When I moved into my current home, one of the first things that inspired me daily was the amazing work that went into the flower gardens in the front and back yards. Neighbors told me that the previous owner would come outside each day with her glass of iced tea and carefully tend to the many bushes, plants and flowers with such technique and care. As a result, I enjoyed walking outside for the next few months, excited to see what new flowers were blooming. As another result, because I have no gardening instincts, or time to develop them, the beautiful gardens are no longer blooming and I now spend my time hoping the previous owner does not drive through the neighborhood!
The problem was that I used just one strategy for my entire garden – same amount of water, weeding, and shade, or I didn’t pay attention to it at all. The same story can be told in terms of major gift donors and the amount of care and time you take with them within your own organization. Major gift cultivation is just like growing your own garden. Just as donors become engaged with your organization through different channels, their needs are different in terms of stewardship and cultivation. This means that while some donors want to attend a group tour or event, others may prefer a one on one meeting, or engaging with your constituents directly. Everyone is different, and each donor prospect is going to respond differently to a different level of engagement with your organization. In order to build and maintain a robust major gifts program, organizations must keep a “garden” mentality, using care and deliberate action to get results.
What is a Major Gift?
Major Gifts are defined by three things: the amount, the process that garners the gift, and the source. A major gift for one organization might be $250, for another it may be $10,000. The particular dollar amount is the highest level at which you have a critical mass. This is also the level of donor that is manageable for you to cultivate on an individual basis. These donors may be individuals, foundations, or corporations – any gift that is part of this highest critical mass should be considered a major donor. This group of donors is your base for your major gift program, or your organization’s “donor garden.”
Role of Major Gifts within the Annual Fund
A successful major gifts program plays a critical role in your organization’s strategic plan success and mission advancement. As the strategic plan provides the vision and mission and details the initiatives that move that mission forward, a robust major gifts program can provide the funds to resource those initiatives. And, your major donors not only want to know you have a strategic plan, but they also want to help you reach your goals. But, you have to share your vision and future plans with them in order for them to see how their dollars can help. All of your donors are interested in your success, a major donor is interested in how you are going to get there.
Your plans for growing your major gifts should include a strategy to share your vision and goals with donor prospects regularly, without making an ask, so that when it comes time for them to renew or increase, they know what your needs are, and they can respond.
Not all of your donors have the capacity to become major donors, but your job as the “master gardener” is to give them the opportunity to get to their own highest level of giving. This means that as you are able to bring prospects in through a strategic point of entry such as an event or tour, you are taking the time to determine what the next step should be to give that person an opportunity to learn more about your organization.
Developing Cultivation Plans
One of the most common issues we hear from our clients is that they can’t seem to connect with a major donor prospect after inviting them to different events. While it might seem like this donor is simply not interested in your organization, another explanation is that you just haven’t found the right cultivation step for them. As you look at your cultivation options, consider which types of donors might like to attend which activities. Someone who would be thrilled to have lunch with the CEO or Artistic Director, would not be as interested in attending a large group event or house party. This is why each major gift prospect should be considered individually, so they can be brought to their highest cultivated gift for the organization.
A great way to better understand your donor prospect, and begin to cultivate them in a way that elicits the response you are looking for, is to engage with a volunteer that knows the prospect. A good connection can tell you whether what part of your organization is probably the most interesting to them, and how they might like to learn more. Another way to determine the right path is simply by listening to the donor when you are talking with them. Do they seem uninterested in your idea or are they simply too busy? Have you asked them how they got interested in your organization in the first place? Many donors are happy to tell you what interests them, and you can use this information as you consider the right pathway. However, if you only try to reach them by mailed invitations, you don’t have an opportunity to learn more about them.
Planning and Tracking Cultivation Paths using Moves Management
As your development team considers its “donor garden,” and how to care for the donors in it, you should create an action plan for the next three steps that you plan to take with that donor. One step may be to engage a volunteer, another may be to invite them to a speaker series you are holding, and another may be to personally share a recent “win” for the organization. As these three steps are mapped out, a staff member should be identified as the person who will ensure the identified pathway is taken. In addition to the cultivation plan, there should be an intended target ask amount. This ask might happen two months after the first step is taken, and it might happen a year later, but there should be an ask plan that matches the dollars you have identified in your development plan.
Your cultivation path should be a fluid, dynamic document. A missed first step can derail the rest of the plan, and your action plan should reflect that shift. Additionally, your plan doesn’t end when you receive the gift. Once the gift is received, you should be planning the next steps to steward the gift, and show the donor how your organization is a good investment.
Every organization wants to know how to move the needle on the issue that their mission addresses. I often have people as me how they can make a significant improvement on their fundraising results – how can they go from good to great? The answer is always a robust major giving program. A deliberate plan to bring individual donors closer to your organization is the best way toward real mission advancement.