Demystifying the Major Gifts Process: Part 2 – Why Major Donors Give and How to Talk with Them

founder's syndrome fundraising major gifts Oct 11, 2021

This is part two of a four-part series I am doing on major gift fundraising.

  1. Working with major gift officers or consultants
  2. The foundations of why major donors give and how to talk with them
  3. How to identify major donors for your small to mid-sized nonprofit
  4. How to do the major gift ask (according to major donors who have been solicited hundreds of times)


Demystifying Major Gifts – Part 2: Why Major Donors Give and How to Talk with Them


We are sometimes too close to our organizations to be great fundraisers


As with many things in the nonprofit world, I will say, “we are sometimes too close to our organizations to be great fundraisers.” What do I mean by that? Here are three ways we are too close to our organizations:

  • We are so involved in the day-to-day and what’s happening that we don’t always realize that our donors are not getting the same flow of information. Or, just as bad, we expect that because we said it ones, everyone knows. We talk to them as if they know, but we neglected to communicate effectively. So they are, of course, not going to be as engaged as we imagine.
  • We absolutely love what we do and believe in it, but sometimes so much so that we think “why wouldn’t someone want to support this cause” rather than “why would someone want to be a part of this?” (I call this “Founder’s Syndrome” because it’s especially prevalent with founders).
  • And in terms of major gifts… We get really close to the financial struggles, sticking within the budget, and developing new projects that a scarcity mindset settles in. Our feasibility study says it can’t happen, we have never received a single gift over $50,000, we already know all the potential major donors and none of them are ready for a gift… so we self-limit. In reality, a $100,000 challenge for a small nonprofit is not challenging for many major donors.

In fact, replace $100,000 with whatever amount. That is for your organization. Major donors give hundreds of millions when the right mission and opportunity present themselves.

Notice how I said that… the right mission and opportunity present themselves. I did not say “when an organization dreams up something cool and flashy enough to present to the donor and ask for a specific amount.”


Funding and Existing Project > Developing a Program Around Potential Funding


Major gifts fundraising is about identifying the donors who want to support your existing mission and need, not developing your programs around a potential funding opportunity. This one concept will save you thousands of hours of money and transform your approach to fundraising.

Major donors and granting foundations in an overwhelming majority do not give money to a concept, they give money to an existing program to make it better. So, when we do a great job of developing our programs, excel at communicating out work, have a plan for inviting new people, make the donors the superheroes, and target donors based upon their interests within the scope of our mission, we can always have an opportunity to ask in a way that expands our current programs and we don’t have to make something up to try to target the gift.

This is also why major gift fundraising is easier when half of your project is already funded. Major donors rarely want to be the only one supporting a project. They want to know it was well thought-out, that there is broad support, and this is something the organization WILL make work, rather than hope will work out on someone else’s’ (the major donor’s) dime.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do in fundraising is to not take money, to not ask, and to not develop potential projects when you think maybe you can get the money – but those things are all things that take you away from focusing your mission and efforts, which are the exact things that attract major gifts.


Top 5 Reasons Major Donors Give


If you search the internet or read books on major donor motivations you will see many opinions, my presentation here is not scientific – this is 100% from my experience raising hundreds of millions of dollars.

  1. Religious Reasons: I would say that religion is the top motivator, but I may be biased because a majority of my fundraising has been for faith-based organizations. I am not saying whether it’s good or bad that religion is such a large motivator, I am stating a fact. Some call it guilt, some call it altruism, and others say it’s motivated by the way they were raised. According to David King, the director of the Institute on Faith and Giving, “Someone with a religious affiliation [is] more than two times more generous than someone without a religious affiliation. And among those with a religious affiliation, religious intensity really matters.”   Not only are religious people more likely than non-religious people to donate (62 vs. 46%), religious giving counts for nearly one third of all giving un the US.
  2. Impact: Impact giving is the second largest motivator I see regularly. Impact giving is when an organization askes for a specific amount to accomplish a specific task or service. Examples of impact giving include sponsorships, accomplishing a task like installing a well, providing a service, such as 100 ultrasounds, providing for a need such as a meal to a child or a chicken or goat to a family, etc. Having talked to hundreds if not thousands of major donors, I can say impact giving is such a high motivator because it concretizes the donor’s gift - taking the abstract check-writing or wire transfer process and turning it into a purpose. A donor can immediately understand what they accomplished, rather than wait to see.
  3. Business Acumen: A large majority of major donors have or had their own businesses. This makes it likely that a donor will have a solid understanding of how business works. For this reason, it’s not uncommon that they apply their business acumen to their giving. I find that many donors are very motivated by giving to help a nonprofit scale, replicate, or become more sustainable. I find many of these gifts come from donors who want to be more involved in how the funds are used.
  4. Personally Affected: If someone has been personally affected by the organization or by the thing “why” of the organization, they are far more likely to give. Many of these gifts are substantial. A grateful patient program at a hospital is an example of a gift from someone personally affected. If the doctors and hospital helped cure you or your child from cancer, a $25,000 gift may not even seem like a sacrifice anymore. If someone you know suffered from Alzheimer’s, you may very likely get involved in finding a cure. Colleges and Universities that trained students who are successful may get a gift of this type as well. Sometimes these gifts can also be somewhat nostalgic – you give you your alma mater to give another young aspiring engineer a boost.
  5. Commemoration and Legacy: I am grouping these together because I see it linked as leaving a legacy or remembering/celebrating the legacy of someone else. A commemoration is when the person gives in memory of someone else, and a legacy or bequest is when the donor leaves a commemoration for themselves or their family when they pass. I see commemorative and legacy quite a bit in the medical, educational, and science industries – naming buildings and institutes. This can be a powerful way to ask for money, because if your mission was/is very important to the donor or their loved one, there is a low barrier to entry for partnering.

 Did you notice, I did not mention “tax deductions” as a top motivator? Although that’s a benefit, those who are willing to make large gifts are capable of making those gifts with or without the tax benefits. From my experience, the tax benefit does not motivate the gift and you cannot lure someone in with that logic, however, getting a benefit simply means donors may give even more.


Talking to Major Donors – How I Made a Major Donor Cry.


I will break down talking with major donors more in Part 4, but let me get started with a story.

I was having lunch with a donor for his birthday. This guy’s capacity was massive, but he was hard to separate from his money. He was known to be hard to get a gift from. He was well into his 80s and his wife died years before. At the end of lunch I paid the bill. The donor looked at me a little strange. He was telling me several of the same stories he tells me every time we meet, and I listened without cutting him off. But, that meant at the end of lunch I had not had an opportunity to fill him in on the developments of the nonprofit I was representing. So, I took him to coffee, which he agreed to only if he could pay. I obliged. We got coffee and I told him a little about the developments that happened since the last time we met. This was now three hours since we met. I had to get going, so I started winding down the conversation. He didn’t drive so as I drove him home, I reminded him that I would come get him and take him to the upcoming event. When he stepped out of my car, I said goodbye and told him I had fun. He turned around, looked me in the eye, and then busted into tears. Alligator tears. He ugly cried. I threw the car into park and ran over to him to see what was going on. He had been so touched that I had taken him out to lunch, paid, and spent the entire afternoon with him without asking for money. He’s a lonely old man with a lot of money, and apparently he felt he was paying to have friends. I was free. It overwhelmed him.

How do you talk to major donors? You talk to them like they are friends and family, because they are.

That doesn’t I will never ask this man for money, but when I do, he will know that I believe it’s a great match. He may say not, but it will not affect our friendship.

Before you ask for a major gift, spend 2-3 sessions with a prospective donor and ask them what their motivations are, what causes are important to them, how they determine which places they give. Then, spend time learning about them and their family. If your nonprofit is not a match for what they typically give to, tell the prospective donor that you do not have any programs that align with those motivations. This type of honesty and openness is super attractive to major and non-major donors alike.

Donors are not ATMs, they are people. And when we treat them like people, like friends, we earn the right to talk to them about private matters, such as finances and giving.