Asking for Major Gifts? Answer These Questions First

A Wing and a Prayer Is Not a Plan

Asking for a major gift requires foresight and planning.
Liz Gregg/Getty Images

You can’t build a house until you’ve found the right location, created a blueprint, laid a foundation and brought in just the right workers.

Similarly,  you can’t ask for a major gift until you’ve found the right prospect; developed a clear case for support; done the groundwork to get your prospect ready for the ask, and prepared yourself and your solicitors to knock the ask out of the park. So, get ready!

Ask These 10 Questions to Lay the Groundwork for Successful Asks

  1. Is this the right prospect?

    If I had a nickel for how many times I’ve sat in a campaign screening session and folks in the room have named the wealthiest person in the community as the “go to" prospect, I’d be a rich woman. Seriously!

    Just because someone has capacity doesn’t mean they’re interested in your cause, or even that they’re philanthropic. Similarly, just because they’re passionate about your mission doesn’t mean they have the resources to make a significant gift.

    You need three things to make someone a viable candidate: a link to your cause (they’ve given before; they’ve been a client or patron; they know one of your board members);  interest in your cause, and ability to give.

    Tip: When figuring out what prospects to bring into a screening meeting, don’t just start with the rich folks in your community. Look at anyone who makes a gift higher than your average gift.

    They may not have the capacity to make a larger gift. Perhaps they’re just incredibly generous and give more than the average bear on a per capita or percentage of income basis.

    You may not know, but that’s what you’re screening for. What you do know is that they have linkage and more than a passing interest. Two out of three isn’t a bad place to start.

  1. Will the prospect readily understand why you’re asking?

    The prospect must feel their gift is essential. This is best done through storytelling. Your story should demonstrate what would happen if your nonprofit ceased to exist. Or if the program for which you’re seeking funding doesn’t come to fruition.

    Show them the impact of their gift. Put a face to your story. If they feel you’re only asking for “money” they cannot make a passionate gift. There is nothing more essential to successful major gift fundraising than clarifying your story.

    Your job is to show the prospective donor how he can prevent the unhappy ending. 

    The prospect must feel the amount you’re asking is the right amount. Your donor wants to know what will be enough. What will your entire project cost? Then they can figure out where they fit with the impact you want to make. That brings us to the next pre-condition.

  1. Do you know how many prospects and donors you’ll need?

    You can ask for major gifts all year long; not just during a formal capital campaign. So while you don’t necessarily need a formal gift chart, you do need to know at the outset how many donors you’ll need, and at what levels, to reach your goal.

    If you have a $500K annual giving goal, chances are good you’re not going to get there with 50,000 $10 donors. You’ve probably heard of the Pareto Principle (aka the Rule of 80/20) as it applies to fundraising. It states that 80% of your fundraising will come from 20% of your donors.

    These days, I find it to be closer to 90/10. In some cases, it can be as much as 97/3. Most organizations simply do not have a large enough donor base (or mailing list) to be sustainable without major gifts. 

    I think it’s not a bad idea to share your gift chart with your major donor prospects regardless of whether you’re in a capital campaign. Annual campaign donors also like to know where they stand. And your board members should understand this as well. They’re your leaders. If they aren’t leading, how can you expect others to give passionately?

    If you need board members to give $1,000 gifts, and they’re giving $100 gifts, you’re dead in the water. Nothing demonstrates this quite as simply and clearly as a gift chart.

    The fundamental reason you need to have this gift chart is the same as the reason you need to have any plan. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll very likely get there (to paraphrase Lewis Carroll)!

    A successful major gift fundraising program has goals and prospects to meet those goals. Simply asking random people for big bucks is not a major gifts strategy. It’s a shot in the dark. And speaking of planning…

  1. Is the prospect ready?

    If you haven’t been getting to know them through a series of cultivation “moves,” then how will you know? If someone has an interest in a cause similar to yours but doesn't know anything about you, it’s a bit too soon to ask. Would you take a first date on an overnight to a ski lodge? Enough said. So let’s move on to the next question.

  2. Do you have a cultivation plan that adheres to the Goldilocks model?

    The Paul Masson wine brand had a great 1970s marketing campaign that said: "We will sell no wine before its time.” How do you know when it’s the right time to make your ask?

    Your prospect won’t be ready if you’ve done too little. People move along a continuum, from interest… to awareness… to engagement… to investment. But folks can get to the investment stage fairly quickly, so you don’t want to do too much.

    That’s where many nonprofits go awry. They cultivate and cultivate and cultivate… and never get to the ask. This is something you want to avoid at all costs. It’s a waste of your time, and it’s very confusing to your prospects. At some point, they expect to be asked. So put in place a "just right" plan. When you’ve made all the “moves” you planned, it’s time for the ask.

  1. Do you have the right person to make the ask?

    Does the prospect know who the asker is? Will the asker be perceived as important, authoritative, credible, friendly or otherwise persuasive?

    Should more than one person be involved? Sometimes you have one person serving as the “educator” and the other as the “asker.” The former may be a knowledgeable staff member (e.g., doctor, teacher, researcher, program manager, executive director, development director) while the latter may be a volunteer leader or peer with a relationship to the prospect.

    There are no hard and fast rules on who should play these roles. You just want to know, going in, which role is being played by whom. Otherwise, you run the risk of leaving the room without ever getting to the solicitation.

  2. Are you asking the right decision maker?

    Should you include a spouse, child or significant other? You’re preparing a bit of a dog and pony show. You may as well have everyone there who needs to see the show. Otherwise, you’re counting on the person you meet with to convey what you said to someone else. This is a bit like the game of telephone. Something gets lost in translation.

  3. Are you (or is your volunteer or staff member) prepared for the ask?

    Are you psyched? Are you prepared physically, mentally and emotionally to put your organization’s best foot forward? Do you have all the information you need about your prospect? About the project for which you’re asking? Do you feel you’ve got a super good chance of success?

    Years ago when I trained to be a lawyer I took a trial litigation course. Rule #1: Don’t ask any question to which you don’t already know the answer. You should know your prospect is ready to give you a “yes.” It may be a conditional or provisional yes. It may not be for the amount you ask. But you want to be confident when you go in that you’ve done absolutely everything within your power to prepare for the question you’re about to ask.

  4. Are you honest about what success will look like for your organization?

    If your kid comes home from school with a grade of “F” I’m guessing you won’t be telling them how proud you are. Too often we’ll walk out of a donor solicitation meeting and pat ourselves on the back for having elicited a $25K pledge when we asked for $50K. That’s 50 percent. That’s an “F.”

    This may sound harsh, I know. We’re trained to be grateful, no matter what. The one phrase I hear solicitors utter that makes me wince is: “Any amount you can give will be helpful.” That’s just plain not true.

    You need a gift that is enough to meet the need. If you don’t raise enough, you’re not going to reach your goal. You’ll help fewer people than need help. You may even have to close down programs or shut your doors. “Any amount…” is a wing and a prayer strategy. That’s not what you want.

    Going into the ask, you must be crystal clear what a successful outcome will look like. Sometimes you may have 25 prospects and need only ten gifts at a particular level. So if one prospect gives less than what you’d hoped for, you may be okay. Other times, particularly at the top of the gift chart, you may not be able to be so sanguine. And this holds true in annual campaigns as well.

  5. Do you know what success will look like for your donor?

    This question is important because all effective fundraising is donor-centered. Each individual has different values and motivations. The more you understand them, the better able you are to shape an offer that will provide the donor with the value they seek. The entire process, after all, is a value-for-value exchange.

    The donor offers monetary support in return for something, usually intangible, from you. It may be their name in lights, or it may be simply knowing that they’ve given back or fulfilled a moral obligation. Or it may be giving at a level that puts them with their peers (or those they’d like to become their peers).

    Cultivation, in part, is your opportunity to figure out what has meaning for your prospective supporter. Find out what would incline them to give. Then find out what would incline them to give more. Then incorporate what you’ve learned into your ask.

Once you’ve answered all the questions, and all the preconditions are in place, you’re ready to proceed to the ask. Seek ye answers and ye shall find fundraising success!