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The 5 steps of a major gift

Grace Duginski
Content marketing specialist
November 06, 2023
A woman sitting at a desk, engaged in conversation, discussing strategies on how to engage your board members as fundraisers.

Between technology advances and structural phenomena like the donor demographic shift and the growing wealth gap, now could be the right time for nonprofits to increase their focus on major gift fundraising. This is supported by recent data from the Giving USA report for 2022, which found that although individual giving is traditionally the largest piece of the giving pie, the only sub-segment of individual giving that saw growth for that year was mega gifts.

Whether you’re just getting started with major giving or looking to scale up your program, it’s important for everyone on your team to clearly understand the five distinct stages every major gift goes through. They are:

1. Identification
2. Qualification
3. Cultivation
4. Solicitation
5. Stewardship

In this blog, we’ll walk through each of these five steps in detail and offer advice for succeeding at each stage. Let’s go!

1. Identification

Identification is the process of finding potential major gift donors. This doesn’t necessarily mean finding a net new contact—identification is really just determining who could become a major donor to your next project, initiative, or big ask. Sometimes this step focuses on identifying the right project for an existing major donor or the right initiative—because major gifts that are unrestricted are rare.

These are three common avenues for identifying major donors:

  • Board members and their friends. Board members tend to be higher net worth individuals with friends, colleagues, and contacts who are of similar means. Before you begin outreach through those channels, know that working with your board to connect with their networks may require reframing their fundraising mindset. Shift your board's perspective from seeing fundraising, especially major gift fundraising, as a dreaded, awkward chore to it being an opportunity to help people they know make the world better by funding your work. Board ties can help major gift officers be especially successful at prospecting, networking, and building relationships with existing and new major givers.

  • Donor screening tools. DonorSearch and WealthEngine are two popular donor screening tools that help fundraisers discern which donors are likeliest to have the means to give.

  • Your own database! The identification phase isn’t just about finding people who your organization has no relationship with, it's about finding people you already know who are ready to make their first major gift. The right technology will continuously monitor and scan your donor database and notify you of new opportunities every day to convert existing supporters into major donors. The Fundraising Optimization Guides in Bonterra Donor Engagement’s Development solution (formerly EveryAction) will not only automatically identify donors who are strong major giving prospects based on behavioral data like event attendance and form submissions, but they will also surface supporters who are strong candidates for sustainer, lapsed recapture, and planned giving programs!

2. Qualification

Step two of five is qualification, which means figuring out who your best prospects are for major gifts and then sorting them accordingly. In order to qualify and sort these donors, it’s helpful to consider these three factors:

  1. Affluence. This is fairly straightforward—if someone's going to make a major gift, they need to have enough money to make a major gift! Wealth screening tools can help make this efficient, but consider other interactions too—many people with wealth display it in some way or another.

  2. Affinity. A well-qualified prospect will feel connected to and supportive of your organization. It’s not helpful to reach out to random wealthy people as the primary tactic in your major gift strategy. A better use of time is reaching out to prospective donors you know are supportive of your organization, mission, project, program, or initiative. This factor is also what will help you ensure you’re reaching out to the right donor for the right initiative, since many organizations operate many different programs in alignment with their mission and values.

  3. Timing. Simply put: is the timing right? You can find this out through conversations with donors as you move into the next phase, cultivation.

Once you’ve qualified your prospects, it’s time to sort them into a few different categories and have conversations with them. Sort your donors into three categories:

  1. Top prospects: those who are most likely to make major gifts, typically your top 10%. Listing these out helps you dedicate time to safe bets.

  2. Good prospects: those who are still worth prospecting, engaging with, and spending time on, but who don’t fall into your top 10% or most likely givers. They're either not as excited as your top prospects, or they're very excited but they're only just hitting the threshold of major gift capacity, whereas some of your top 10% may be way above it.

  3. Long shots: those who you’d love to become major donors, but who aren’t terribly likely to convert compared to your other prospects. Keep tracking this data, but don’t focus a lot of time on these folks.

Store all the information you have about these donors and all other potential or existing major donors in your constituent relationship management (CRM) platform. Major gifts in particular are very relationship- and conversation-driven, which means it’s important for your whole major gift team to understand the action plan and know exactly where you stand with each donor. This will help your team avoid making any missteps, and keep things moving forward—in Bonterra Development, we call this a Moves Management plan.

3. Cultivation

Once you’ve identified a potential major giver, qualified them, and created your action plan, it’s time for cultivation—the process of actually working toward that major gift. Actions you’ll take to cultivate major donors include but aren’t limited to:

  • Sending emails.

  • Making phone calls.

  • Mailing handwritten notes or birthday cards.

  • Inviting those prospects for tours, if it makes sense.

  • Taking them to lunch.

  • Taking them out for coffee.

  • Introducing them to executives and other donors.

  • Inviting them to events.

Introducing major donor prospects to higher-ups and their fellow high-dollar givers are great opportunities for two reasons. One, they will feel special, which is important. And two, meeting other major donors means meeting their peers, which helps to foster a sense of community and connection among that segment of givers. If you have other major donors who are higher up, famous, or well known, this can help boost your profile in the eyes of a prospective major donor.

Events are a natural opportunity to make introductions to supporters across all donor segments. Many nonprofits also find it helpful to hold major giving-specific events to reinforce the feeling of connection and community. These major giving-specific events don’t need to be massive galas; small cocktail parties with 50-75 attendees can be ideal for having the conversations you need to move these prospects forward. Another event type that works well for some organizations’ major donor cultivation is volunteering—many organizations recognize that donors and volunteers don’t occupy two totally separate boxes. Inviting major donors to volunteer on site with you can be particularly effective, since it’s a chance for donors to see your work in action and observe how their gifts fuel your programs. Don’t forget to evaluate volunteers as potential prospects for major giving.

As you plan and execute your major donor and major gift cultivation, you can use what you learn to manage the whole process in your CRM for actions like scheduling follow-ups, assigning tasks to different teams (such as notifying accounting when it’s time to share financial documents with prospective major donors), and timing your gift asks just right. Ultimately, the goal of cultivation is being intentional about engaging and conversing with these donors so you can deepen and strengthen your relationship with them.

4. Solicitation

Identification, qualification, and cultivation are done—now it’s time for major gift solicitation. Solicitation means making the big ask of a donor.

The first thing to know is that your ask should never come as a surprise! The prospective donor should reasonably know this ask is coming. As the fundraising staff member in charge of making the ask, you should also make sure all decision-makers are in the room—that means if a spouse, adult child, or financial planner needs to be there, you’ll want to make sure to invite them so that everyone has all the same information at the same time.

When you’re planning out the specifics of your ask and how you’ll make it, you’ll want to include a physical, personalized proposal that first thanks the donor for their time and speaks to their specific interest in the project your ask is associated with. Include an impact statement and the specific ask you are making in your proposal. However, when you’re leading the conversation, make sure you don’t rely on the written ask in your proposal—make a plan to say the number out loud, and then stop talking. Don’t rush to restate your ask or otherwise fill the silence! Let the donor consider the ask you’re making and wait for the donor to respond.

5. Stewardship

Stewardship is the fifth step in the major gift process, and it’s the practice of continuing to walk and talk with the donor whether they say yes or no.

If a donor says no to your solicitation, stay in touch! A no isn’t always a “no forever,” it may be a “not yet,” “the project wasn’t quite right,” or “the timing wasn’t quite right.” A “no” is also often not personal—occasionally people’s circumstances change, even if they did intend to give a gift when they first entered the identification, qualification, and cultivation phases of this process. If a donor tells you “no,” back into stewardship they go.

If a donor says yes to your solicitation, it’s equally important not to fall off their radar! Going silent after receiving a gift can make a donor feel used and unappreciated. Instead, keep them updated on how their gift is fueling your work. If it was a part of a capital campaign, consider keeping them up to date on the progress of the building by inviting them on a tour of the work site. (Can’t beat a fun hardhat tour photo op.) If the gift they made is part of a particular initiative, keep them up to date on its impact and what it's accomplished.

When it comes to finding the right update cadences for the stewardship phase, there’s no one- size-fits-all approach, but in general you should contact major donors a minimum of once a quarter. You may decide it’s important to send more frequent updates, but the cadence you land on will depend on the donor, the project, and the type of contact you're having with them. Some donors like to chat and appreciate more frequent updates; maybe it’s a fast-moving project and you just find that you have a lot to share! The type of contact you’re making and its associated time commitment also matters—for example, a meeting or taking them out to lunch is a weightier time commitment for the donor than a phone call or an email.

No matter how frequently you decide to send updates to your major donors, technology and stewardship are a natural pair because no matter the size of your portfolio, the right tools will make it easier to send the right major gift stewardship messages at all the right times. Let your technology do the rote work of tracking your major donor data, so you can dedicate more time to creatively reaching out and building those relationships over time.

Your major gift management technology should let you see at a glance what your action plan is for major donors so you can build relationships with them for the long term. Download our complete guide to major giving, and talk to us to learn more about how the right technology can propel your fundraising further so you can reach your peak impact!

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Written by

Grace Duginski
Content marketing specialist
  • Nonprofits
  • Fundraising ideas