Although major gift contributors are essential to successful fundraising they are often pursued like prospects with considerably less gift potential. I call that fishing for minnows when there are whales nearby. The major gift process is not a precise science. Because it involves people working with people, seeking major gifts is a bit sloppy. However, the following are what I consider to be the basics of major gift fundraising. Ignore them and you are likely to fail.
* The size of the gift being sought will vary according to your overall goal. A major gift might be as much as $100,000, even more, when its part of a billion-dollar effort like the campaigns run by major universities. On the other hand, a $1000 gift can be a "major", if the goal is $50,000. A gift is major when it has a singular impact on the overall result.
* Major gifts will account for at least 80 percent of the funds raised and will come from 20 percent or less of the donors. In recent years this ratio probably has increased to 90 percent of the money from ten percent of the contributors.
* Major gifts require a highly personal cultivation and solicitation process. At least one, and sometimes several, staff or volunteers work on the prospect. If the prospect is not cultivated by a dedicated gardener, the gift will not grow. (An exception: Cornell University received a $12.5-million gift several decades ago from the estate of a man whose son had attended for one year. No one could really figure out why he made the gift.)
* The prospect contacts are direct and personal. A phone call. A note or letter. A meeting over lunch or dinner. Golfing together (my favorite). A guided tour of the facility, or program, being supported. Care should be taken to ensure the major gift prospect receives the planned treatment and is not pursued by mass contact techniques such as direct mail or a phonation. If a prospect is asked to make a $100 gift by mail, or a $50,000 gift by a friend, guess which amount will be selected. (An exception: During its first capital campaign The Ohio State University had so many major prospects it was forced to solicit some with a personal letter from the President and a video describing the campaign. Several hundred gifts at $10,000 and above resulted.)
* Major gifts result from carefully laid plans based on in depth knowledge of the prospect produced through careful research and interviews with his/her friends and associates. The research should disclose the prospects gift ability (how much), and relationship to the cause being supported. (affinity). Bill Gates has a lot of money but does he care about your program?
* The prospect strategy will identify the best person, or persons, to cultivate the prospect and ask for the gift. It might be a business associate, or a golfing partner. The "asker" should be someone who is knowledgeable and articulate about the cause as well as trusted by the prospect. The person making the "ask "does not have to be a donor at the same level, but that helps.
* A major gift deserves major recognition so be prepared to discuss recognitions with your prospect. Those donors who say they want to be anonymous really want to be persuaded to have their gift publicly announced. Just tell them their gift will inspire others and they will agree.
* An effective CASE (rationale) for support is needed to convince all donors, but especially the majors who will be very careful and analytical. The CASE must: have a broad, very positive, impact. The more individuals helped, the greater the appeal. It should have emotional impact. It's easier to raise money for sick youngsters than the football team. If possible, test your case with a feasibility study. Don't assume you are right about what projects will motivate prospects.
* A volunteer committee (anonymous) should have the task of identifying and rating major prospects Committee members should be people who know where the money is: bankers, trust officers, lawyers, and financial planners. They build a major prospect list from top-level current donors and top capacity prospects likely to support the cause. Concentrate on identifying individuals but also consider corporations and foundations with community ties and interests in the general cause.
* The search should identify, rate and strategize about the prospects and determine the best "asker" for each. It should also look for links, those friends of the organization who are associated with a prospect. Links are the ones who can open the door to his/her office. If you can't get in the door, you can't ask, and there is no gift.
* Thank all donors and give special attention to the recognitions afforded major donors. The level of their gift should be noted publicly. Naming opportunities should be available for them. The very top donors should be honored at a public event. They should promptly receive letters of thanks from the head of the organization, the asker, and when possible the individual who benefits from the gift. Remember: a thank you and recognition are the first steps in obtaining another, possibly larger, gift from the individual honored.
In closing I must underscore the obvious: the "ask" is the most important step in the major gift process. Volunteers and even professional fundraisers often dread making the ask. Afraid of failure they invent a long list of reasons why "this is not the right time to ask for the gift." They need to recognize that not asking for the gift is the real failure. If they don't ask, the gift will not be made, the entire fundraising effort might fail.
So tell them to go catch the whale.