How to develop a major donor programme

A well-functioning major donor programme can provide a powerful return on investment for charities of every size. Depending on what constitutes “major” for your charity, cultivation and stewardship of individuals can be relatively low-cost.

With this in mind, I have pulled together some things you need to consider before starting your major donor fundraising adventure.

Decide if it is right

Major donor fundraising is part art and part science. It is the schmoozy, creative bit that daunts most people, but the science of it is the same as any other type of fundraising: are you likely to get a return on your investment? Are you able to make the investment in the first place?

Cultivating lucrative relationships with wealthy individuals cannot be lacklustre. It really is all or nothing. You need to be able to commit the time, energy and resources to build a programme. Accountability cannot sit with volunteers or make up a temporary part of a busy staff member’s job. There is significant potential for large gifts from this audience, but to get them you need to invest, and ensure reasonable staff time is focused exclusively on managing the programme.

Avoid the ‘Rich List’

If I had a penny for every time one of my clients suggested Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg as a prospect, I would be a major donor myself. Of course it feels natural to go for the biggest fish in the pond, but the biggest fish also have the most bait and larger charities with more established programmes will usually have the infrastructure to catch them.

You don’t need to be chasing billionaires, or even millionaires, to get gifts that are significant for your charity. The strength of your relationship with a donor will be one of the biggest factors in whether they give and how much. So focus on building your immediate networks and identifying prospects who are already close to your cause, rather than searching for a random connection to a big name.

Don’t ask ‘who do you know?’

The quickest way for charities to build their major donor networks is to leverage the professional and personal networks of their trustees, patrons and ambassadors. It is also a good idea to recruit for some of these positions with this requirement in mind. But a big mistake I often see from my clients is the “who do you know?” approach to asking.

Human brains don’t respond well to such a lack of structure. Ask yourself the same question: Who do you know that is rich? Or famous? Or well connected? It is hard to mentally search your networks. So, do the work for your stakeholders and make the process more efficient. Conduct network mapping exercises using what you know about them — where they work, which other boards they sit on, who they are married to, where they went to university. Use tools such as LinkedIn to explore their connections. From this homework, you will be able to develop a list of potential names and ask them to highlight who they know, who they could introduce you to, and which people they feel would love the cause.

Provide ‘money can’t buy’ experiences

It is possible to develop a major donor programme on a shoestring, you just have to get creative with your cultivation strategies. Major donors have a wide variety of giving motivations, but among the most common are the exclusivity, connections, influence and access to expertise it can bring. None of these things cost a lot to provide, and that is also the point: design experiences so unique to your charity that money cannot buy them.

Sometimes this can be as simple as access to unusual or exciting spaces such as a patron’s home or the backstage of a theatre, a meeting with a high-profile expert in your field, a meaningful engagement with a beneficiary or the ego-boost of being consulted on organisational decisions. Play to your strengths and think outside the box.

Develop a case for support — not just need

So many charities focus their energy on writing, speaking and creating content that speaks to the need for their work, and forget to spend time convincing donors why their specific charity deserves the support. High net worth individuals are usually savvy with their money, often acting with an investment mindset. To get and then keep their support you need to demonstrate you are a credible, impactful and sustainable organisation — not just pull at their heartstrings. To do this, you need a clear organisational strategy and a theory of change that illustrates how their gift would help you to move the needle on your important issue.

Create and track your donor journey

Individual donors need to feel the relationship you are building with them is completely bespoke. In some ways it should be, but behind the scenes the structure and timing should be clearly mapped out before you even begin talking to them.

For each level of donor, you should decide on a basic journey you will take them on that hits all the motivations they have for giving. A meeting, an event invite, an exciting update from a beneficiary, a Christmas gift — all should feel personal to them.

For you to manage dozens of relationships, it needs to be backed up by a structured process. Keeping track requires a system, which can be a platform CRM or simply a spreadsheet. You should be able to use this system to know which prospects are at which point in their journey, and what actions are needed to progress the relationship forward. Tracking the process in this way also stops you from being overwhelmed by relationship management. Kickstart a few relationships per week, and cycle the prospects through the journey at different stages, so that you have a manageable set of tasks to do each month and no one falls through the cracks.

Think long term

No charity should invest in developing a major donor programme unless it can afford to wait two years to see results. Relationships such as these take time to cultivate, and asking too soon can be as bad as never asking.

In reality, many charities find that donations do start to flow much earlier than this, but you should always plan your investment in the programme as a two-year bet. This will give you and your team the time to pilot your cultivation strategy without undue pressure. Then refine it, and build and deepen relationships. The best programmes I have seen have an emphasis on face time with donors, not gifts secured. This means your fundraisers will eagerly look for creative ways to spend quality time with donors, rather than rushing to ask for a gift that will fill a hole in their annual target.

Gifts require presence

Desk-based research, network mapping and donor journey planning all need to happen, but the most important ingredient in building a major donor programme is presence. Your fundraisers, executives or trustees need to have a presence in the places your donors spend time, and they need to get really comfortable with networking.

These places can be incredibly varied: conferences relevant to your cause area, social events for city professionals, debates, training events, and many more. Get to know your ideal donor audiences, explore their world, and become a known face in those circles. Start by making small talk over canapés, ask a lot of open-ended questions, find areas of mutual interest and get swapping those business cards.

Don’t let the tail wag the dog

Finally, we all know the risks in trust and foundation fundraising, when charities contort themselves and their programmes to fit funding criteria and lose sight of their own missions. Major donor fundraising presents some of the same risks, only with much bigger egos involved. Many major donors want to feel like they have influence over what happens with their gift and how the organisation is run. Charities often offer committee seats, honorary titles and advisory board positions to help satisfy this.

It is important to be careful, however, to protect the governance and decision-making processes of your charity from the whims and preferences of individuals — they are still donors, not investors, and you need to position yourself as the expert on where and how charitable funds should be spent.

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Emily Collins-Ellis is a Senior Advisor at I.G. Advisors, which bridges the gap between fundraisers, corporates and philanthropists to maximise impact. We provide strategic advice to both charities and donors, advising charities on how to fundraise effectively, and advising donors on how to create the most impact with their resources. If you’d like to find out more about how we can support you, please get in touch or visit for more information.

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