Fundraising 101

Creating a Major Donor Prospect List

This blog post was originally published by Giving Tree Associates.

Does the thought of starting a major gifts program overwhelm you? If you’re like many nonprofit executives and fundraisers, it’s easy to focus your efforts on everything BUT your top donors when you are pressed for time and dealing with an overwhelming amount of day-to-day issues that come up. But, it doesn’t have to feel so daunting and the rewards for your mission can be exponential.

In our Fundraising 101 blog series, you’ve already read about developing a plan and building a case for support. Creating your major donor prospect list is the third and final tool you need to set your team up for success this year. 

Why is this step so important? 

Because the more time you spend engaging donors who care deeply about your mission and have the ability to make sizable donations to your cause, the more likely you are to meet or exceed your fundraising goals. If you are like most nonprofits, your major donors are responsible for 50-90% of your annual budget. The time you spend engaging your top donors and prospects is your most important work.

Now, let me give you a few simple, practical steps for kicking things off:

  1. Start small. If you are not a full-time major gifts officer, having a list of 150 donors and prospects will overwhelm you and nothing will get done. We recommend that our clients take a conservative but reasonable approach by creating a list of five to ten prospects. The point is to pick a number that is manageable and where your attention will yield positive results for your organization.
  2. Build your list. This step is often a stumbling block for our clients. Assuming that you have a database (or an Excel spreadsheet), start by identifying your largest donors in the last year or two. Then, if you have reasonably reliable records, you can also look at your most loyal donors. Who gives to you each and every year no matter what? In the end, this small but mighty list of names should contain the most passionate, loyal and philanthropic individuals in your organization. And, as a long-time Chicagoan, I will warn you to avoid building a list of “Oprahs”—well known wealthy philanthropists in your community that have no connection to you or your cause. Stay focused on those closest to you—I promise—your efforts will pay off if you go this route.
  3. Write it down. Once you have your list of five to ten donors, write down goals for each. Keep it simple. Start by writing down how much you would like to solicit them for this coming year and for what purpose—general operating, program support, endowment, etc. Next, write out a few bullets about what you know about them and their connection to your cause. It would also be helpful to make note of any important relationships that could influence future gifts or be helpful to you in building a stronger link. I know that writing down these details may seem arcane, but seeing it all in front of you will help you determine what the ideal next step may be. It could be that they need a follow up report on a previous gift, or perhaps a visit is in order. Knowing where you are heading will help you create the incremental steps needed to get you to your goal.
  4. Schedule it. When you’ve determined your immediate next steps, you must set aside time to do it. For me, that means entering it into my calendar for a set day at a set time. As a former full-time major gifts officer, I can tell you that planning ahead and being disciplined about scheduling time to reach out to your donors gets the best results.
  5. Stay in touch. The most successful fundraisers build long-term relationships with their top donors. Like any relationship in your life, it is important to maintain regular, authentic contact with your supporters. And, it’s equally critical to spend time between solicitations saying thank you and sharing information that is relevant and of interest to each individual. It may feel forced at first, which is why we suggest writing down your goals for each prospect and the steps you believe are needed to reach that goal. 

Over the years, clients have asked me to tell them the secret to a strong major gifts program. I wish I had one! What I have learned is that the best programs are built on structure, discipline and a deep commitment to building meaningful relationships with your top supporters. Taking the initial steps can feel a little forced and push you outside your comfort zone. But, like anything, practice makes perfect. So make a list, set your goals and get out there.