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How to Start a Major Gifts Program, Especially During COVID-19

This is a dilemma for many nonprofit organizations. Even during “regular” fundraising times, this is usually a significant fundraising milestone for most nonprofits. Now is an especially important time. Your special events have been postponed. Your direct mail or annual giving is also on target but what else can we do?

You might be thinking “we don’t have any major donors.” Or “how do I find them?” Or, “what is a major gift, anyway?” One thing to keep in mind is that major donors give from their assets, like stocks and other securities, not just cash. You could also see a planned gift or bequest down the road. Even though there is financial uncertainty during these times, donors with a Donor-Advised Fund (DAF) are good major gift prospects since they have already dedicated funds for philanthropic causes.

You may not believe it now, but your major donors are already in your donor database, and you can define your own major gift level. At some organizations, a $1,000 is a major gift while larger universities or hospital foundations may set a $100,000+ threshold for a major gift.

Here’s how you calculate your major gift threshold:

1. Identify your top ten cumulative donors over the past twelve months. Exclude foundations, corporations, and one-time gifts.

2. Add up these donations and divide by ten.

3. Round up this average number to the nearest $5,000 or if your organization is very small, round up to whatever seems realistic to you and your organization.

4. This is your major gift threshold.

Your next step is to identify your prospective major donors. Remember, you already have donors who support your mission. “Warm”, current donors are easier to cultivate than strangers. Review your donor records for the past three years and look for familiar names or frequency of giving. You are looking for individuals who have given cumulatively at or above your newly defined major gift level. The next group are those who have given below, but close to that level.

Identifying your potential donors is the first step in your major gift plan. The other five steps are:

· Research

· Strategy

· Cultivation

· Solicitation

· Stewardship

Your goal is to create a portfolio for your Development Director and/or your Executive Director. Your board of directors can be very helpful with each of these steps because they may know something about your prospective donors that is not common knowledge and they may have a personal or business relationship with them.

Your major gifts portfolio won’t be large, which means you will be able to research each donor and create a specific strategy to cultivate and solicit them. Once you have their gift, steward them so they will want to give again.

Good luck!


Michelle Crim, CFRE

Dynamic Development Strategies can help. We offer coaching and fundraising services for our nonprofit clients. We specialize in startup and smaller nonprofits because we understand your challenges. Please contact us for more information.

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