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Major Gifts: A Guide to Getting in front of Donors and Making the Ask

Meeting with major donors to secure a significant gift for your organization can be a little nerve-wracking, but often about 15% of a non-profit’s revenue comes from just a few top donors, these meetings are unavoidable. So you’re just going to have to brace yourself… and really, there should be nothing to worry about. You just need to be honest and have conviction. If you believe in what you’re doing, they will too. To help with the rest, here are some tips on finding potential major donors, setting up a meeting and making the ask.

Finding Potential Major Donors

The first challenge is finding the right people to approach. A common misconception is that wealth is the most important factor here, but it’s not. Common, everyday people with very little wealth make major gifts all the time. In reality, interest and positive giving trends are almost always more important than wealth. So, when looking for potential donors keep this in mind. Start with your in-house database. Look at past giving activity and try to identify positive giving trends.

Scheduling a Meeting

Once you’ve found the people you’d like to approach, the next challenge is setting up a meeting. Ideally you want to meet with donors in person. To schedule a meeting, start with a letter or email (think carefully about your prospective donor to decide which is most appropriate), then follow-up with a phone call to arrange something convenient for both of you. The letter or email should sounds something like this:

Hello Mary,

Well, it’s that time of year again and we are trying to raise $10,000 for our annual food drive so that [insert your needs and benefits] Last year you made a very generous donation of [insert amount] that helped us provide food to many needy families at Christmas time. This year, we hope to raise 25% more in order to [insert benefit]. To meet this goal, we are asking the help of our most generous donors.

I would love the opportunity to meet with you in person to give you an update on last year’s drive, share with you some of our current challenges and ask for your support.

I will be reaching out in the next couple of days with a phone call to try to schedule a meeting time that is convenient for you.

Thank you in advance for your ongoing help and support!

It’s important that the meeting be presented as a discussion that the donor can add value to, and not just an ask. You want to make the donor feel like they are important to the organization, and not just as a source of revenue. At the same time, however, it’s important to be honest. The purpose of the meeting is, in fact, to ask for their support, so don’t leave that out.

The Meeting & The Ask

The final challenge is the meeting itself. When you show up for the meeting, there’s no reason to be nervous. Believe in what you’re doing, in the objective, the benefits and be humble and honest about it. Remember, if you have conviction in what you’re doing, it will show.

Start by talking about general topics to break the ice. Comment on their home, family, the weather, etc. You could also talk about the nonprofit in general. Ask for their feedback and suggestions about your organization and its mission, how they see your organization, and what they think of your fundraising efforts.

Then get into the reason you’re there and what the goal is.Talk about their interests and explore their motivation for giving. Do they give because they want to give some of their wealth back, because they have an emotional connection to your cause, or simply for the tax benefits? Once you understand their personal motivation, you can talk to them in terms that make sense to them and compel them to act.

Next, talk about how their help is needed and the benefits a donation from them would have; benefits, of course, that are directly related to their motivation for giving. At some point of course, you’ll have to actually ask for a specific amount. You may want to bring a gift chart with you so you can show them specific giving levels, and how they can fit in the solution. See How to Construct a Gift Chart & Use it to Secure Major Gifts for more on this.

When asking for a major gift, you’ll likely run into some objections. Don’t worry, just take a deep breath and think about the best response. According to Buzz Harris in “A Small Guide to Large Gifts: Major Donor Fundraising” the donor will say one of six things. Here is how you should respond to each:

1) Yes! – Great! Thank her again, and ask how and when she would like to make the gift.

2) I need to think about it – Okay. Ask her if there are any questions you could answer now to help her in her consideration, then ask if you can call her on (pick a specific date in 3-5 days) to hear her decision.

3) I need to ask my partner/spouse/etc. first – Okay. Ask if there are any questions you could answer now to help them both in their consideration, then ask if you can call her on (pick a specific date in 3-5 days) to hear their decision.

4) That’s a lot of money – Yes, it is a lot of money. There are not many people we could ask for such a gift. (She will then move to one of the other five responses).

5) That’s too much – What would be more comfortable for you?

6) No – No means no. Honor the refusal, and thank her for her existing support.

Another possible response when someone says “that’s too much” would be to suggest a pledge. A pledge lessens the impact of a significant contribution, since the donor could pay over an extended period of time.

Regardless of whether the donor gives what you expected, more, or less, be sure to make them feel really good about what they’re doing, and be absolutely sure to follow up with them on the success of the campaign.


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