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5 major donor cultivation strategies for your nonprofit

February 12, 2021
A nonprofit gift officer meets with a major giving prospect for coffee.

Cultivation is at the center of the major gift acquisition process. It involves building a relationship with a prospect to turn them into a committed supporter and improve the chances that that person will respond to a donation ask. 

In this guide, we’ll walk through a series of major donor cultivation strategies so that you can make the most of major giving. Here’s what we’ll cover: 

  1. Identifying prospects for major gift cultivation.
  2. Building a major donor cultivation plan.
  3. Hiring a major gift officer.
  4. Cultivating major donors with meetings and events.
  5. Tracking metrics and adjust your major donor cultivation plan accordingly.

Let’s get started with the basics by defining major donor cultivation. 

Basics of major donor cultivation

Donor cultivation is the process of building a relationship with a prospective donor. As you build this relationship, you’ll also encourage larger gifts and motivate current donors to continue lending their support. 

Major gifts account for the bulk of many nonprofit organizations’ fundraising revenue and therefore require more attention and cultivation than smaller gifts. Before asking for a major donation, you have to get to know the donor and the donor has to get to know your nonprofit organization. 

With a strong donor cultivation strategy, major donors will develop a sense of loyalty and become some of the most engaged members of your organization, believing and trusting in your purpose enough to contribute significant funds.  

Five strategies for successful major donor cultivation

Here are a few tips and strategies to engage your potential major donors and cultivate them into loyal supporters. Let’s explore each step in more detail.  

1. Identify prospects for major gifts.

Cultivation of a major gift donor is an extensive but rewarding process. Qualifying your prospects before entering the cultivation stage allows you to maximize your time and resources.

So, prior to cultivation, you're going to want to build a major donor prospect list. 

There are three main options for how to proceed with your major gift prospect identification. We’ll dive into the benefits of each.

Investigate your own donor pool first.

Some of your strongest candidates are going to be right there in your own donor pool, whether they're mid-level donors that have the capacity and willingness to make the move up or event attendees that are major donors elsewhere.

Cultivating a major giving relationship with a donor that is already committed to your organization is not nearly as challenging as starting fresh with a new donor. 

To get started, conduct a wealth screening with the help of a wealth screening service to determine which donors have the capacity to give. This process takes many factors into account to see if your donors can give more, including: 

  • Giving history to your nonprofit and other organizations. 
  • Business affiliations
  • Real estate ownership
  • Political giving habits
  • Stock ownership

Once you have more insight into your donors' giving capacity, you can craft the ideal solicitation strategy. 

Perform prospect research.

To start cultivating relationships with new supporters, it's important to gather as much information about them as you can. Therefore, your research should go beyond determining if they're good candidates. Prospect research should also be about getting to know their interests, hobbies, and the causes they're passionate about.

When performing prospect research, your first step is to determine whether you can conduct this process on your own or if you'll need help guiding your efforts.

If you already have an established research team in-house, you probably won't need to enlist any outside help. If, on the other hand, your nonprofit organization is just dipping its toes into donor research, a consulting firm with specialized experience might be the perfect solution!

If you're working with a prospect research consultant, they'll likely use a combination of public and proprietary charitable databases to learn more about your prospects. However, if you're conducting the research on your own, there are several do-it-yourself ways to learn more about your donors' philanthropic activity.

One simple method is to research other nonprofit organizations’ annual reports. Often, organizations highlight major contributors in their reports, detailing how much the donor gifted and what projects that person is passionate about at the nonprofit organization. Look at organizations with similar causes or projects to get a sense of the major donors that might be willing to support your work as well. 

This can be a great way to collect basic information about potential donors, which your team can then use to obtain additional information through public charitable giving databases.

Ask for referrals.

It may not be obvious, but you likely have a wealth of contacts and connections to major gift donors at your nonprofit organization already. Between your board, your leadership, and your most active supporters, you can find some great prospects. Plus, an introduction from a mutual contact can help establish your organization's credibility before you even start talking. 

The best solution is likely a combination of these three methods, based on the current status of your donor pool and your relationships within the sector. 

Remember, you'll be looking for prospects with the affinity and capacity to give. Finances are definitely a factor, but just because someone has the means to give doesn’t mean that prospect will give.

2. Build a major donor cultivation plan.

With the information you learned about your donor prospects, map out a plan for cultivation. Having a solid plan will help guide your efforts, increase your efficiency, and make evaluation and improvement easier.

Begin by answering questions such as:

  • What constitutes a major gift at your nonprofit organization?
  • What is your organization's relationship with this prospect?
  • What does the ideal gift from this prospect look like?
  • How many interactions (meetings, phone calls, emails, etc.) do you estimate it will take to build a strong enough relationship to make an ask?

As these questions demonstrate, your system needs to be flexible to prospect personalization. Establishing a solid plan increases efficiency by streamlining the cultivation process, minimizing errors, and making evaluation and improvement easier.

Your development staff should know what to expect from start to finish, including an understanding of:

  • Prospect selection
  • Initial contact
  • Meeting formats
  • Team members that need to be involved
  • Proposal templates

Your nonprofit organization's CRM will be your greatest resource when drafting and implementing your cultivation plan.

Using your software, your team can track all of your interactions with supporters. Even better, you'll be able to quickly reference everything you know about individual constituents, such as their giving history, occupation, and marital status.

As you craft your cultivation plan, determine how you'll leverage all that your nonprofit organization’s CRM has to offer. Additionally, you might find that you need to reevaluate your supporter data strategy to maximize your CRM’s potential.

The bottom line? Your CRM should play a big role in determining your cultivation plan as well as carrying it out—make the most of this essential resource! 

3. Hire a major gift officer.

As you create your major gift cultivation plan, you might realize that you need someone to lead your major gift initiatives. That's where a major gift officer comes in!

A major gift officer can help take your major gift cultivation to a new level by: 

  • Identifying major gift prospects. The main role of a major gift officer is to pinpoint donors that have the willingness and capacity to contribute a major gift. This makes soliciting major donations much easier for your team. 
  • Building a solicitation strategy. A major gift officer will know the best approach for soliciting major gifts, including where to meet donors and how to present the organization’s ask. 
  • Developing relationships with major donors. Major gift officers work diligently to steward their major donors through scheduled phone calls, in-person visits, and dedicated events. 

When you have a professional dedicated to your major gift efforts, your organization can devote more time and resources to cultivating relationships with potential major donors. 

If you're not sure where to look to hire a major gift officer, your organization can always hire an executive search firm to fine-tune your job description, recommend places to post your open position, and conduct interviews for you.

4. Cultivate major donors with meetings and engagement opportunities. 

Once your plan is set and your prospect is selected, it's time to interact and build relationships with your prospects. Follow this common trajectory: 

  • Begin with an initial, introductory meeting. This might be a 30-minute coffee conversation or a 15-minute phone call. Depending on the prospect's previous experience with your organization and how the conversation goes, your subject matter can vary. Generally, this is when you'll explain your organization's purpose and fundraising plans for the near future and let the prospect know you're interested in their involvement. 
  • Develop the relationship with engagement opportunities. This next step will be highly personalized according to your organization, but the trick is to get the prospect engaged. Offer volunteering opportunities, send invites to events, give a tour of your office, pick up the phone for a check-in call, and make various other moves. Make sure that your organization is a part of your prospect's world.  

One practice that can make a pivotal difference in your organization’s handling of a future donor is properly tracking prospect interactions during this process.

All members of your team and the prospect should be on the same page. To ensure that everyone is fully aware of what has happened, any time the prospect interacts with your nonprofit, it should be tracked in your CRM. 

When you feel confident in your relationships, you'll be able to move your prospects along the donor pipeline to the solicitation stage.

5. Track metrics and adjust your major donor cultivation plan accordingly.

Launching a major gift program can be a massive undertaking. Ensure that your organization is doing all that it can to optimize the process by tracking key performance indicators (KPIs), such as:

  • Asks made: “Asks made” is the number of direct requests a fundraiser has made to a major donor during a given time. Use this metric alongside the number of major gifts made to your organization to reveal how effective your cultivation strategies have been in making conversions.
  • Face-to-face visits: Tracking how many in-person meetings staff members have with a prospect before making the ask is crucial for optimizing the cultivation and solicitation processes. Compare your visit count to your conversion rate to find the average number of visits your prospects require. That gives you a concrete, researched metric to follow.
  • Amount raised: Consider how much revenue you raise year-over-year through major gifts. As your organization perfects its major donor cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship strategies, this number should rise. Decreases or stagnancy in major giving will tell you that you should re-examine your practices. 
  • Percentage of prospects in the donor pipeline: If you end up securing a gift from a prospect, that prospect goes through a “donor pipeline,” in which they pass through the cultivation phase into solicitation and stewardship. The goal is to consistently narrow down the percentage of prospects in the pipeline. 

There are certainly more metrics you can track for major giving. To get the best results, you should pick and choose a limited number of metrics that make the most sense for your organization and complement the performance indicators you're already tracking. 

Improve your donor cultivation process

Now that you have a better understanding of the major donor cultivation process, it's time to start building relationships with prospects. Once you have a steady flow of major donor candidates, you can move on to soliciting their donations and stewarding their continued support. And remember, the right donor management software can ease the steps.

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