The 5 Principles of Encouraging Major Gifts

Why do donors make major gifts to organization X and not organization Z?  If our organization isn’t receiving as many major gifts as we would like, we may tend to believe it is because other organizations are bigger, have larger budgets, have more contacts, are more well-known, or are just plain lucky.  The truth, though, as I’ve seen in my own experience, and in the experiences of my clients – both large and small – is that development is a process.  And there are principles to the process that apply to all organizations and most all donors.

Here, then, are my 5 principles of encouraging major gifts.   Donors will give your organization more major gifts when:

1.  They are involved in your organization.  They are asked to volunteer – on your board, on an advisory council, for a project, something.  Or perhaps you aren’t ready to ask them to serve in a formal way.  What about setting up lunch to ask them for their advice or counsel in an informal way?  The idea is that giving of themselves (their time, advice, etc.) is an important precursor to making a meaningful financial gift.  There is a saying that the most valuable thing a person can give you is their attention.  Donors who make meaningful charitable gifts, typically give attention and become involved first.

2.   Your organization’s work is in alignment with their values.  Simply put, they understand that your organization does the kind of work they believe is needed in the world.  This is the question of mission-fit.  In their eyes, your organization’s work is important.   Perhaps their family’s life was negatively impacted by a disease and they value seeing the production of a cure.  Or maybe it is the belief that having an educated society is the best possible path toward lasting global peace and prosperity.  Whatever their beliefs and values, they view your organization as helping to advance them.

3. They view your organization’s vision for the future as compelling.  Donors make meaningful gifts when they come to believe that such an investment at this point in time and for a specific purpose will advance a cause they care about in a substantial way.  Our job, then, is to create a vision – clear and convincing “proof” that their gift will serve to accomplish a big impact.

4.  They believe they will receive something else from the gift.  Let’s start with the notion that a major donor believes she should give to you because it is simply a good thing to do.  Most donors hold this belief at some level or they wouldn’t give at all.  However, to believe that such altruism is the only reason for their giving is a mistake.  Most major donors are encouraged to make large gifts based on the presence of additional benefits.  What are those benefits?  It could be personal/familial recognition, it could be wanting to give at a level which gains them entrance into a particular social circle, it could be to honor a teacher or other influential person.  Our work is to know them well enough to uncover and address these additional needs.

5.  They are asked by the right person. In my experience, the case for support is important.  The timing of the ask is important.  The location of the ask is important.  But the person doing the asking is critical.   Who has influence with the donor?  Who can encourage the donor in a way that will be heard?  Who is a leader through their own giving?  Answering such questions is key to choosing the right person to be involved in the giving conversation.

Our job as development professionals is not to raise money.  Our job as development professionals is to create environments within which donors are encouraged to act generously.  If we understand and act upon these 5 principles regularly, our organizations will receive more major gifts and will attract more donors.


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