There’s been much talk in the philanthropy world about major giving programs. Over the past several years, we’ve seen a steady trend point to a slowdown in giving at the annual level and an increasing reliance on a smaller pool of major donors. So, should nonprofits be worried? Not if you can get the most out of your major gifts program. We sat down with our Vice President of Client Strategy and resident major giving guru Kristin Priest for some insights.
If you are seeing these changes in giving behavior at your nonprofit, what are some steps you can take to get ahead of them? The following is what Kristin had to say about overcoming common barriers to success with major giving programs, how to identify rockstar major gift officers (MGOs), and how to leverage data to make your programs better.
Here are Kristin’s top tips for maximizing your major gift program:
#1 Think about the Infrastructure
When most people think about successful major gift programs, they think of things like the gift officers, the nature of the organization, the size, and the potential of the donor base.
But there are other important things we don’t immediately consider that deserve attention—things like the infrastructure that drives the program. Organization policies, back of the house systems, and operating procedures all determine how information is tracked and fed to gift officers and greatly influence how donors experience the organization.
#2 Implement the Right Tools
To support a donor-centric, efficient, and strategic infrastructure, you have to remove any friction people may have in engaging with you. Having the right tools is key in facilitating not just any type of engagement, but the right type of engagement. It is what brings people up from the lower giving levels.
Tracking your organization’s major giving program efforts will tell fundraisers what is working well and what they can let go of doing that’s wasting time. These tools identify where donors (and gift officers) are stuck in driving meaningful major donor relationships.
#3 Build a Major Gifts Band (Don’t Just Look for the Solo Artists)
The secret to having a team of major gifts “rock stars”? Think about your major gifts team as a band; not a group of individual performers. Paul McCartney is a true rock star. But where would he be without John, George, and Ringo? And the Beatles certainly wouldn’t have been the international sensation they were if they were comprised of nothing but Paul lookalikes.
The same goes for building a great major gifts team. Build a team with diverse experiences, backgrounds, skills, and even personality types.
Extroverts, those people who seem to never meet a stranger, excel at connecting with a large number of individuals very quickly. However, it’s important to remember that there will be some donors who connect more closely with introverted gift officers as introvert types tend to seek out deeper relationships, ask thought-provoking questions, and be great listeners.
Remember, great MGOs are chameleons—able to adapt their personality and energy to meet the donor where they are most comfortable. While this is a skill that can be learned, introverts tend to naturally be more comfortable finding their inner chameleon. And in times when finding experienced MGOs may be challenging, don’t overlook those seemingly unlikely heroes of the major gifts program.
#4 Remember Metrics Matter
When managing and measuring major gifts fundraising, it’s easy to get caught up in the stories of wonderful relationships with our donors and transformational gift experiences or focus only on the topline metrics of personal visits and dollars raised.
But when we only look at those topline numbers, we miss out on two very important pieces of information:
- Caseload management: the pace at which donors within portfolios are moved from discovery through cultivation to solicitation.
- Portfolio coverage: the number of meaningful interactions each donor within a portfolio receives over a 12-month period.
Why do these metrics matter? Knowing your caseload management and portfolio coverage ratios are critical to understanding how efficient your major gifts program really is. With this information, organizations can identify where personal visits may actually be hurting giving rather than causing it, where (and why) teams or individuals may be struggling to move donors through the giving pipeline, and, perhaps most importantly, where the organization is missing out on opportunities due to overinvesting time and energy on less effective or unnecessary activities.
#5 Understand Your Major Gifts Opportunity
In growing a major gifts program, it’s crucial to understand the strength and accuracy of the current portfolio (i.e., the existing base of donors). The two most common questions we ask are:
- What is the capacity within my major donor universe?
- How are they connected to us?
These are arguably the two most important questions to ask about a major donor universe. But to fully understand opportunity again requires looking past the topline data. When we do this, we not only more fully understand opportunity, we best understand how to segment, assign to portfolios, and create meaningful experiences.
Capacity should go beyond things like net worth, income producing assets, and discretionary spending. To really understand a donor’s capacity to give, we need to understand the source of that capacity (i.e., industry and job title) as well as how he or she prefers to give.
Understanding how an individual is connected to the organization is valuable not just in building strategy but regarding who to bring into the solicitation from your team and what aspect of your work might be the most appealing. Organizations should identify which connection points have proven to be most impactful in leading to philanthropic relationships. This not only helps the major gift officers prioritize those donors with that specific connection point, but also should guide planning regarding where and how to invest in those experiences most likely to lead to major donor opportunities.
Finally, organizations should also assess major gifts pipeline opportunities. Many may live in the mid or even annual giving universe now. But it’s important to identify who has the strongest potential to increase their capacity and connection to you over the next several years.
#6 Understand the Major Donor Why
Understanding the major donor why means being able to answer two very important questions: “What is our major donor case for support?” and “What is their case for support?”
A great exercise is to think of a particular program or aspect of your organization. Craft a case for an ask of $100. Now pretend the ask is for $100,000… or $1M. How do the stories, language, and values expressed differ?
There’s an expression, “No one ever gave a million dollars to a $50,000 vision.” And that’s often the challenge when we articulate major gift opportunities using the same case for support language found in our direct response appeals. When asking for $25, $100, or even $1,000, it’s important to make the big vision deeply human, such as: “A gift of $75 will feed Sally for an entire school year.” But the major gifts case has to do more than that. A major gifts case has to inspire confidence that their investment will cause the organization or community to experience lasting change.
Even more important is understanding the donor’s case for supporting you. While nothing beats sitting down with donors to discover what they want to accomplish with their giving that is meaningful to them and why they have selected you, data parsing, giving behaviors, and engagement activities from event attendance to email and newsletter click throughs provide incredible insights.
#7 Maximize YOUR Data
One of my favorite quotes I heard recently was, “The sky is not falling but the ground beneath us is shifting.” Organizations in the major gift space have to lean into data to discover what’s shifting. Not leveraging modern technologies can put you behind other organizations. Data isn’t something that can be ignored or put on a shelf.
Whether you’re struggling with multiple complex data systems that don’t often speak the same language or have a sophisticated, automated platform that you may not be fully leveraging, there’s likely an opportunity for additional insights into your major gifts program and donors.
Use data to give you the narrative behind the numbers. When we do this, that’s when we are able to maximize major giving programs and create the most meaningful experience for our donors and prospects.