Develop a Major Gifts Program That Attracts Ongoing Investment

Develop a Major Gifts Program That Attracts Ongoing Investment 

I recently started working with an independent school that reached a nine-figure goal in its most recent campaign, which was driven by many seven- and eight-figure gifts. This institution has an annual fund program that rivals those at private universities, along with a prospective donor pool that would be the envy of many institutions. However, as planning began for its next big campaign, institutional and board leadership grew concerned that, despite their successes, something was missing. They were right. The school lacked an organized major gifts program to maximize philanthropic investment across the giving spectrum.  

Organizations that have never invested in major gift fundraising or who have disbanded their staff when they are not in “campaign mode” put themselves in jeopardy of losing donors after a campaign.  

The team’s record of securing principal and annual gifts masked an absence of staff and volunteer attention to gifts in the middle – those between $100,000 and $1 million – broadly understood as major gifts. Ultimately, this dearth of mid-range gifts was contributing to inconsistent fundraising results. 

Organizations that have never invested in major gift fundraising or who have disbanded their staff when they are not in “campaign mode” put themselves in jeopardy of losing donors after a campaign – and create a need to earn them back when it’s time for the next one. However, if institutional and advancement leaders commit to developing a recurring, disciplined commitment to major gift fundraising, they could position their organizations to remain at the top of their donors’ philanthropic priorities both in and between campaigns.  

As GG+A partners with client institutions to identify growth opportunities within their fundraising, here are four key practices we emphasize for building and sustaining a robust major gifts program. 

1. Understand Your Donors’ Philanthropic Capacity and Connection to Your Institution 

Many organizations – particularly educational institutions – have a well-defined donor base of alumni, parents, friends, corporations, and foundations. But even in situations where the prospect pool is less distinct, a philanthropic analytics tool such as DonorScape® provides valuable insight into the giving capacity and affinity of prospective donors to inform an institution’s outreach strategy. To realize the benefits of this analysis, you will have to be comfortable using data and structuring your fundraisers’ time to focus on those with the capacity and likelihood to support you.  

According to Giving USA, in 2021 individuals made up more than 75% of philanthropic contributions in the U.S through outright gifts and bequests. Knowing who they are, where they are, and what they might be able to contribute to your organization can help you gauge the depth and breadth of your donor pool – as well as the time and resources necessary to engage and cultivate these prospects. 

2. Regularly Articulate Inspiring Fundraising and Campaign Priorities – with Appropriate Urgency 

Your organization has strategic priorities that inform your fundraising priorities. And you also have ongoing financial needs that may not fit into a “campaign” immediately but could be funded at any time. 

Are your campaign priorities, financial needs, and special projects clearly defined and reviewed on an ongoing basis so prospective donors understand – and are excited by – the impact of funding them? Have you articulated what happens if you can’t build that building, fund those scholarships, or establish that program right now 

This is where institutional leadership, including boards, presidents, deans, and heads of school, must take the lead in communicating clear and compelling funding priorities. Without them, donors are unlikely to give to your fund or goal. They give, and give generously, because there’s a story about when and why they should give that resonates with them. 

3. Establish Goals and Metrics for Staff That Encourage Results 

As Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” High-performing programs have staff dedicated to working with a defined group of prospects to secure major gift commitments at all phases of the fundraising cycle. They also incorporate metrics to track activities and outcomes. 

Setting appropriate metrics for fundraising, such as the number of meetings (and qualification meetings) each month, the number of gifts solicited and closed (above your organization’s threshold for a major gift), and total dollars raised will help your fundraising program deliver results. Metrics should reflect the unique characteristics of each staff member’s prospect base – not standard, misaligned goals – and should clearly demonstrate how individual contributions contribute to your team’s overall goal. 

  • To assist with the qualification of prospects and confirm their interest and capability to make a major gift to your organization, staff need to meet with individuals who have not previously made gifts of similar magnitude. This work can sometimes be daunting to those who are not accustomed to the volume and discipline of outreach to yield qualified prospects. Equipping them with tools to normalize and expedite this work – and metrics to acknowledge qualifications and disqualifications – will encourage your team. 
  • In the cultivation stage, staff meet with prospective donors to better understand their philanthropic passions and interests, deepen their connections with the institution, and prepare the prospect for solicitation. While the number of meetings necessary to accomplish these goals can vary, staff can help move prospects through this stage quickly by being clear about goals in setting and conducting these meetings.  
  • During solicitation, clear gift propositions equip fundraisers to ask for larger gifts focused on projects that align with donor interests. If staff are intentionally cultivating prospects and having clear discussions about their goal – to present the prospect with an inspiring gift opportunity – solicitations are a natural and easy progression of their ongoing discussions, and their work with prospective donors can focus on finalizing the details of a gift.

4. Provide Exemplary Stewardship so Donors Know the Impact of Their Gifts 

Is it clear to donors what they can expect from your organization if they give? And is there a commitment across your organization to share the impact of philanthropy? Personalized stewardship can be the least prioritized work in advancement programs when it should be one of your organization’s top priorities. 

For example, stewardship doesn’t stop with the recognition plaque you put up outside the lab or lecture hall. Host donors on campus for lectures, performances, and games; introduce them to students who benefit from their generosity; have faculty members share insights into their research or teaching methodologies. If a donor enthusiastically gave to help construct a building on campus or endow a fund to support student tuition, your organization should enthusiastically share with that donor each year how this gift continues to transform your organization.  

The demand for increased philanthropy among nonprofit organizations has reached new heights and only continues to grow as we adapt to this complex post-pandemic landscape. As you focus strategically on developing and strengthening your major gifts program, you can position your organization as a magnet for continuous philanthropic investment.

Christen Wilson specializes in applying philanthropic data and analytics to strengthen fundraising programs for higher education clients and independent schools. For guidance on how to incorporate these ideas into your fundraising strategy, contact us. 

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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 guides her client partner institutions to success by working to refine their vision for support, identify high-probability donors, and take a disciplined approach to engage and solicit each individual donor. Christen utilizes data and analytics…