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Major Gifts: It’s Not the Donation Amount that Matters—it’s the Strength of the Relationship

By Dave Sternberg and Nick Parkevich

Contributing writers Dave Sternberg and Nick Parkevich of Achieve LLC discuss the value in measuring success with major gift prospects by the connection the donor has to you and your organization, not simply the amount of money that donor is currently giving.

(June 2, 2009) We were recently visiting with an organization, reviewing their donor list as part of their new major gifts initiative.  One of the names on the list was someone with the capacity to easily make a six-figure gift.  Much to our surprise, the donor had only been giving $100 annually to the organization.  At first, we thought there might have been an error in their donor profile, since this donor is on the donor lists of dozens of other local organizations at far greater levels.

We pushed the organization to focus on establishing a relationship with the donor.  It wasn’t that they didn’t know who the donor was; they just felt like they lacked a plan of cultivation and topics for conversation. 

After several conversations it was clear that the donor was not connected in any real way to the organization.  This donor had never really been cultivated by the organization. We pushed the CEO to move quickly beyond mere pleasantries and organizational updates and to focus on the organization’s initiatives.  The relationship quickly progressed and the organization is well on its way to success with this new major donor, who has since made a gift of $10,000, followed by a $25,000 gift and the organization is now in discussion with the donor about an even larger project.

Are you facing something similar with a donor at your organization?  Consider the following strategies as you work with your next prospective major donor:

The term “major gift” is subjective.  A gift that could transform your organization might be an average gift for another organization.  One donor’s perception of a major gift could be far less than another major donor’s definition of a major gift.  The real spark happens when both the organization and the donor are on the same page with what makes a gift a major gift.  Discuss with your donor the kinds of gifts that could strengthen the organization and bolster its presence in the community.

Mass communication has its place, but would you rely on the local newspaper to notify friends and family of your wedding or to announce the birth of your child?  Likewise, your closest supporters expect to be engaged on a more personal level; they want to hear news pertaining to your organization—good and bad—before they read it in the newspaper or hear it from another source.

Are your conversations with your donors as comfortable as they are with your co-workers and friends?  If not, ask yourself why not and how you can make them more comfortable.  After all, your donors have sat through those awkward discussions and probably would like nothing more than for the conversations to be more natural. Try asking a major donor for advice; he or she will likely appreciate working with you to develop a solution.

Think beyond the simple stewardship processes and work to develop meaningful relationships—friendships—that both you and the donor would find as mutually beneficial and above all, real and meaningful, rather than artificial and financially based.  You can accomplish this by setting up quarterly meetings with your donor to discuss the progress of implementing their gift or invite them to sit down with a board member to discuss how their gift fits into the organization’s overall strategic direction.

Board Engagement
A common factor present with those organizations that find the greatest success with major gift fundraising is a board willing to interact with major gift prospects and donors. So how do you engage your board in major gift fundraising?  At the next board meeting, ask each board member to write a list of five reasons why a donor should support your organization with a major gift.  The results will give you insight on when and how to utilize them in major donor cultivation and solicitation. 

All too often we miss the mark because we spend far too much time focusing on the size of the gift, rather than developing the relationship. It could very well mean the difference between a $100 annual gift and a major donor. After all, how many of your $100 donors are ready to give you a $25,000 gift? 

Co-authors Dave Sternberg and Nick Parkevich are part of the core team of Achieve LLC, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based consultancy providing fundraising, strategy and board counsel. Sternberg is vice president and founding partner of Achieve and Parkevich serves as the director of client development at Achieve. More at

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