So you want more major gifts this year? Here’s the secret!

Are you think­ing of ask­ing a major donor for a gift? Claire Axelrad’s top tips will guide you through how to do so successfully.

Written by
Claire Axelrad
August 26, 2021

All you’ve got to do is ask!

Seriously. The number one reason people don’t make a major gift, or any gift for that matter, is no one asks them.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Before you can ask, you must know a few basics:

  • Who will you ask?
  • What will you ask for?
  • When will you know they’re ready to be asked?
  • Where should you ask?
  • How should you ask?
  • Why are you asking?

Let’s take these fundamentals one at a time.

Who will you ask?

Not everyone in your donor base is a major gift prospect. Even if they were, you probably don’t have the bandwidth to cultivate and solicit all of them right now. It’s just common sense to prioritise those donors with whom you’re most likely to succeed. There’s no hard and fast rule as to how to pick this priority group.

I generally advise starting with the top 10 per cent of your donors in terms of total contribution income from individuals over the past 24 months. You can use any time period that makes sense for you, understanding that the more recent the gift the more likely someone is to make a repeat or upgraded gift. Be sure to look at cumulative giving over the year, not just single gifts. A $100 per month donor is a $1,200 annual giver.

If you have too many, or too few, donors here, simply adjust and look at the top 15 per cent or the top five per cent of your donors. You can also look at the average gift of these top 10 per cent (maybe throw out any big outliers that could skew the average); then focus on donors in this cohort who make above-average size gifts. Or you can look at the mean gift and see if this feels better to you. It’s likely the mean and median gift size will be close to each other.

If you have some non-donor major gift prospects on your list, factor this in and add them if you’ve got a reasonable chance of getting a meeting with them. Now determine how many donors you can manage. One guideline is a full-time major gift officer with no other duties than donor qualification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship, can handle a maximum portfolio of 150 per year. If you split your time, maybe you can handle a portfolio of 75. If you’re an executive director who is chief cook and bottle washer, perhaps you’ve only eight hours a week to devote to major gifts development. In that case, you’d be able to handle 30 donors. If you assess you’ve only got four hours per week, pick 15 donors. Don’t set your task list too high or you’ll avoid it entirely. Be realistic.

What will you ask for?

You should always ask for a specific amount. Determine in advance a monetary goal for each person on your list, knowing this can always be adjusted as you cultivate your prospect and get to know them better. The total monetary amount, for all prospects combined, should cumulatively approximate what you’ve budgeted to raise through major gifts.

At this time also make a personal cultivation plan with a prescribed list of touches and moves. These are different for each prospect, although some of them will be used over and over again by you. For example, everyone may be invited to a free online event or conference call; some may be invited to a private meeting with your executive director; a few, based on their interests, will be invited to meet with a program director, doctor, researcher, performer or someone they consider a VIP.

Speaking of private meetings, once you’ve made your prospect list the next step is to try to set up a visit with each person on your list. It’s likely to be a ‘getting to know you better’ meeting to begin, transitioning to an ‘ask’ meeting when you know more about how much to ask for and, preferably, a specific project that will especially ignite your donor’s passion. This is a time to find out more about what especially floats your donor’s boat, what their philanthropic interests are, and what they most hope to accomplish through their giving.

When will you know they’re ready to be asked?

If you’ve been getting to know them through a planned series of cultivation ‘moves’ to which they’ve responded, you’re ready to ask. I recommend adhering to the ‘Goldilocks model.’ Goldilocks knew when she tasted Baby Bear’s porridge that it was ‘just right’. Your prospect won’t be ready if you’ve done too little.  But you also don’t want to do too much.  That’s where many non-profits go awry. They cultivate and cultivate and cultivate and never get to the ask.  You can avoid this if, after each move, you let the donor know your plan regarding next steps. You can tell them you want to think about your conversation a bit; then get back to them with more information. Or you can tell them you’d like to set up a second meeting with someone else so they can further explore their interests in more specific ways. Whatever you do, understand that at some point, they expect to be asked.  So put in place a just right plan.  When you’ve made all the ‘moves’ you planned, it’s time for the ask.

Where should you ask?

A major gift ask should be made in person. Or at least face-to-face (and we’ve found over the past year-and-a-half that Zoom works great for this). It’s always good to consider your donor’s comfort and convenience. In non-pandemic times, you might suggest a meeting at their home. Or perhaps your offices or a café. Today they might actually be more comfortable meeting you virtually.

Consider who should be in the room. It’s more along the lines of a one-to-one meeting than a group meeting, yet if they have a spouse or significant other it’s often a good idea to include them if you want to reach a decision and avoid the inevitable ‘I’ll need to talk this over with…’ delay. The same holds true if your donor works with a philanthropic advisor.

How should you ask?

Passionately! The best ask comes from your heart and goes directly to theirs.’ Always ask the prospect to join you in making a passionate gift. This means no one should go into a solicitation until they’ve made their own stretch gift. This might be $1,000 for the executive director, $10,000 for the board chair and maybe $100 for the staff person. The point is that you have to walk the talk. Passion is contagious; if you don’t have it, the prospect will be able to tell. Trust me on this one.

Always be prepared to ask, whether you’re in what you thought was a pure cultivation meeting or even if you’re on the phone. Sometimes the donor will say: ‘How can I help?’ or ‘What do you need?’ Be ready! Never say ‘I wasn’t planning to make an ask today’, or ‘I don’t know, how much do you want to give.’

Here are some options:

  • ‘This is how much is needed for the project. I don’t know how much you’re prepared to give, but if you can make a gift of this amount that would be hugely appreciated! Or if you were thinking of something less, that would be appreciated as well.’
  • ‘These are some projects for which we need current funding. Might you be able to fund any of the following…?’
  • ‘We’re looking for several leadership donors at the $50,000 level to bring this to fruition. Might we include you in this leadership group?’

Why should you ask?

If you don’t ask you don’t get. This is true for donations of all sizes, of course. It’s especially true for major gifts. No one wakes up one morning and spontaneously decides to write your charity a $1 million cheque.

Like anything else worth doing, asking requires thoughtful preparation. If you really want to achieve your mission and fulfil your vision, you must make time for asking. And leading up to asking. The end-of-year fundraising frenzy will be upon you before you know it. Take the time now to consider these fundamentals so you’re ready to hit the ground running when it’s time to ask!

Editor’s note: this article first appeared on Claire’s website on August 16th 2021 and can be found here.

About the author: Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organisations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP ‘Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year’ award. Claire runs ‘Clairification School’ online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.

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