How can our nonprofit cultivate donors who can make major gifts?

Debi Hoxter

By Debi Hoxter

If only there were an easy answer to the question of how nonprofits can win big donations. Campaign managers would certainly be able to relax a little.

But while there is no easy way to solicit major donations, the answer is actually quite simple: Relationships. Cultivating big donors is all about developing relationships, and while that takes significant time and energy, it pays off in the long run.

The question then becomes, what is the best way to build relationships? Start by reaching out to your board of directors, and ask for their support and guidance. They're often well connected and may know people in their network who would be a good match for your cause. Ask your board member to make an introduction, preferably in person, but at least by having their connection take your phone call.

If there is a dearth of leads from the board, start looking at your own network and conducting research. Find out who your competitors' major donors are and see if you have any common connections. Perhaps you have an old colleague who now works at the same company as a donor, or maybe you share a mutual connection with a prospect on LinkedIn.

Once you've identified a target prospect and have made a connection, you can begin the four-step courtship process: Qualify, cultivate, solicit and steward.

  • Qualify: Get to know the prospect and see if your organization is of key interest. Determine if he or she has the proper financial capacity by inquiring about and researching other philanthropic activity.
  • Cultivate: Make the prospect feel a part of the organization. Invite him or her to meet your organization's leadership, visit its facilities and attend its events. Demonstrate why your organization is different from others.
  • Solicit: The actual ask should not come as a major surprise. Like a marriage engagement, both parties should be expecting and comfortable when the question is popped.
  • Steward: After a donation is made, don't disappear until the next appeal time. Thank the donor repeatedly, and continue the relationship by inviting your donor to activities that are of interest, from volunteer efforts to cocktail parties. Even better if they can bring a friend to an event who might also be willing to donate.

The key through this process is to take your time. The clock should not be ticking for you to land a major donation; rather, expect that it will take time to court the prospect and ask when the time is right. Although cultivating major donors is time-consuming, it will ultimately pay off and build as your network grows and strengthens.

About the author: Debi Hoxter is Director, Corporate & Foundation Relations at Dunleavy & Associates. Pulling from her prior experience as Executive Director, Corporate Underwriting at WHYY, Debi works with clients to build donor and corporate relationships and create strategies for meeting revenue goals. She began her career in advertising, working first at Ted Bates and Grey advertising agencies in New York before serving as Advertising Sales Manager at Philadelphia Magazine.