More and more organisations are struggling to grow their income from core visitors and audiences. Tougher rules around marketing and data use have created some nervousness, and a crowded market helps to deplete response rates and returns. In response, many organisations are looking to launch and grow their major gifts programmes.
Overall, seeking out those philanthropic and wealthy individuals who have the interest and capacity to give at much higher levels is a good thing. And yet there is so much more to effective major gift fundraising than simply appointing a talented fundraiser.
Sixteen years of major gifts experience has taught me one crucial lesson: the organisations which do best in this arena are those where the leadership, management, staff and volunteers at all levels are fully engaged in the fundraising activity of the organisation and are willing to step up to the challenge.
A similar finding is about to be released by the Commission for the Donor experience, with Angela Cluff of the Management Centre telling us that,
“Major donor fundraising is not difficult, at least in theory, but it is incredibly difficult to do exceptionally well in practice and on a consistent basis.”
So what is required? And how can your organisation rise to the challenge?
1. Major gift programmes need major prospects...
...and these are best identified and cultivated via your existing networks and contacts. You might have the richest couple in Manchester on your system but they barely remember buying two tickets from you three years ago and your approach now might as well be a cold one, especially as you might not have permission to use their data for fundraising purposes.
In contrast, I find that by working with board members, staff and friends of an organisation we identify people who not only have the capacity to support but also the affinity with our work. Crucially, we also have a more natural and effective way to start a conversation.
Any organisation with major gift ambitions needs well-connected people, inside and outside of its formal structures, who are willing to open their address books, make introductions and play an ambassadorial role. Do you have these people? Can they be persuaded to help? Don't be put off by initial reluctance. This is a common challenge. You only need two or three to start with and it’s okay to move slowly while you establish trust and build confidence.
2. Major gift programmes need major projects.
While unrestricted gifts are not unheard of in this realm, they can be rare, especially in the early days of a programme when relationships are in their infancy. So organisations looking to secure major gifts need the kinds of programmes likely to attract support and investment. Do you have projects which are innovative and that promise some kind of wider social benefit? Do they offer some kind of kudos for supporters through their association? Are there ways in which existing work can be packaged up to be more attractive to this kind of funder?
3. Major gift programmes need major champions at all levels.
From the box office to the board room, all of us have a key role to play in ‘selling’ the organisations we work for. Every interaction a donor has with your organisation will affect their relationship and likelihood of making a gift.
The roles available are many and varied, ranging from detective roles required to find out more about a prospective supporters’ interests and ability to give, to the more technical roles which can help to advise and enthuse a supporter, or provide assurances around the use of finances and monitoring of impact.
Some people within your organisation will be best suited to help with proposal development and reporting whilst others will be better at building face-to-face relationships. In any event, the crucial thing is that everyone understands that they have a role to play and that they all buy-into this principle. This can be made easier by ensuring everyone plays a role which they are most comfortable with.
4. Major gift programmes need to offer major opportunities for engagement and involvement.
Major donors want to bring more than money to your organisation. They want to get involved in a very real sense. That might mean that they’re looking for exclusive access to your ‘inside track’ or ‘behind the scenes’ operations. It might mean that they want to offer their skills and time in support of your work.
The challenge for your organisation is to find meaningful initiatives to engage your supporters, in ways which are rewarding for them and useful for you. Are there events you can offer to your major donors, such as exclusive previews, opening nights and launches? Are there ways in which donors can engage directly with any groups who are benefiting from your programmes, perhaps through mentorship schemes or speaker events? Can you offer tours of your work or meetings with key staff and board members?
5. Major gift programmes need robust systems and processes.
Before studiously mapping your networks, researching your funders and building your promising relationships, I would encourage you to consider this key question: How are you planning to record and share this vital information? The foundation stone of any major gift programme has to be the CRM or database where fundraisers can store details of contacts, meetings or events attended, interests noted and donations made. Even the best memory will struggle to recall the finer details relating to each prospect as a programme grows. In my experience, the best databases go well beyond simply recording the present and past. They help the fundraiser to think more strategically into the future, setting goals around gift sizes and dates and the steps required to get there.
Of course, different styles work for different organisations. But getting the buy in from people across your organisations, rather than putting all your efforts in the hands of a great fundraiser is key. Making preparations before you go after these major donors will make your time and energy spent much more worthwhile.