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Your New Year's Resolution for July: Two Hours Per Week and Five Simple Steps for Small Development Shops to Achieve Major Gift Success

Resource Center - Foundation

By Amy Eisenstein, MPA, CFRE

Have you ever wished you could raise major gifts but felt you don't have the courage, confidence, know-how, or, most important, the time?

Do you find yourself resolving—just like on New Year's—to start or have more success raising major gifts, only to get to your first special event of the year and watch that resolution wave its way out the door?

I have a resolution for you that you can't afford not to keep: “I will raise X in major gift funds this year.” Say it with me now: “I will raise X in major gifts by this time next July!”

But don't worry, I'm not going to leave you with a resolution and no means to achieve it. Instead, my commitment to you is that all you need to do is commit two hours per week and follow the five steps I've outlined below, and by this time next year you will have achieved your resolution.

1. Just what is a major gift? Define what that means for your organization

How do you determine the right amount? Here’s one way: review your database and identify your top five individual donors (not foundations or corporations). Remove any outliers (the one person who gives $10,000 when no one else gives more than $1,000). If your top five donors minus the outliers give $1,000, then $1,000 is a good major gift level for your organization. If you have five or more people giving $10,000 or more, $10,000 and up is a major gift for your organization.

2. Identify 20 major gift prospects

Your next goal is to come up with a list of twenty major gift prospects with whom you will work for the year.

How do you find these prospects? Use your database to run reports on your largest donors (use cumulative giving) from the last two years. In addition, run a list of loyal donors—those who have given five or more times in the last seven years, regardless of their giving amount.

Review the lists with your board and staff members to identify your top twenty prospective major gifts donors. In addition to looking at their donation totals, take into account how frequently they have given, their level of involvement with your organization, and anything you know about them that would give you an indication of their assets—profession, lifestyle, known major gifts to other organizations, etc.

If you don’t [yet] have a database of donors, you will have to do a similar process with non-donors—choose your top twenty prospects from a list of your board and staff members' contacts.

3. Create a cultivation plan for each of your prospects

The next step is to build relationships with your twenty major gift prospects throughout the year before you ask them for a gift. Fundraising is all about relationships, and the most effective method of building those relationships is face-to-face. Don't be one of those fundraising shops that only contact donors through direct mail!

To begin, make a list of all of the cultivation techniques you can think of, then make a simple plan for each prospective donor on your list. You don't have to contact them every month – an average of five to ten times per year will do the trick. Your plan could look something like this:

January: Send a letter on letterhead letting the person know you would like to get together to thank them for their support and ask their advice. Schedule the meeting for February.

February: Hold the meeting between the prospect, your ED or president and a board member. Be prepared to ask the prospect their thoughts on your organization—find out what inspires their generosity and if they have any suggestions for improvement. Ask their advice. Ask open-ended questions. Be prepared to listen far more than you talk.

March: Send the spring newsletter or annual report and include a personal note referring to your conversation in February.

April: Send the gala invitation.

May: Say hello at your gala.

June: Invite the prospect for a tour of the organization or to get involved by volunteering.

July:  Schedule another in-person meeting (coffee) if appropriate or necessary before you ask.

September: Schedule the ask meeting.

October: Send an invitation to the upcoming golf outing with a personal note.

November: Hold the ask meeting.

December: Send a hand-signed holiday card.

The point of these contacts is to cultivate the donor. Each contact should move you closer to the ask, and each contact should provide you with more information to help make your ask successful.

4. Prepare, and ask

The ‘ask’ is probably the most intimidating part of fundraising for most people, but without it you won't raise the major gifts your organization needs.

I was facilitating a board retreat for a battered women’s shelter recently, and a board member named Sarah got up and said, “I don’t want to beg my friends for money! I feel like I’m twisting their arms, and they won’t want to be my friends any longer.”

If that’s how you and your board members feel, it's time to stop and change your language and your attitude.

Fundraising isn’t about begging or twisting arms, or at least it shouldn’t be, and asking for major gifts most certainly is not.

Major gift fundraising is about connecting an individual who is passionate about helping an important cause with an organization whose mission matches the desires of the individual to help. When you ask for a major gift you are giving the prospect an opportunity to make a difference in an arena that they already care about.

During the board retreat I worked with Sarah and the other board members to help them understand the importance of their role and used practice asking exercises to help increase their comfort level.

Several months later I was back in the same boardroom to do a follow-up training. Sarah was a new person! She had asked one colleague, one neighbor, and one friend to support the organization, using the language we had practiced at the board retreat, and they all said “Yes.”

If Sarah can do it, you can too.

Before your ‘ask’ meetings do practice sessions with staff, board members, and volunteers—everyone who is going to attend a meeting.

Use language like:  “We hope you will consider supporting the after-school program with a contribution in the range of $5,000.”

When you get to the meeting, follow your plan and make the ‘ask’. Then be quiet and let your prospect answer.

Be prepared for three different answers: Yes, No, and Maybe. See my recent post on this topic:

5. Express Gratitude

Regardless of the answer, immediately express gratitude in multiple ways and via multiple people. Have the ED send a handwritten note. Have a board member call to say thank you. The development director can send the tax letter, as well as a thank you email.

My pledge to you: Resolve to raise major gifts this year and get started right away. If you only spend two hours per week focusing on the steps above, you can do it!

For more details check out the Major Gifts Challenge on my blog:

If you are at a small development shop and having success, or challenges, with major gifts, I would like to feature you in my next (third) book. Please contact me at

Amy Eisenstein, MPA, CFRE is a leading fundraising consultant, speaker, coach and author of 50 Asks in 50 Weeks and Raising More with Less. Her talent for simplifying the fundraising process yields big results for her clients and readers.



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