How a small nonprofit can establish a major donor strategy

October 20, 2023
7 minutes
A collection of colorful cupcakes are clustered together on a table. One cake in the center is significantly larger than the rest—a major donor dessert.

Here at Funraise, we love small nonprofits. Small nonprofits make the world go 'round! They connect communities. They address niche needs. They have their fingers on the pulse of their local ecosystem. And in moments of extreme need, like the COVID-19 pandemic, they stretch resources and do everything they can to get the job done.

But still, they're small. And as a small nonprofit organization, you sometimes (okay, often) need more budget or more resources so you can continue your vital work. And that's where a major donor strategy comes in.

If you want the most bang for their buck, where the bang = ROI and the buck is resources allocated to fundraising, major donations and donors are a must. And while it's a bit more challenging without massive fundraising teams and dedicated major gifts officers, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your while. Let’s talk about how you and your small-but-mighty nonprofit can get it done.

Who are major donors?

Major donors are any individual donors or organizations that donate a substantial amount to your cause.

Fun fact: 89% of all nonprofit gifts and/or donations come from just 14% of donors. While there’s no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes a major gift, think back to budgets of years past and remember where that money came from. Was there a good chunk of your budget that was raised from a few sources? You might want to consider those sources major donors... or at least potential major donors.

In fact, try this: Label anyone who donates more than your average donor a potential major donor. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Why should your nonprofit focus on major donors?

Fun fact: Over the last decade, donors who contributed over $5,000 drove a 69% increase in total donations and accounted for nearly three-quarters of total dollars donated (AFP Global). Think back to budgets of years past and remember where that money came from. Chances are a good chunk of your budget was raised from a few sources. And that, nonprofiteer, is why you want to put major donors at the center of your fundraising strategy.

How much is considered a major gift?

It depends on the organization. For example, alumni organizations at renowned universities will have a much higher threshold for major gift donors than local community organizations. But while there’s no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes a nonprofit's largest gifts, a general rule of thumb is that anyone who donates more than your average donor is at least a major donor prospect. 

What is a major donor strategy?

A major donor strategy is a strategy designed to identify and solicit large contributions from a donor who provides funds that are significant to your nonprofit organization. As previously discussed, what "significant" means to your nonprofit and to the donor can be different across locations and industries.

And... take the advice of nonprofit growth experts like Sherry Quam Taylor, who explains that understanding your nonprofit's true need is half the battle on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast.

What are the components of a major donor fundraising strategy?

Major donor strategies have several key components, including:

  1. Identifying prospects
  2. Cultivating relationships
  3. Making a plan
  4. Setting up the program
  5. Making the ask
  6. Organizing your donor database
  7. Regularly checking in

Identifying major donor prospects.

First, you need to identify those super generous supporters that you want to attract. You're looking for potential donors with the funds and interest to support your organization at a high level.

Cultivating relationships with prospective donors.

Once you have some major gift prospects in mind, focus on building strong relationships. This can include personalized communications, invitations to special events, one-on-one coffee dates, and involving them in the organization's activities.

Making a donor stewardship plan.

Once any major gift prospect has become a current donor, whether they've given a larger gift or a smaller one, you need a plan to nurture that relationship. Your strategy should include a major gift officer,  stewardship associate, or at least a designated member of your development team, depending on your bandwidth.

Planning your major gift program.

If you're serious about your major donor fundraising strategy, you'll want to plan a major gifts program around it. Think about the recognition and benefits you can offer these donors to encourage their support. We're thinking naming opportunities, special events, or involvement in (some!) decision-making processes.

Making the first big ask.

At some point, you'll want to ask for a larger gift, so have a plan for how you'll do it. Don't rush this step; ensure you have a strong case for support and time it carefully.

Getting your donor database in order.

With major contributions come major responsibilities, and to make the most of these major opportunities, you want to track everything in your donor database. Giving history, interactions, birthdays, pet chinchillas. Write it all down.

Regularly checking back in. 

An effective strategy is a living thing, so be sure to include a plan to check back in on a regular basis to see what's working and what's not. Then, update your approach as needed to get the results you want.

Why is it important that small nonprofits have a major donor strategy?

So, you know what the strategy is, but why should you care about major donors for small nonprofits? Why does all that matter? There are many reasons.

Drive long-term stability

Smaller charitable organizations often face budget constraints and have limited resources. Bigger gifts allow them to make bigger moves with an eye toward the future, like launching that capital campaign or funding a new program. Ultimately, larger charitable donations help small nonprofits achieve their mission more effectively.

A bigger return on your efforts

Every donor requires stewardship and a personalized strategy. But with major gift donors, small organizations are literally getting a bigger return on their efforts.

Fewer donors, fewer problems

Smaller nonprofits have smaller donor lists. So, while all nonprofits appreciate every $5 donation, the fact remains that a $5 donation from every donor on a small nonprofit’s list will add up to way less revenue than $5 from everyone on the American Red Cross’s mailing list. But with more major gift donors, a smaller list doesn't matter. 

Bigger, better networks

Big donors come with big networks. They can increase visibility, fill seats at fundraising events, and attract additional major prospects, which is particularly important for smaller nonprofits.

They have big plans

When you have more wealth, you have to plan for the future, making every major donor an opportunity for planned giving. By cultivating long-term relationships with these donors, small nonprofits can set themselves up for future success through estate planning initiatives.

How do you develop a major donor strategy?

With all those basics squared away, your small nonprofit can actually develop your donor strategy. While the specifics will depend on your organization's resources, preferences, and team, here's a brief overview to get you started.

Look at your data 

To implement a strategy, you first need an audience, so start by diving into your current donor pool. Simply pop into your donor management system and make a list of everyone's annual gifts. To identify your current major donors, note all the contributions that comprise 75% of your budget. Then, move on to the major donor prospects by looking at wealth indicators, like income and employment, to see who could be contributing more toward your fundraising efforts.

Do some research

Particularly for small nonprofits, your data beyond gift amounts may be limited. Next, you can do some outside research in the form of philanthropic indicators and wealth screenings. As you Google, consider real estate ownership, past donations, and board activity to determine where that next larger donation could come from.

Leverage the connections of your board

Now, do some good old-fashioned networking. You always want to engage your current donor base in your networking efforts, but it's especially important to leverage your board's connections. They often have impressive networks that can lead to new donors, and new donors can lead to improved major gift fundraising. 

Start a major gifts program

Make a major gifts program part of your larger fundraising strategy. Identify a dedicated staff member or volunteer to lead the effort, define giving levels that qualify as major gifts based on your organization's capacity, and decide what the program will look like in terms of exclusive events and benefits.

Set clear goals

To determine whether any strategy is a success, whether it's a capital campaign or monthly donor program, you need to set clear and measurable goals. For your major giving program, consider what fundraising success looks like, whether it's a certain number of donors or an amount raised.

Thank your major donors

Every fundraising campaign ends with a resounding thank you to all your donors, but when it comes to your largest donations, you really want to show your heartfelt appreciation. In addition to checking in and saying thanks on a regular basis, consider hosting some appreciation events and one-on-one check-ins to foster your major donor relationships.

Analyze your major gift strategy results

Once you've implemented your strategy, the journey isn't over. Just like any fundraising plan, you need to regularly assess its effectiveness. Look at key performance indicators and analyze the results over a period of time to evaluate the efficacy. Then, make improvements as needed.

Always share specific results

When reporting on the impact of your major giving program, be specific and transparent about how each gift has made a difference. Share success stories, testimonials, and concrete examples to illustrate how donors' financial contributions have helped your clients and made the world a little bit brighter.

Implement a stewardship plan

It's not just about getting the donors; it's about keeping them. Keep your strategy working for you with a solid stewardship plan that yields long-lasting relationships.

How do I find more major donors?

If you're seeking fundraising success, you need More. Major. Donors! But how do you find these elusive supporters who will give your organization its biggest gifts? That's the job of a major gifts team ... but what that team looks like depends on your nonprofit's resources. Here's a quick walkthrough of who handles each stage of a smaller nonprofit's major donor program.

Get your major gifts team in order

Small nonprofits have smaller teams and less resources than their larger counterparts, so it's unlikely that you have a major gifts officer to handle all things major donor-related. Instead, you'll want to rely on a mix of your executive director, development team, and board of directors. Here's how that might look.


Your executive director or board members use their personal connections or knowledge to identify major prospects who align with your organization's mission. Additionally, your fundraising team can conduct initial prospect research to identify potential major donors based on donation amounts and a basic wealth screening. 


Now, your team needs to assess potential donors' capacity (and inclination) to make major gifts. At small nonprofits, development staff usually lead this process, using research and donor data, specifically wealth indicators and philanthropic history, to determine if a prospect meets the criteria for major funding.


Again, this is your development team's time to shine. At this stage, they start cultivating stronger relationships with prospective donors to support your nonprofit's major gift efforts. This involves a lot of personalized communications to foster engagement. You can also turn to board members if they have a close relationship with a prospect. Additionally, depending on the organization's size and structure, specialized program staff members may play a role in cultivating relationships with major donors, sharing their expertise to showcase the impact of donations.


Finally, you want to motivate your donors to make those big donations. Development staff can develop personalized giving proposals, articulate your organization's case for support, and present tailored opportunities for donors to make an impact. At this level, your executive director and board also play a critical role, inspiring donors to give at a higher level.

Get major donors engaged in other ways besides donating

Once your team has done all the work to identify, screen, cultivate, and motivate major donors, the real work begins: keeping them around. While your usual donor retention toolkit works well here, the best way to retain major donors is by getting them involved with something other than just major gift fundraising.

Hosting cultivation events

Deepen your donors' connection to your organization by hosting a wide range of major donor cultivation events. You can give a behind-the-scenes tour of your facilities, host an exclusive dinner (or brunch. Or brunch for dinner!), or get everyone together for some volunteering fun. Make sure your event attendees feel special while learning all about their ability to make positive change.

Joining the board

Invite major donors to join your nonprofit's board of directors or one of your advisory committees. They often have large networks and useful expertise, which can be invaluable in guiding your decision-making and driving charitable donations. Plus, being actively involved in the organization allows them to see exactly where those hard-earned gifts are going.

Getting corporate donors involved

Ask major donors to spread the giving to their workplace and get the whole company involved through a corporate partnership. More and more, consumers gravitate toward businesses that demonstrate social responsibility, making this a prime opportunity for sponsorships, employee donations, or volunteer activities. 

Look for the commonalities

After identifying who your major donors are—and, by extension, what counts as a major gift for your nonprofit—identify what your major donors have in common. What attracted those donors to your nonprofit? Why do they care about your mission? Then, once you understand what attracts those donors, use those same qualities to lure other major donors and keep digging deeper into the data you already have. This is easier if you have access to technology like Funraise’s Fundraising Intelligence, but a CRM will work, too! 

Accept different types of currency from major donors

If you want more donors, make sure you accept any and all forms of payment in your major donor program. We're talking stocks and securities, cryptocurrency, and real estate as well as funding from DAFs. Additionally, lean into planned giving, looking toward long-term stability as well as short-term gifts. This also demonstrates that you're interested in a long-term relationship with your donors. 

What motivates major donors?

You know how to find more donors, but once you've found them, how do you motivate them to give? Understanding these motivations can help you build stronger relationships with your major donors and secure their continued support. Here are some key motivators.

Major gifts as opportunities

Major donors are often motivated by the impact of their gifts. They see their contributions as a means to drive progress and make an impact. So, talk about projects or initiatives where their gifts can serve as catalysts for positive change and share tangible results whenever possible.

Transformational vs. transactional results

Major donors tend to be more motivated by transformational results rather than transactional ones. They want to effect real change through their philanthropy rather than just addressing short-term needs. As a result, you can further motivate them by demonstrating how larger gifts create meaningful, systemic changes and have a lasting impact.

Seeing their humanity instead of just their wallet

No one wants to be seen as a blank check, and major donors appreciate when organizations treat them as individuals rather than just sources of funding. Recognizing donors' humanity can deepen their emotional engagement with your nonprofit and foster a stronger sense of partnership.

Stewardship and recognition

If you've read this far, this one won't be a surprise. Pretty much everyone in your current donor pool likes to be recognized in some way for their generosity, and that's especially true for those giving larger charitable gifts. So, invite them to special events, say thank you, and stay in touch.

Creating a legacy

A lot of major donors give with an eye to the future, wanting to leave a lasting legacy through their philanthropy. Soliciting planned gifts and presenting donors with a clear plan for what those gifts will do can give them a sense of purpose.

Don't get tripped up over these major gift stumbling blocks

Of course, if you want to take your major donor fundraising efforts to the next level, there are also some common obstacles to avoid. For a silky smooth major donor program, be aware of the following.

Get the right person

Don't make assumptions about who's handling the donations in a household. Avoid gender stereotypes and instead aim to engage anyone who shows an interest in the philanthropic process. And one more tip: get the next generation involved early on!

Don't make an ask during the first meeting

Keep it classy, folks! Building relationships with donors is a gradual process, and with major gifts, this is especially true. Avoid rushing into a donation request during the initial meeting. Instead, focus on getting to know the donor, understanding their priorities, and sharing information about your organization's work. 

Don't put them in a box

Look at your donors as individual people rather than a group with the same characteristics. Make sure your major gifts team is putting in the time to learn about each donor's unique circumstances, values, motivations, and background. Then, tailor your engagement and strategy accordingly.

Don't ask for too little

Don't underestimate how much people will give; you'll only end up hurting your bottom line. Do your research and make appropriate asks that align with their willingness and capacity to donate. After all, the worst thing someone can say is no.

Don't send generic outreach

When people are giving big to your organization, they deserve personalized communications. (And, honestly, every donor deserves that!) Take the time to craft custom messages that speak directly to each donor.

Don't take it personally when they say no

Sometimes, people say no, and that's okay! Don't take it personally if a major donor declines your donation request. Instead, try your best to keep the relationship going. Use it as an opportunity to get feedback and explore other ways they might support your organization going forward.

Don't rely too heavily on one donor

Just like you don't want to rely on a single revenue stream, you don't want to rely on a single donor. If something happens and they stop giving, you'll be in major trouble (sorry not sorry). Diversify your major donor base to ensure sustainability.

Don't get scammed!

This is a big one: sometimes, that Nigerian prince is not really going to send you a check for $10,000 once you send him 10 gift cards to Office Depot. If someone you don't know approaches you with an unsolicited large gift, verify their legitimacy before moving forward. 

By establishing a major donor strategy, small nonprofits set themselves up for long-term success. Major donors are integral to the health of small nonprofits—and when over 75% of your donations come from those few donors, it’s clear where nonprofits should focus their efforts.

Major donors: FAQs

What is an example of a major donor?

Anyone can be a major donor, be they an individual, foundation, or organization. What differentiates them from a mid-level donor is that they give a significant amount to a nonprofit organization, cause, or political campaign. What constitutes a significant donation depends on the organization itself.

What is the difference between individual giving vs. major gifts?

Individual giving refers to donations made by a range of donors, including small and mid-sized donors. These gifts can vary in size. Major gifts, however, are a subset of individual giving and represent larger contributions from individuals, organizations, or foundations. often, nonprofits do more personalized cultivation and stewardship for major gifts.

Does my small nonprofit already have hidden major donors?

It's quite possible that your small nonprofit has hidden major donors in your current donor base. These donors could give more but haven't for any number of reasons. By examining your donor database and doing wealth screenings and prospect research, you can identify potential major donors and cultivate the relationship.

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