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Published by: WealthEngine
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7 Tips for Building Stronger Major Donor Relationships

Published by: WealthEngine
Published on:
Before a donor makes a gift, you need to be proactive in retaining their attention. Follow these 7 best practices, provided by MarketSmart, to develop stronger relationships with your donors.

A major gift means something different for every organization. Whether it’s $500, $5,000, or $50,000, there’s one factor that stays the same across any major giving context: organizations need to engage their most critical donors to build long-lasting relationships with them.

Many nonprofits think that major gift fundraising is tricky to master, and they aren’t wrong. There’s a simple rule that your organization should always keep in mind, thoughit’s all about the quality of prospects, not the quantity. In other words, don’t disqualify a lead just because you don’t think they can’t donate as much as others can. 

After all, that individual may be substantially more committed to your cause (affinity) than someone who has a higher wealth capacity but less of a connection. We’ve all heard the stories of individuals who leave their entire estate to an organization (totaling millions of dollars), and they would have never shown up on a capacity screen.

Looking for those who genuinely care for your nonprofit is the way to go. For the strongest long-term results and the health of your nonprofit, your major donors should be in it for the long haul. Chances are you won’t encounter someone who makes a major gift out of the blue and then disappears. They gave to your cause because they care and want to see the impact they can make with your organization. Capturing donors’ attention to build a meaningful relationship with them is a series of complicated steps, several of which we will go over.

Even before a donor makes a gift, though, you need to be proactive in retaining that generous donor’s attention. Otherwise, you’ll lose it (along with your shot at turning their attention into an emotional connection). To develop stronger relationships with major donors, follow these best practices:

  1. Ask for supporters’ feedback.
  2. Learn what motivates donors to give.
  3. Track and review behavioral data.
  4. Maintain an open line of communication.
  5. Show donors the impact they’re making.
  6. Look at wealth indicators.
  7. Focus on donor stewardship.

Major donations aren’t something your nonprofit should ever overlook. While they make up less than 1% of all individual donations, major donors are responsible for over 70% of all donation revenue. Remember, they care about your cause, so you should care about them, too. Ready to improve your relationships with major donors? Let’s get started!

1. Ask for supporters’ feedback.

There’s no better way to develop relationships with supporters than by asking for their input. Why do we gather donors’ feedback in the first place? Well, for one, it makes them feel valued, engaged, and like they have a say in your organization’s efforts. Surveying donors is all about relationship building. When you understand donors’ expectations, you can act on their feedback, strengthening their emotional connection with your cause as an important part of their lives.

If you’re worried that supporters won’t respond to your questions, don’t be. Supporters like surveys; they really do. It gives them a chance to enter a two-way conversation, tell their stories, express the changes they’d like to see, and myriad other things. 

Think of it this way: if someone is already emotionally (and financially) invested in your work, it’ll mean a lot to them that you reach out and genuinely want to know their opinions. 

Gathering feedback (including self-reported data like donors’ communication preferences) is an important part of engagement fundraising, the most effective way to build major donor relationships. As a brief overview, engagement fundraising revolves around making donors feel like the “hero” of their own life story. By looking at the right data and leveraging it in your communications, you can fully engage prospects and develop stronger relationships. To dive deeper, visit MarketSmart’s engagement fundraising guide.

How to collect feedback

Now that you know why we gather donor feedback, you need to learn how to collect feedback. There are three main methods for doing this:

  1. Surveys. As previously touched on, this is the most powerful and direct way to gather feedback. Encourage donors to give guided feedback on specific ideas, programs, and so on. We recently wrote a comprehensive guide to conducting donor surveys that you can read here
  2. Reviews. Donors can give unstructured feedback on specific ideas, programs, and so on.
  3. Polls. These provide quick insight into one question. Think general questions on ways to improve a program by asking how much they care about it.

While polls and reviews can give you quick answers, surveys are the best way to capture feedback. The whole premise behind donor surveying is to gather input and make changes based on individual donor perspectives. This is a great retention strategy, because you can leverage the information you gather to better communicate with donors in the ways that they’ve outright told you they prefer.

2. Learn what motivates donors to give.

It’s not enough to look at wealth indicators and call it a day. Sure, wealth data gives you an estimate as to how much donors can potentially give, but this doesn’t give you any insight into who they are and why they give in the first place (affinity). It’s all about figuring out each supporter’s “why.” There are a few common reasons donors give (to start, it makes them feel good), but motivations vary from prospect to prospect.

While there are several ways to collect this information, there’s one tried and true method for getting these answers. Just ask.

Surveys are great for more than collecting feedback; they help you learn about your prospects, too! Make sure to ask the right questions and don’t overload them with too many though. Better yet, don’t overload them with bad questions. No matter how many good questions your survey asks, it can be ruined by just one bad one.

To find out a donor’s “why,” ask questions centered around the following:

  • What their involvement and personal stories are;
  • What they’re passionate about;
  • What other organizations they support;
  • Which programs they care about;
  • How they might consider giving to your organization; and
  • What they do in their free time (e.g. hobbies, interests, etc.).

We understand that it can be difficult crafting the “right” questions. As a general rule of thumb, get to the point and gather the essential information (like we indicated above). While you do want demographic data, that doesn’t capture a prospect’s motivations or personality. Save those questions for the end and instead engage users more deeply from the start by asking them about why they support your organization. Once you’ve reviewed the survey results, use this information in communications to further engage prospects. 

3. Track and review behavioral data.

Staying ahead of evolving major donor relationships is all about using your resources to learn more about your prospects. Sure, surveys are great for getting a better understanding of who your donors are, but what about getting one step ahead and finding out what interests them without a survey response?

Well, it turns out you can learn a lot by taking a thorough look at prospects’ interactions on your website. This is what we call their “digital body language,” and it can be really useful in developing relationships with major donors. For instance, are they interested in a specific program within your organization? Chances are, they’ve visited the specific page about it on your website several times and maybe even downloaded a brochure on it.

It’s of the utmost importance that you track the following:

  • What pages your prospects visit;
  • Which videos they watch;
  • What resources they’ve downloaded;
  • Which emails they’ve opened;
  • How frequently they visit; and
  • How long they stay on the site.

The recency of their engagement is important, too. Just because someone visits your website often doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a better major donor prospect than someone else. On the other hand, if someone visits your website for the first time in a few months and specifically heads towards the “how to support the future of this college” page, that’s a big indicator for your major gift officer that the individual is showing interest. 

In addition to capacity and affinity, raising major gifts requires the right timing, and looking at behavioral data can help you get a better sense of when the “right” time is.

What they click on can also make a difference. If you can see they recently downloaded a program brochure and you have their past survey response to see what their interests are, then there you go! You have a good prospect to pick up the phone and call. Plus, you can use the self-reported data you gathered with the survey to take personalized outreach one step further.

4. Maintain an open line of communication.

Growing your major donor relationships means consistent, respectful, and authentic communication. From here, one of the (if not the) most important part of an open line of communication is making sure interactions are wanted. You have to maintain contact with major donors in a respectful, authentic, and mutual way. Otherwise, you’ll lose their attention and support. Remember, when it comes to donor-nonprofit relationships, the saying “trust is hard to gain and easy to lose” proves true.

Forcing interaction doesn’t get your nonprofit anywhere, especially when it comes to major donors. It will completely throw your efforts off course, pushing major donors away. 

When conducting outreach, always make sure that it’s two-way communication, not just “look at us and how great we’re doing” type of messaging. Invite donors to interact and give their feedback, encouraging them to express their opinions, ask questions, tell their story, and voice any concerns.

To encourage positive reactions, always take their communication preferences into account. If you don’t, donors will think you’re just doing what’s easiest for you, not caring about them or working harder than you have to. Then, they won’t feel compelled to put in any more effort than they think you did.

Once you have the art of outreach under your belt, experiment with automation. Automated communication takes a lot of grunt work out of major donor retention and allows gift officers to focus their precious time on those that want to meet with them right now. After all, there’s nothing quite like a face-to-face meeting with a major donor that wants to meet with you to build stronger relationships.

5. Show donors the impact they’re making.

Human beings are visual creatures. We like to see the difference we’re making, no matter how small. Your donors—your major donors, in particular—are no exception. If you don’t consistently provide them with value, in this case the emotional payoff from their generous gifts, they won’t feel like a priority for your organization.

Remember, donors want to feel like the “hero” in their own life story. At the end of the day, all you can do is give them an outlet to express themselves and let them know the impact they’re making. While this may seem like a heavy task, it’s actually not all that hard.

First, you’ll need to identify which aspect of your organization they’re most aligned with. Leverage this when crafting your approach for each supporter. From here, focus on targeting communications and marketing toward the specific interests and areas they find valuable. Then, deepen engagement using storytelling methods that speak to their values. Consider which programs they care about (maybe they designated this in their survey), and direct their donations to support something they’ll be most likely to appreciate. 

After showing supporters the impact they’ve made, consider the overall differences that major donors have made on your organization’s work. For instance, dedicate a portion of your website to your major donors (or even consider creating a separate VIP microsite for major and legacy donors), express your appreciation, and share images with them. Create targeted newsletters with pictures of the work your organization is doing thanks to major gifts. The list goes on. 

The only limit is your imagination! It’s all about creating a welcoming environment where prospects feel wanted and impactful.

6. Look at wealth indicators.

While wealth indicators don’t tell a donor’s whole story, they are important to consider. For a quick look into your prospects’ abilities to give, check into the following wealth indicators:

  • Previous donations to your nonprofit
  • Previous donations to other nonprofits
  • Profession and education history
  • Real estate ownership
  • SEC transactions

Remember, though, that just because someone doesn’t have the financial capacity to donate doesn’t mean they’re not a valuable prospect. Wealth indicators are only one small part of the equation (capacity, affinity, timing). For instance, if a supporter has the passion to give but can’t donate financially, they may make a great volunteer or lower-tier donor, or legacy prospect. 

Just keep in mind that not everything is always as it seems and that people are more than just their numbers and demographics. We all have heard stories of individuals like Sylvia Bloom, where someone may not seem wealthy on paper but have nonetheless quietly amassed a fortune.

Also, standard donations aren’t the only ways donors can give. For instance, a legacy gift (i.e. a donation through a will) is just one way a donor makes a major gift that they couldn’t have otherwise made during their lifetime. 

On the other hand, someone who is financially stable may not be willing to donate. You can’t turn someone into a major donor. They have to make the decision to make that kind of  philanthropic impact on their own. The sooner you realize this, the quicker you’ll start locating and engaging promising prospects instead of those who have no interest in supporting you.

Leveraging wealth indicators can be a “first defense” for prioritizing your time. However, the other indicators we mentioned above should carry more weight (even if they may be more challenging to collect and analyze).

7. Focus on donor stewardship.

All of this talk of data may have you wondering, “How do I actually use this information?” Well, in short, it depends. Specifically, it depends on the donor, their preferences, and a whole host of other things. The point is, you need to get to know your major donors and cultivate relationships with them.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all option for donor stewardship, there are some common methods that regularly produce results for nonprofits. To start, processing gifts quickly and saying thank you should be the first step any nonprofit takes. For your convenience, here’s a brief summary of how the stewardship process works when boiled down to the essentials:

  1. The donor gives to your organization. 
  2. You thank the donor for their gift.
  3. Confirm the donor’s expectations and intentions.
  4. Recognize the donor accordingly.
  5. Let them know the impact the gift made.

Use giving tendencies to determine your stewardship strategy. For example, a frequent or recurring donor requires different strategies than a volunteer who’s never given financially to your organization before. Just make sure to keep the donor’s perspective in mind.

Remember to always survey, survey, survey! Capturing this valuable supporter information gives you insight into how you can grow donor relationships. For instance, ask: “Why are you connected to our mission?” “Which influential person brought you to us?” Etc. The sooner you learn this stuff, the sooner you’re able to engage these individuals on a more personal and authentic level.

While surveys and face-to-face interaction are the top ways to get to know your donors, there are other ways to ensure mutually-beneficial, long-term relationships. To learn more about engaging major donors, check out Qgiv’s donor retention guide.

At its core, building donor relationships, and major donor relationships, especially, is about getting to know supporters and providing them with an outlet for expressing themselves. Otherwise, they won’t stick around or truly feel compelled to do what they can to help you succeed.

Although this list is by no means comprehensive, we hope that you learned something about building stronger major donor relationships. To recap, use surveys to ask for donor feedback, learn what motivates them, review digital body language, look at wealth indicators, and put special care into stewardship. Also, ensure that you maintain an open line of communication where you show donors the impact they’re making. Best of all, put “value” first and instill that culture throughout your organization.

Now that you know the best strategies for building stronger major donor relationships, get to work and make your organization the best it can possibly be!


About the Author

Over the past 6 years, in his role as Senior Solutions Advisor at MarketSmart, Jeff Giannotto has advised organizations of all sizes on Engagement Fundraising. Leveraging integrated technology and marketing, MarketSmart helps nonprofits generate, qualify, cultivate and prioritize potential donors. Over the years, Jeff has consulted with Salvation Army, City of Hope, Food For The Poor, ASPCA, Girl Scouts of the USA, Special Olympics, and more.