materials will ensure that larger givers think twice before making these investments.
When it comes to collateral materials, the backbone of your major donor program is a donor prospectus. This is a well-designed and well-written document that explains what your organization does, what your goals are for the future, why your organization’s work matters, and how people can make gifts to support your work. This prospectus often takes the form of a full-color multi-page brochure, but smaller organizations can use Xeroxed pages compiled in-house, slipped into a nice folder with the organization’s logo.
You can also have other collateral materials such as one-pagers or brochures, but most major donor programs can make do with a well-designed donor prospectus.
#5 Focus on Donor Touches
Your major donor program will succeed or fail based on the quantity and quality of your donor touches. Donor touches are all of your personalized interactions with your donors, including phone calls, Zoom meetings, face-to-face meetings, handwritten notes, and customized e-mails. Major donors expect (and deserve) personalized communications because of the size of the investments they make in your nonprofit’s work.
For that reason, you should be tracking both the number of your team’s donor touches as well as the results of those interactions. The latter will serve as a proxy for the quality of your team’s donor touches. The world’s strongest major donor programs are laser-focused on building strong relationships with their donors, which requires frequent interaction with your major givers.
#6 Seek Donor Referrals
It’s a truism in fundraising that major donors tend to know other people with major donor capacity. They live in the same neighborhoods, work at the same companies, and belong to the same clubs. Furthermore, people tend to associate with others who share their values and concerns. Thus, one of the best sources for new major donors to your nonprofit are referrals from your current major donors.
If you want to build a successful major donor program, you need to be asking your larger donors for introductions to others in their network who might be interested in your work. Ideally, your donors will be willing actually introduce you to their friends, rather than simply passing on their names, which has very little value to your organization. These introductions can take the form of a breakfast or lunch meeting, a shared phone call, or even an introductory e-mail.
The only way to get your major donors to make referrals is to ask them to do so. The next time you are meeting with a major donor or talking to one on the phone, ask them, “Who else do you know that might also be interested in our work?” If they give you a name, follow-up by asking, “Would you be willing to make an introduction?” Not all of your donors will be comfortable making these introductions, but a portion will, and they will help you fill your major donor pipeline.
#7 Build a Major Donor Club
One of the best ways to systemize your major donor program is to build a major donor club for your nonprofit. A major donor club is a group of donors who give at a certain level and who receive a number of benefits in return for their support. These clubs usually have a “brandable” name (such as the 1776 Club or Friends of the Lawncrest Library). Donor clubs may include only one level (e.g., donors who give $1,000 or more per year) or may have multiple tiers (e.g., Supporters: $1,000 – $5,000 per year; Benefactors: $5,000 – $10,000 per year; Superstars: $10,000+ per year).
Major donor clubs are a potent tool in your development arsenal because they give your fundraisers something to “sell” (membership in the club) as they are making solicitations. Likewise, the different tiers of your club give donors a reason to upgrade their gifts over time, and make it easier for your gift officers to ask donors to give more this year than they did last year. Every nonprofit that is focused on major givers should launch and market a major donor club.