Five Ways to Increase Major Giving at Your Nonprofit

In recent months, many of McKinley Carter’s nonprofit clients have asked about how to build or revitalize a major gifts program. This blog post on “Five Ways to Increase Major Giving at Your Nonprofit” will be beneficial to our sphere of nonprofit friends, as conversations around major gifts programs continue to develop. McKinley Carter Nonprofit Advisory Services has been partnering with Salsa Labs (formerly DonorPro) since 2014 to provide fundraising and development resources to our respective networks. This post, written by Blake Groves (read his bio here) of Salsa Labs will provide you with five simple strategies to get your major gifts program off the ground.
For more information about developing or reinstating your major gifts program, please contact Kathleen McDermott, Director of Nonprofit Advisory Services for McKinley Carter at To learn more about how McKinley Carter assists nonprofit in investment management, governance, planning and fund development, visit our website at

Major giving is one of the most powerful slices of the individual giving pie. A strong major giving program can prove paramount to the upward development of your nonprofit, but you likely know that. You know you should keep an open mind when it comes to major giving, to look for candidates high and low, to look outside your donor pool and to look within, and to talk to your baby boomers and to your millennials. If you’re at a point where you’re wanting to optimize your major giving program, you’ve come to the right place. We’re here to offer you some actionable advice!
To help you remember the advice you’re about to read, and to capitalize on major giving for your nonprofit, think of the following tips as “The Five ‘C’s”:

  1. Calculate the ideal ask.
  2. Clean your database.
  3. Curate top­notch communications.
  4. Compile thorough information on prospects.
  5. Carry on by offering engagement opportunities.
1.  Calculate the ideal ask:  Sitting down to make your official major gift ask is certainly scary. Even the most experienced fundraisers are sure to get a little anxious; it’s human nature. Settle your nerves by going in prepared. A big part of that preparation should include coming up with a precise number to ask for. That kind of specificity can be scary; if you ask for too much, you risk isolating the donor. Ask for too little, and you risk leaving money on the table. Your estimation won’t be perfect, but if you take into account all you’ve learned between your research and cultivation, you should be able to get within the right ballpark. You can consider a few factors while gathering the information that will influence your amount request, such as:
  • The donor’s estimated wealth
  • The donor’s history of giving to your organization and other nonprofits
  • The donor’s experiences during cultivation
  • The donor’s perceived interest in your work
It’s also important to keep in mind how this donor fits in with your overall major gift strategy and fundraising plan. Depending on how you’re tracking against the breakdown you set up in your major gift calculator, that can help guide your decision.
The takeaway:  You never want to enter a solicitation meeting without a number in mind. Even if that number changes, you should be ready to make the first suggestion.
2.  Clean your database:  You won’t always be looking outward to find the best candidates. Sometimes, the ideal prospects are hiding in plain sight. Finding existing donors to upgrade is going to be a crucial part of your major giving process. Cleaning your database will help ensure that the records you have on your existing donors are in tip­top shape. That way, you can make the best decisions when it comes to identifying, cultivating, soliciting, and even stewarding these donors.

You’ll have a few priorities when you start your cleaning. Those priorities include:
  • Ditching inactive donors. It might sound harsh, but you need to clear inactive donors from your database. Pick a cutoff mark and stick to it (within reason). Here’s a good rule of thumb:  eliminate the records of those who haven’t given in two to three years.
  • Removing duplicates. Even the best­kept database is bound to have some duplicate information. Use the cleaning as the perfect time to clear your database of all of those extra, unnecessary copies.
  • Updating contact information. Your perfectly crafted phone script to start the conversation about major giving won’t be able to do much if you can’t get in touch with the donor. People change their phone numbers and addresses regularly. It’s a lot to keep up with, so just remember to check in when you do your annual database cleaning.
While you’re in the process of cleaning your database, you’ll not only refine your existing knowledge of your donors, but it will force you to take a second look at many of your valuable, dedicated donors. That second look could be your ticket to finding major donors in your midst. For instance, in cleaning up your database, you might find the record of someone who attended one of your fundraising events last year and donated a fairly substantial gift. After acknowledging that donor, you might have lost him or her in the shuffle and hubbub of post­event follow­ups. That database cleaning can be just the alert you need to reach out again and start the major gift process.
The takeaway:  The benefits of cleaning your database are two-fold. First, you want accurate donor profiles as you head into cultivation and solicitation. And second, it’s a great opportunity to review your older donor records and look for hidden prospects.
3.  Curate top­notch communications:  When most people think of major giving programs, they rightfully think of in­person meetings. Of course, when you’re asking someone to make a substantial contribution to your organization, it should be done in person. However, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be ample opportunities to create and send out other high­level communications. At the beginning of the process, you’ll want to take an easy first step:  Segment your potential major donors out from the rest of your donor pool and organize them into their own communications group. With that done, it’s time to design your communications and create a strategy. Because the focus of your correspondence won’t be centered on asking for donations, you have the freedom to really diversify your approach.  Be creative and have fun with it!

You can:
  • Mail out newsletters with relevant updates
  • Feature a major donor of the month
  • Invite your prospects to events
  • Share volunteering opportunities
The takeaway:  Your major donors deserve and want to hear from you. Find unique and personalized ways of doing so!
Bonus suggestion:  Think about launching a major gift society. When run correctly, they are an excellent way to connect with all of your major gift donors and foster better relationships over time.
4.  Compile thorough information on prospects:  Prospect research and major giving go together like peanut butter and jelly. With the help of prospect research, your team can be confident in their knowledge of your prospects and prepared to go out and make the most of the fundraising process.

You can learn more about prospect research here, but suffice it to say that a screening involves compiling data on your donors such as:
  • Past giving
  • Business affiliations
  • Wealth markers
  • Philanthropic tendencies
And all of that can be extremely helpful when you jump into major giving. The various details really add up and help paint an accurate picture of your prospect. By learning more about your major donors, you learn more about how to solicit them. For instance, you might find that a major gift prospect has donated a sizable amount of funds to a political candidate who supports many of the interests that you also advocate. You could lead off your cultivation of that donor by getting them involved in the advocacy arm of your nonprofit. It’s crucial that you leverage the areas where your work aligns with your prospects’ interests.
The takeaway:  Get ahead of the game by uncovering all sorts of valuable donor data with the assist from a prospect screening.
5.  Carry on by offering engagement opportunities:  You want to retain as many major donors as possible. Your team has put in a lot of work to build relationships with your prospects and convert them into donors. You shouldn’t have to start from scratch with new donors each cycle. The best major giving programs build on their past work; they don’t hit the reset button every time. Make increased engagement a priority as part of your ongoing stewardship strategy. Engagement activities help connect your donors to your cause in a very tangible way, making it more likely that they’ll contribute again down the road.

A previous article on this blog had some great insight in this regard. The post discussed the importance of encouraging giving and charitable work at a young age, but the message is salient advice for fundraisers seeking gifts from donors of all ages. To paraphrase, the article recommends that parents give their children the chance to experience philanthropic work in action, to make concrete the abstract. That’s true of teaching children about charitable behavior at a young age, but it is also certainly true about deepening the connection your major donors have to your organization. Invite them to volunteer. Ask them to reach out to their friends for gifts for your upcoming auction. Have them help you hand deliver a petition.
The takeaway:  The engagement opportunities you choose to offer are your prerogative. Make your best effort to give your major donors the kinds of experiences that are going to leave lasting, positive memories. Those memories will be fresh in their minds the next time they think about donating to charity.

With major giving programs, just like all fundraising endeavors, there aren’t any quick fixes to solve all of your problems. But there are tools and strategies you can employ to make a serious difference in your program’s effectiveness over time. “The Five ‘C’s” are a start, and there’s plenty more advice out there for the taking. Consider your major gift strategy and how it aligns with the best practices in the industry. From there, make modifications until you’re happy with your results. Never stop looking for areas to improve!