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Going to your go-to’s: Expanding your pipeline to avoid over-reliance on key donors

As fundraisers, we hear with some frequency from trustees and others, “(Insert organization name) needs to find new donors. You’re too reliant on (insert top donor names).” You know – and I know – that they’re right.

With more and more organizations relying on dwindling numbers of donors to achieve continuously increasing goals, building a set of strategies to expand your pipeline is not just good business, it’s good risk mitigation for your program. It’s essential for institutional leaders to consider what would happen if your most generous donor(s) stopped supporting your program.

Rather than lacking prospective donors, most organizations lack a plan to forestall the negative impact if one or two top donors were to discontinue their support. The answer is to broaden the major gifts pipeline through strategies that help accelerate fundraising results while minimizing the possible impact of losing key donors.

Know how to prioritize your prospective donor data and clarify where potential exists.

If you haven’t recently reviewed the philanthropic capacity and likelihood of your prospective donor base and the composition of portfolios, now is the time. Time and time again, our work with clients identifies large groups of constituents whom gift officers should be engaging but are not, and large groups of constituents who are assigned to portfolios but lack the capacity or inclination to support the organization.

Many gift officers hold onto donors who are most likely to meet with them, thereby helping them achieve performance metrics when meetings are the primary focus of the program. They also hesitate to part with donors that they know and love. Ensure that portfolio reviews are conducted annually – at a minimum – and prioritize individuals who demonstrate the ability to make the appropriate level of investment in your organization, even if they aren’t doing so right now. While gift officers can have annual lunches with their favorite donors with lower capacity, it’s important that they focus their work and engagement with prospective donors with the greatest capacity to support your organization.

Create rigor in your frontline fundraising program.

Many of us have made the transition from other roles in the development office into major gifts but haven’t received any training on how to be an effective major gifts officer. We’re told to email or call constituents and schedule meetings, “cultivate prospects,” and then ask for gifts. The opportunities for interpretation of what this means are endless. In a recent training session with major gifts officers, when asked what it means to cultivate someone, I received as many unique answers as training participants. Give your team or yourself the opportunity to learn how to build habits and techniques that not only maximize philanthropic commitment to your organization but also improve efficiency of meetings to accelerate the whole major gifts cycle, beginning to end.

For example, be clear about your role and purpose as a fundraiser with prospective donors from the outset, so they anticipate discussing philanthropy with you in your meetings. Articulate next steps and a timeline that you and your prospective donor agree upon at the conclusion of any meeting to chart your path forward as a team. Create and use a donor readiness checklist to build discipline and focus as you work towards a solicitation.

As you make or support these changes in habits and techniques and expand metrics to define a broader, well-rounded performance, remember that adults require more significant hands-on opportunities to apply new knowledge. Our brains are no longer sponges.

Acknowledge and reward good discovery work.

What gets rewarded gets done. The reason why your organization relies so heavily on a small group of donors is likely due to the focus of staff on meaningful fundraising from that small group of donors. They’re easy visits to book, easy gifts to renew. What’s not easy is establishing new connections with prospective donors who have never given before or given modestly. Bridging connections to these less-familiar constituents takes time, diligence, tenacity, and a genuine tolerance for being ignored and rejected.

Gift officer managers should use performance metrics that acknowledge not only meetings, solicitations, and closed gifts, but also portfolio penetration. A strong focus on meetings with prospective donors can encourage your gift officers to meet with the same people rather than patiently and diligently working on those who have greater capacity but are harder to reach. Yet when organizations review the production of their staff, most are focused on visits and proposals. Setting goals for discovery work and giving credit for both qualifying and disqualifying prospective donors can bring heightened focus to portfolio penetration. You can also consider other metrics to encourage discovery work for your program such as the number of new major donors in a campaign and the number of new planned giving donors during your fiscal year.

Celebrate and recognize gifts across your community.

We love to celebrate big, transformational gifts. They’re exciting. Mesmerizing. The ultimate achievement for gift officers. And when they become the exclusive focus of your development communications efforts, you’re sending the message that it’s only gifts at this level that get your organization’s attention. We need to demonstrate to donors at all levels that they are a part of advancing our mission. Tell stories that are relatable to “next tier” or future major gift donors – the young alumna who established an endowed scholarship, the faculty member who has given $500 a year for the past 30 years, or the parents who gave $100,000 to support the school after their child graduated because they are so grateful for the opportunities afforded their child as a student.

As we work to advance the missions of the organizations that we serve, I encourage you to take a step back and consider how the current strategies of your advancement program encourage reliance on key donors. The adjustments and investments that you can make in your strategies and business practices to expand your donor base can minimize risk to your financial stability in the short term and help build a sustainable fundraising program for the future.

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About the author

Christen Wilson

Vice President

Christen Wilson, Vice President, serves in GG+A’s Independent Schools and Higher Education practice areas. She has strengthened the fundraising programs of educational institutions of all types and sizes for nearly 20 years. Throughout her career, Christen has helped institutions attract millions of dollars of support for capital building projects, new…