CDE project 9: putting the principles and actions into practice — part 6
- Written by
- The Commission on the Donor Experience
- April 23, 2017
Building major donors’ support over time
Major donors rarely give their biggest major gift first. They ‘try out’ working with an organisation to see how they fit with the organisation and how the organisation fits with them.
‘When I started out, there was a generally accepted model for “intelligent giving” which involved a three-year funding cycle: in year 1 you give, let’s say, £100,000, year 2 you give £50,000, year 3 you give £25,000, and year 4 you’re out. That was supposed to be intelligent, sustainable funding because you’re out and the charity’s still going. But we now do the precise opposite to that. We’d probably start off with the £25,000 or £50,000 grant and then give more as the partnership develops. For example, we started off giving the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award £20,000 but we gradually increased our support over 13 or 14 years and we are now giving £350,000 a year. In fact, we’ve given them close to £2.5m in total. It’s interesting how that’s come about and it proves that we aren’t using terms like “relationships” and “partnerships” as jargon – we mean it.’
Trevor Pears, Pears Foundation 
As the quote above demonstrates, major gift fundraising does not stop when the gift is secured. The ‘aftercare’—the acknowledgement and stewardship that follows the gift—are critical elements of the donor experience.
As we have already seen in 4. above, these processes can have a transformational impact on the next gift. For this reason, the most helpful way of thinking about the major donor solicitation process is as a cycle. Delivering on the organisation’s promises to the donor is the last step of the first gift—and the first step of the next gift.
As outlined in 4. above, private acknowledgement is hugely effective when tailored and deeply personal.
At major donor levels of giving, many organisations move beyond private acknowledgement to public recognition. This is an area that is hard to get right. Even when asked directly, many donors will insist that it is neither necessary nor important. Yet, for those for whom it is important, we know it can be a major motivator.
In the research and interviews for the project, I heard a number of examples of what can go wrong, including:
- a donor who wished to remain anonymous listed in an annual report.
- a gift wrongly attributed to couple rather than an individual.
- a donor’s name spelled wrongly on a donor recognition board in an organisation’s reception area—the error was pointed out by the donor.
- a plaque to mark a donor’s funding of a project taken down without agreement.
- an inscription on a donor wall to the donor rather than to his father as he had intended (the gift was in memory of his father).
These, on the face of it, are simple errors that all contributed to a poorer donor experience and could have been avoided with greater attention to detail.
Major donors are motivated by the opportunity to make a significant difference. It therefore follows that stewardship—regular reporting on how a gift has been spent and what difference it has made—is a vital part of the donor experience. Impact reporting
Three actions follow:
- deliver on the first major gift: regular reporting on how the gift was spent and demonstrating difference and impact, and also providing the donor with an ongoing interesting and enjoyable experience.
- offer public recognition but ensure that it is completely appropriate to each donor.
- focus not just on the major gift, but on the long-term potential of the donor.
One rider: understanding that major donors do not give their most major gift first is not the same thing as major donor fundraisers asking for low ‘starter’ gifts with the idea that they can grow support over time. This situation can arise, for example, when fundraisers seek to meet short-term income targets or there is a threshold level for entry into a donor club or scheme. The challenge is that asking at significantly below a donor’s potential may create a donor mindset about your level of ambition that is then very hard to shift. That is poor major donor fundraising, which is neither good for organisations nor good for major donors.