Demystifying the Major Gifts Process: Part 3 – Five Ways to Identify Potential Major Donors

advice fundraising major gifts more donors Oct 18, 2021


This is part three 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 the Major Gifts Process: Part 3 – Five Ways to Identify Potential Major Donors

I have a confession to make… There is sometimes a difference between “best practice” and my advice to nonprofits. This is because if you are a leader in a small to mid-sized nonprofit, you already have 15 jobs, there is not always time (or budget) to do things the “right way” – you need a shortcut. This blog post will get to the bottom line, giving you five super simple and extremely practical ways to identify potential major donors. This list is NOT exhaustive by any means, but it is intended to give you a start.

The concepts below are not conventional best practices. For example, there are software solutions and methods for prospect research that I am leaving out. But, as I said, organizations under $2-$5million per year usually don’t have the budget or time. So, I am aiming these suggestions practical to your reality.

You may be surprised how doable this list is – and I want you to take action immediately. You, yes you, sitting there reading this article, can implement every one of these no matter your budget.

1. Wealth Screen Your Current List (Donors and Non-Donors)

Whether it’s a software subscription or you reach out to me to get a single list processed, you need to wealth screen your current donor list. Wealth screening is a process by which you gather capacity data and other facts on your donors. I see two things happen when leaders wealth screen everyone they have contact info for: First, it should confirm what you already know about your major donor and/or prospect list. Second, hopefully, you’re surprised. If your list has more than 200 people on it, there should be some surprises. If your list does not have 200 people on it, you, your board, and everyone close to your organizations need to pause, skip forward to step you #2 (Name Storming), and then return to this.

2. Namestorming (You and Your Board)

There is one major phrase I want you to strike from your vocabulary. Vow today, that you will NEVER say, “But I’ve already asked everyone I know….” I wrote about the fallacy that you need more names in an article entitled “We Need More Donors.” I want to expand on that discussion by introducing the concept of namestorming.

Whether you are just starting and haven’t recruited a board yet, or you’re a well-established organization with a board of 25+ professionals, or if you’re a development director lost for ideas of who to get involved… this concept will help. I promise.

To do namestorming well, you need to set aside at least one or two hours with your complete and undivided attention. On a plain white piece of paper or an empty whiteboard, please write your name pretty small in the middle of the paper and circle it. Around your name, begin by listing organizations, activities, or times in your life where you were involved with other people. Each place should have its own circle. You might have listed something like this:

  • Family
  • Undergraduate University
  • High School
  • Church
  • Kid’s School
  • City You Grew Up In
  • Work/Employer (Current)
  • Work/Employer (Past)
  • Friends
  • Membership Organizations
  • Volunteering

Then, break each of those categories down to some sub-categories – connecting them with a line. I challenge you to have at least four subcategories for each main social sphere. Don’t write names yet unless that person is a hub themselves. Here is a brief example of the sub-categories based on a couple of social spheres using the prior example:

  • Family
    • Spouse
    • Siblings
    • Mother’s Siblings and Spouses
    • Father’s Siblings
    • In-Laws
    • Godparents
    • Like-Family (Close Family Friends)
    • Step-Parents
    • Step-Siblings
  • Undergraduate University
    • Class of 2000
    • Fraternity/Sorority
    • Basketball Team
    • Roommates
    • Study Abroad
    • Jobs on Campus
  • High School
    • Class of 1996
    • Debate Club
    • AP Classes
    • Student Council

If you can go one or two more layers deep, then go for it. The deeper you go, the more successful this exercise will be. If you need more space, tape some more pages together. When you are as specific as you can in each social sphere, begin to write names in each category. Someone may appear in more than one place. You can choose to either write their name twice or connect them with a line to make a web. As you think of some names, they will prompt you to recall other groups and sub-groups, other people and places, and perhaps even an entirely new offshoot. For example, your high school friend works at ABC Corp, and they hired a mutual friend to film their promotional video. Do you know more people at ABC Corp? Or, is it better to add that friend to your “friend” sphere. Or… maybe it creates a whole new category of photographer/videographers, you know… The person who took your family Christmas card photos for the last 5 years… etc.  It’s more important to write every name down than it is to get the structure entirely correct. If you spill over into a notebook, that’s okay.  

If you spent even a short amount of time on this project, you should have come up with at least 100 names. If you have worked for at least 5 years and are married, you should have 200+ names. You must put people down even if you aren’t still connected with them, as the person’s name and the association will help you make new connections.

Now, it’s time to start to plug these names into a list of some sort—perhaps an excel spreadsheet with First Name, Last Name, Email, Phone Number, and Mailing Address. Try to compile as much information as you can. Talk to family and friends, send texts, emails, and DMs as needed. Worse case, plug in their Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram links.  

You do not need to contact all of these people using the information you compiled, but this is your social radius, and having a completed social radius will help you network (step 5) like a boss.

Take the people you have a name and address for and add them to your wealth screen list.

When you are finished with your namestorm list, show it to your closest friends and family and see if they can find anything you’ve missed. Make it a game and give them $1 for every person they identify that you forgot!

When you have completed this, every member of your board should do this as well. If your board is you and two others, you should have a database of at least 600 people!


3. House Parties

People hang out with others similar to themselves. That means major donors have other major donors in their friends and family groups. This concept makes dinner parties and wine and cheese events very effective in connecting a nonprofit to new potential major donors.

You now have a list of over 200 people you know and your donor list which has been wealth screened. It is now time to ask a few of them to hose a house party for your cause.

The job of the host is to invite 5-10 (or so) couples for dinner. You will be the guest of honor and they will introduce you and invite you to speak about the work you are doing. It should be understood by the host and the guest that you’re soliciting their financial assistance, but it should be understood by you that it is more important for you to leave with interest and new contacts than donations.

When you speak, focus on your vision and on inviting people to get involved – on being the superheroes. Some nonprofit leaders choose to make a direct ask while others simply list some needs and invite those interested to “get involved.” Again, be sure to collect contact info and hand out some info with your vision and contact info.


Pro-Tip: When you have a list of 5-10 families you want to ask to host a house party for your cause, YOU to have a party yourself – inviting people who you would like to host a party. This allows you to show them what you expect and will make them more comfortable opening up their home and relationships to you.


It should be expected that every board member should host a small gathering – inviting 5 couples or 10 individuals at a minimum – each year. If they tell you that “they have already introduced everyone they know” to your cause, you can always pull out the namestorming exercise!

Having your first 10 or so house parties is usually the hardest part. You should make it your goal to have your next house party booked by the end of each house party, this will keep your momentum going. Hosting a house party is a great ask at the event itself. “I don’t need your money as much as I need you to help me spread the word about my cause” is a great line.


4. Do Your Research

If you recall, I said under tip 3 – house parties, people tend to hang out with people similar to themselves. Well, this goes for donors as well. Donors tend to give to similar causes. This is because people are not donating to the organization, they are donating to the impact. A donor gives to single mothers, to deserving students, to spreading the gospel, to feeding the hungry… if making that impact causes them to give to one cause, it’s more likely they will give you a similar cause.
That’s why researching organizations that are similar to yours is an important step. If you are a Catholic grade school, it’s important that you know the names of the donors giving to other Catholic/religious grade schools. I give the Catholic school example because I have a funny story to go with it. I remember talking to a nonprofit that was considering hiring me. They were asking me to help them identify major donors. I asked them if they had researched donors who supported other Catholic schools in the area. They said they had. I asked them for a list of all the donors over $100 in the past year. When I got this list, I saw at least 6 names of major donors in the area who I knew had given over $100,000 to other schools. If they had done their research, they would have spent the last year thanking the donor for every small gift they had made, invited the donor to campus for a tour, and worked on forming a relationship with the donor. Instead, they dismissed them as a small donor and tried to hire me to find more.

So where do you get this information? Besides asking around, networking (tip 5), and wealth screening your current list, there are hundreds of ways to gather this information. Research the organizations that have a similar mission to yours. It doesn’t have to be the exact same mission, just similar. Take a look at their donor recognition wall, get added to their newsletter, donate, pay attention when they list names of donors, read their blog or newspaper articles when they mention major gifts, ask others you know. Then, when you have a list of names of people who have donated to similar organizations, pass them by your board to see if anyone knows anyone or can get you connected, google and research the people, and work your way into a connection with them. Remember – do not ask for money out of the gate. Form a relationship, ask them what is important to them, and only ask if you think there is a possible good fit.


5. Network Like a Boss

5A: Networking Individuals

You have your namestorming list, so now is the time to spread your vision like wildfire among as many people as possible. Depending on how many people are on your list with contact info, spend the next 30-120 days systematically working on contacting a few of these contacts every day until you connect with every one of them.  Set aside 30 minutes to 1 hour each day to pick up the phone and actually call and speak with each person. When you get someone on the phone, spend the time to get caught up. LISTEN and talk to them about what THEY have been up to. It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s how we make friends. It takes time to catch up with people you haven’t spoken to in years. When they ask you can share about what you are doing – stay focused on your why. Use the feedback and emotional reactions to perfect your story about your cause as you tell it repeatedly. Pay attention to what elements get a response and which things bore people or confuse them You are networking and you are not asking for money. If you’re organized, you can ask them to help you in other ways. “Do you have contact information for ____ who we were friends with in college?” or “Want to grab coffee sometime and talk more?” Personally, what works best for me is something like this “I am putting together an email update that I will send only when I have something interesting to share about [impact]. Is [email protected]____ the best email for you?”

It is important to take notes on all of these calls. No matter how good of a memory you have, it’s going to be difficult to remember the details of 200+ conversations. In your excel spreadsheet add “Notes” and “Next Steps” columns and be sure to add a “Date” to each next step.

You are now networking. You spend time to do this and it’s not out of line to expect your board members to do the same.


Pro Tip: Don’t forget to ask each person if they know anyone you should talk to (and if they will text or email an introduction). Add all new contacts to your spreadsheet. As you talk to people look for excuses to keep in touch - it will make your net call easier. Through some form of communication (maybe just an email) keep all of these contacts regularly informed, involved, and invited.


5B: Networking Organizations

You are the leader of a nonprofit, and it’s important that you network with other nonprofit leaders. Find organizations that serve in the same area as you or a similar beneficiary as your nonprofit. They won’t do exactly what you do, but you are serving a similar area or mission. Reach out and introduce yourself – ask them if you could brainstorm some things with them, ask for their advice, etc. Offer to bring them coffee or lunch at their convenience. When you book a time, stick to the allotted time. Tell them what you are doing and always ask about their work and their organization. Asking for advice automatically transitions the conversation to a place where they are trying to help you. So us that as a time to grow yourself and to pick their brains. Try not to be the person who always takes, try to give as well. Think of people you can refer their way, ways you can partner or collaborate. Can your school collect cans for their soup kitchen or can you introduce the president of that organization to someone on your individual list? These types of peer-to-peer discussions are what make mastermind groups so popular and effective.  Nonprofit leaders who are the most connected, usually raise the most money.