Turning Everyday Donors into Major Donors

Guest Post by K. Michael Johnson

You need big donors… who doesn’t? Sure, you have some… but to truly fulfill your mission, you know you need more. So, where are they going to come from?

I have good news for you. Many of your next major donors are already giving to you. Studies show that frequency of giving is a better major gift indicator than the size of past gifts.

In my world of higher education fundraising, a donor will give for 13 years, on average, before making his first gift of $10,000 or more.

So, start with the people who already care about you. We tend to assume our regular donors are already giving at the peak of their capacity: “Oh, he’s just a $100 donor.” There’s no “just” about it if he’s making that gift every year! He clearly cares. And it’s worth your time to figure out if he has the interest and capacity to do more. So, how do you find out? A one-on-one meeting is often the pivot point that moves a regular donor onto the path of becoming a major donor.

Getting Started

I’m going to assume you keep a database and have some way of figuring out who your regular donors are. Perhaps you even use a wealth screening service to help you estimate gift capacity. If not, grab a list of “wealthiest zip codes” online and use that to narrow down the list. Looking at job titles is also helpful.

So how many prospects did you come up with? I’ve found that almost anyone can set aside an hour a day to methodically work through a list of 50 major gift prospects. If you have 1000, hire a gift officer! That’s a lot of untapped potential.

Then What?

Reach out for a meeting with your top prospects! Use this email script to set it up:

Greetings from [name of your organization]!

I’m writing because I’d like to treat you to lunch in the weeks ahead. We’re grateful for your longtime support and I’d like to say “thank you” in person. I’d also welcome your input on some of our plans for the future.

Perhaps we could meet at [restaurant] on [street near prospect’s home or office]. I’ll call you on Tuesday to see if we can arrange a time.

I trust your fall has been a good one so far. I look forward to connecting soon!

Warm regards,

[Your name, title, etc.]

Some will reply to this email. Others will need that follow-up call you promised.

The Meeting

Your goal in each of these meetings is to determine if the donor is truly a major gift prospect. To start, be sure to thank them for their longtime giving. The psychological principle of positive reinforcement is at work when you do this. Celebrating a positive action, no matter how small, creates a desire for more reinforcement:

You’ve been giving to our work for years now, which of course means a great deal to us. It’s a pleasure to be able to say “thank you” in person. Because of supporters like you, we’ve been able to help families like the Joneses. Let me tell you their story…

Don’t end the meeting without talking about the future – a future you want to invite your donor to be a part of in an increased way:

Well, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you better. Would it be okay for me to call on you again in the months ahead? There are some major projects on our horizon. And we’ll be talking with our closest friends about playing a leadership role in these efforts – both as ambassadors for [org name] and with their giving. If it’s okay with you, I’d love to stay in touch.

I call that a “soft ask.” It’s essentially asking to ask later. The response you get will be telling. You’ll leave knowing more about your donor’s capacity and interest in going further with you.

Cultivation for the Long Haul

So, for those that responded favorably, it’s time to put a cultivation plan in place! You want to increase the likelihood your prospect will respond with a “Yes!” when you eventually make the ask. These regular donors are probably already on your list for event invitations. Make sure they receive a personal follow-up call whenever an invitation goes out. You might also consider hosting small group cultivation events. They could be as simple as dinners with your President or Executive Director. You reserve a private room at a restaurant and invite 3-4 couples to join your senior-most leader for dinner and conversation.

Volunteer opportunities are also great engagement tools. Make sure your new major gift prospects are in heavy consideration for various positions.

Ready to Ask

How will you know when it’s time to ask? Here are some standard “green light indicators:”

  • You’ve met the prospect face-to-face at least once
  • She’s responded positively to a qualifying question
  • She now knows at least two people (including you) at your organization
  • She’s attended an event and/or participated in a volunteer opportunity

Keep in mind every donor is different; every gift is different. Yet, checking items off list above will help you feel confident that it’s okay to move forward and ask for a big gift. And if all goes well, you’ve successfully converted a regular donor into a major donor!

About the Author: K. Michael Johnson is an enthusiast for the language of persuasion, and loves helping fundraisers figure out what to say and when to say it. By day, he’s a major gift officer for a large research university. In his spare time, he blogs at www.fearless-fundraising.com.