6 Signs You're Ready for Major Gifts


$100 million. $10 million. $1 million. $100,000. $10,000. Every day, we hear about organizations receiving incredibly generous donations from individual and family philanthropists. Gifts invested directly into programs—no gala required. Imagine what those organizations can do now with those funds in hand. Imagine the impact they’re making.

I haven’t met a nonprofit leader yet who isn’t hungry to take on more. Passion for the mission runs deep, and so does ambition to fulfill it. And yet, there never seems to be enough funding to run all the programs, nevermind grow them, or take care of the vital talent doing the work.

Increasingly, nonprofits of all stripes and sizes are turning to major gifts as an option for growth. It’s working for universities…hospitals…museums…why not us?

But it’s no secret that getting started on major gifts takes upfront investment of scarce resources—and even more scarce time. It is a big leap.

How do you know you’re ready?

Here are six signs it’s time…

1. You know where you want to go.

It all starts with vision.

Most organizations tap a consultant to course correct on fundraising when they hit dire financial straits. But the reality is, most donors aren’t motivated to give by your need to make payroll and keep the lights on. They’re motivated by why you are doing all this work in the first place—and even more, how they can move it forward.

Even if the reason you’re considering major gifts is financial pressure, you’ll need a compelling vision. From day one, prospective major donors will ask: what will be the impact of my gift? The answer will need to be: meaningful progress toward a big vision.

Set aside time to step out of the day-to-day minutiae and dream big on behalf of your mission. Gather a few trusted, creative thought partners and brainstorm. Indulge in strategic thinking—unconstrained by your current financial troubles. Download the Aperio Guide to Articulating Your Vision for a question guide to working through:

  • What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?

  • What’s the solution?

  • Why are you the organization to deliver it?

  • If you had all the funding you needed, where would you invest it?

  • What’s the impact of solving the problem? Why does it matter that it’s solved?

Be bold. Be forward-looking. Be optimistic that philanthropists will rally around your vision.

And then you’re ready.

2. Your programs are thriving and ready to grow.

Think of major donors as investors in a business. They have options of where to invest. They do due diligence before investing. They’re looking for growth as a result of their investment.

In addition to any personal philanthropic interests and mission connections that drive them, major donors want their donations used well. While the definition of “well” varies by donor, common underlying questions are:

  • Why are this organization and this program the most efficient and effective vehicle for advancing the cause I care about?

  • Why does this organization and this program need my investment?

  • What new progress will my donation make possible?

  • What kind of “multiplier” can I expect on my gift? Meaning, what additional progress will become possible because of what my gift accomplishes?

You’re ready to answer these questions when:

  • You can point to specific, ideally measurable, achievements from your programs.

  • You can point to specific, ideally tangible, innovations you have made—that differentiate your programs from similar programs run by other organizations.

  • Your programs run relatively smoothly, given the capacity you have.

  • You know where there is room to grow—i.e., how you’d put additional funds to use.

  • Your program staff are passionate about the work they do, why they do it, and the results they have.

3. Your staff is at capacity.

When I share with nonprofit leaders that I specialize in major gifts, I often hear: “We’d love to start working on major gifts, but we don’t have the time.”

Inevitably I’m struck by the realization: These leaders don’t have the time not to start working on major gifts.

They’re stuck at their desks late at night churning out one more $5,000 grant application—with stringent reporting requirements that will take another couple of days to fulfill on the back end. Their staff writes appeal after appeal, plans event after event, and end up in the same place they were the year before. Potential donors are getting missed because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get to everyone.

A stable base of gifts—of any size, of any source—is vital to the health of organization. But, at some point in every organization’s life, it’s time to ask:

  • How much are we spending to earn each dollar? By the time we add in all the direct costs, all staff time, all the opportunity cost of what staff is not doing…are we really coming out with more money for our mission?

  • Does our pace of growth reflect how hard we are working? Are we seeing our efforts pay off in more (net!) revenue year over year?

If thinking about these questions leaves you feeling mired (and maybe a bit dizzy!), it’s probable: you don’t have time not to get started on major gifts.

4. Your events are successful, but…

Your galas dazzle. Your walk-a-thons inspire. Your sponsors are happy. Your committee is thrilled.

And yet…

You wonder:

  • How much do attendees understand about what we do, and why it matters that they support us?

  • How many of these generous community members will we see again?

  • How long will our message resonate after they leave the room?

Or maybe even: I know that $10,000 auction donor gives 6- and 7-figure gifts to other donations…how do we get on her radar?

Thriving events are a sign that your message resonates in your community, and that your community is interested in getting behind you. You’ve cultivated a network of volunteers and donors who feel so good about their support of your work, they feel comfortable bringing their friends along.

It’s a great sign. It’s also the tip of the iceberg…

If your organization can fill a room, there’s a community of philanthropists out there waiting to be asked to invest direction in your vision.

5. Your database is full of people, but…

Over the years, you’ve attracted a broad base of support. Maybe in ebbs and flows. Maybe mostly small gifts. Maybe mostly sporadic gifts. But the names are there, signaling: Your story resonates.

There is almost no higher cost to a nonprofit than letting most gifts go unrepeated.

As any experienced fundraiser will tell you, it’s much harder to get the first gift than the second. That means: It’s also more expensive.

It’s expensive to invest staff time in stewarding donors, learning about their interests, and making personalized asks. But it’s much more expensive to consume staff with the unproductive—and rather unfulfilling—task of constantly having to find replacement donors because most donors go unstewarded, unknown, and unasked—and therefore stop giving.

There are gems in your database. I guarantee it.

  • People who give often, but at a much lower level than their capacity.

  • People who gave regularly before, but got disconnected.

  • People who gave once because they have a strong mission connection and wanted to get involved…but never heard from the organization.

Not every constituent in your database will want to be contacted or give again, but some will, and some of those gifts will be transformational for your organization.

More importantly, you have the opportunity for a reset. Each new donation that comes in is an opportunity to make a friend for the organization—a lifelong friend.

6. You are ready to roll up your sleeves.

Philanthropy transforms an organization through and through. By the time your major gifts program is up-and-running, no member of your team, no volunteer will be untouched—for the better.

What you’ve heard is true. It is hard work to build a major gifts program—especially for leadership.

  • Are you ready to work differently? To relate differently to your donors—in ways that may require you to learn new skills? To prioritize relationship-building—even if the rewards are less immediate than other tasks on your plate?

  • Are you ready to invest in talent, systems, and resources?

  • Are you ready to sustain those investment and see them through—even when results take more time than you’d like?

  • Are you ready to lead your volunteers, especially your board, through the uncomfortable transition to relationship-based fundraising?

  • Are you ready to adopt a culture of philanthropy—and cultivate throughout your organization?

But, the rewards are real too:

  • You will see returns of 80-90% of each dollar invested in your program as it matures.

  • You will see more revenue growth rates pick up.

  • You will see more predictable, more reliable funding.

  • You will see a community of philanthropists rally around your organization and its visions.

  • You will see donors get deeply invested in your work.

  • You will see faster progress.

  • You will see your vision becoming reality.