How emerging major gifts programs can flourish during the COVID-19 crisis

 Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 7

There’s no question that it’s a challenging time for nonprofits, especially those just beginning to develop a major gift program. Major gifts from individual donors are generally key revenue drivers for mature fundraising programs, no matter what size gift is considered “major.”

Although the nature of our interactions with prospective donors may be different than they were in the past, now is the time for organizations and managers to lean into their emerging major gift programs. The reasons to create a major gift program haven’t changed; what has changed is the environment in which we’re operating.

The rapidly changing fundraising environment presents some unique issues—especially for those with new or emerging major gift efforts. These programs are still building a track record with donors, and the lack of established, trusting relationships can limit fundraising opportunities. Nascent major gift programs also tend to have fewer resources to draw on than institutions with more established programs, which can make it difficult to ramp up activity amid heightened demand for results. These inherent issues can be further compounded if the gift officers involved are relatively inexperienced or feel uncertain about the relationships they have built.

Even experienced gift officers can struggle to confidently represent their organization during challenging times. Because emerging programs work with prospective donors who are just beginning to consider making a major gift, an unclear message can undermine confidence in the institution’s work. In a confusing time, we all look for certainty. Donors may hesitate to engage if the gift officer struggles with the message, choosing to support familiar organizations instead.

But while the challenges facing new and emerging major gift programs are real, there are also ample opportunities for growth—even in an uncertain environment.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

It starts by understanding that nonprofits with emerging programs don’t need to—and shouldn’t—change everything about the way they go about their work. Major gifts fundraising follows a proven formula: focus first on those prospective donors with the greatest capacity to help and the strongest affinity for the organization. Engage and learn about the prospective donor’s interests, then structure your philanthropic proposition in a way that ensures it will be heard by considering questions such as:

  • What aspect of organizational need will most resonate with this donor?
  • How do I ensure he or she hears the story from our most compelling voice, whether it’s me or someone else who tells the story?
  • How do I orchestrate all the elements of donor strategy to maximize the likelihood of success?
Video as a virtue

The pandemic has obviously changed how we visit with donors, however, replacing an in-person visit with a virtual one isn’t necessarily a negative. A video conference call or phone conversation offers greater flexibility and requires less time than an in-person visit, which may enable major gift officers to be more successful in getting in front of prospects and donors. Moreover, given most people’s desire for human interaction at this time, some donors and prospects may be especially responsive to gift officers checking in to see how they’re doing, as well as to hear about how the institution is dealing with the crisis.

While it is often a challenge for major gift officers to bring a sense of urgency into their discussions with prospective donors, the public health and economic crises, along with the current civic unrest, have helped many hone the message and add a time frame to appeals. While some donors may be more likely to focus on public health-related causes than in the past, most will continue to think about the organizations they care deeply about, even in the face of competing needs.

As everyone adjusts, some institutions are finding creative ways to leverage contemporary, remote tools to build relationships. For example, 77% of respondents to a recent survey by GG+A’s SurveyLab are currently organizing, or planning to organize, video conferences between their organization’s leadership and major donors, a six percentage point increase from the previous week. That’s enabling those leaders to build deeper bonds with prospective donors who they may not have seen before due to the difficulty of scheduling face-to-face meetings.

Turning challenge into opportunity

It is important that everyone involved—managers, major gift officers and prospective donors—recognize that we’re dealing with an unprecedented situation. Managers should acknowledge both the opportunities and challenges by getting close, and staying close, to the work gift officers are undertaking to ensure performance expectations are appropriate. Most importantly, they need to ensure that their teams continue to raise funds. While there are certainly some prospective donors who are living with diminished means, that doesn’t mean that some aren’t willing and able to make a gift.

Whether facing a crisis or in “normal” times, gift officers should never make assumptions about a prospective donor’s intentions or philanthropic capacity. Over time and with regular engagement, gift officers can have direct conversations about the prospective donor’s intention and ability to make a gift. Even if a major gift is not possible at this time, gift officers should continue to build the relationship.

Whether your major gifts program is new and emerging or mature, staying closely engaged with prospective donors will lead to gifts. Pulling back, especially in an emerging major gifts effort, will only lead to fewer gifts to your organization. Whether or not a major gift is realized, in doing the work, gift officers will build bonds that will sustain organizations far beyond the challenges of this current moment.


If you need assistance with your major gifts program, please contact Eric Snoek at esnoek@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Eric Snoek

Senior Vice President

Eric Snoek, Senior Vice President, brings to the firm more than 30 years of development and advancement experience within higher education and independent educational institutions. He has extensive experience in individual giving, advancement planning and management, capital campaigns and campaign planning, training development staff and board members, engagement programs, stewardship…