Top Tips For Major Gifts Fundraising, As Heard at I.G.’s Surgery

On Monday 12th March, I.G. Advisors held a Major Gifts Surgery in partnership with the Hospital Club Foundation and we were thrilled to welcome so many people. The room was packed and it was amazing to see such lively discussions being had first thing on a Monday morning!

A challenge we regularly see at I.G. is there are more major gifts fundraising roles in this sector than there are major gifts fundraisers — and this holds fundraising, and therefore social impact, back. So, we hosted this Surgery as an opportunity to answer questions candidly, and provide insights to help the sector kick it up a notch.

Our panel, moderated by Carlos Miranda, I.G.’s Founder and CEO, featured I.G.’s major gifts experts, Emily Collins-Ellis and Rachel Stephenson Sheff, who shared their top tips on best practice for soliciting in this space.

The event sold out quicker than we anticipated, so if you didn’t manage to make it (or if you did and want a reminder), below is a quick summary of the top insights from the event. We hope it will give you that dash of needed inspiration to start or boost your major gifts strategy.

6 key takeaways:

  1. Decide what a major gift looks like to you. Every organisation is different, and ‘major’ doesn’t have to mean ‘millionaire’. Align your ask with what justifies investment, and what your networks can manage to give. Don’t neglect your mid-level prospects either as they often give major sums over time.
  2. Donors are becoming more sophisticated and strategically minded. Form intellectual, as well as emotional connections. Treat donors as partners to build trust and weather storms like the Oxfam crisis and GDPR.
  3. Major donors aren’t all white western men. Diversify! Don’t ignore women donors, or the growing wealth in the Global South.
  4. Cultivate connectors. Build relationships with intermediaries such as lawyers and bankers who can provide access to new networks.
  5. Think beyond cash. The next generation of philanthropists will be inheriting illiquid assets, such as stocks, bonds and property. Carefully consider how, and if, you could manage donations of this type.
  6. Foundations are oversubscribed. Make sure to look for financial sustainability through other audiences, too.

Practical examples to give you some inspiration:

An excellent example of investing in your future pipeline (and not ignoring your mid-range donors) is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Apollo Circle. By curating a robust calendar of age-specific donor benefits, they have built a strong donor community that generates approximately $800k of annual unrestricted income.

Another organisation that successfully engaged their major donors in the right way is ActionAid. They involved donors in every conversation during their massive strategic change, which shifted their entire organisational focus from education to women and girls. By being honest with their donors from the beginning and genuinely asking for their advice, ActionAid didn’t lose a single major donor as a result of the change, and has built a strong foundation of trust that has proven wildly successful.

Insights from our Q & A session:

We were asked some fantastic questions from the audience, and here are my top three:

I feel lucky that I found a major donor that was already very engaged in my organisation’s cause. How can we create that kind of luck and be frank with our funders in a space where we are usually penalised for being honest?

It may be luck that your major donor discovered your organisation, but it is not luck that made your major donor commit the gift. Strong relationship-building skills and aligned personalities is likely what did it. If you are cultivating a sophisticated donor, you will need to match them with a sophisticated fundraiser who understands how their organisation helps in a wider context. There is nothing glossy about social change, and anyone who has a sophisticated understanding of it will value the challenges.

How can you manage your workload when fundraising if you are resource strapped and just getting started with a major gifts programme?

You need to have a clear and structured donor journey mapped out, so you can stagger the journey with variety of prospects from your list. Since the typical timeline is 18–24 months to close a major gift, map a 2-year journey in a structured format. That way you can assess what assets you have to help with the journey, what next steps are needed, and if there are any events you can engage them in. It will also become a document you can share with your internal stakeholders to show them when and how you will be making progress, and help them to be more patient with the process.

What does good practice look like when reporting your organisation’s impact?

Reporting is really important, but the mistake we often see is that people still report their impact as if we were living in the 1950’s! Many organisations invest masses of time and money on long-winded annual reports that no one ever reads — not even the CEO or Board. Of course, if an annual report is required of your organisation, know your audience and tailor it accordingly. If you have a younger following, you may be able to resonate well with next gen donors by creating infographics, a short YouTube video or even an Instagram annual report like the Calgary Zoo in Canada did.

If you want to find out more insights on major gifts fundraising, be sure to listen to I.G.’s podcast, What Donors Want, which provides advice straight from the donor’s mouth. And if you ever want to chat major gifts strategy — we’d love to discuss over coffee!