Starting A Major Gift Program Is Not Easy

“Yeah, we realized we needed a major gift program so we just started one!”

This statement summarizes what Jeff and I hear very frequently.  A leader says, “We’ll just hire someone and get going.” As if the money will flow like water out of a tap.  And then people like us come along and rain on the parade with statements and questions like:

  • “We should look at how you are organized to make sure it can actually work.”
  • “What kind of donors do you have?”
  • “What do you need the money for?”
  • “Is there any talent in the wings and do they have experience?”
  • “What program needs do you have that will make a compelling ask?”
  • “It will probably take 8 months or more to get a talented MGO up and running.  Can you wait that long?”

The fact is that doing major gifts right is a long and tedious process and involves a lot of steps – steps that if not followed will undermine the MGOs ability to raise money.  Just because you have a great cause and a good hearted and even talented MGO does not mean your major gift program will be successful.

Starting and maintaining a good program takes discipline, thoughtfulness, strategy and focus.  We have assembled a checklist of “minimum essentials” for starting and maintaining a major gift program.  There is a lot of detail to each of these points, but here are the highlights:

  1. Design Appropriate Organizational Home For Major Gifts – this is about acknowledging that major gifts is not direct marketing.  We see managers that place the entire major gift program under the direct marketing manager.  Big mistake.  Don’t do it.  At the very least, major gifts should have a direct relationship to the Director of Development.
  2. Create The Right Job Description – most often this little piece of paper is written wrong – unbelievably wrong!  And then everyone wonders why the MGO is failing. We have some very strong opinions in this area we’d be glad to share.
  3. Find And Hire The Right Talent – this is one of those things that just needs to be right.  We have a checklist for the minimums in this area.  Get this one wrong and you will have dark days ahead.  Get it right and you are in for an unbelievable ride!
  4. Make Sure You Select The Right Donors – we’ve talked about this quite a bit on this blog, i.e. the qualifying process, the whole thing about how not all donors that meet the metric will actually be on a caseload, the bit about not every donor that gives a lot of money actually wants to relate to an MGO, etc.  There are donors.  And then there are donors that want to be on a caseload.  Make sure you get this right.
  5. Segment Donors into top, mid and lower potential.  Also, select 3-5 top tier donors on which and with whom you will spend a great deal of time and to whom you will submit major proposals.
  6. Set Goals And Make Plans For Every Donor – If you don’t know where you are going financially or in your moves management, you will not get there.  And make sure that a critical part of your planning is about identifying and serving major donor interests and passions.
  7. Develop Offers – work with finance and program to come up with significant and substantial offers you can present to donors.
  8. Create Monthly Reporting that captures how the same donors are performing from month to month and year to year; that measures progress against goals; that tells you how the MGO is performing, and; that gives management a look at return on investment.
  9. Have A Process For Integrating New Donors – it is a fact that not all current caseload donors will perform as expected and new donors will migrate up to major donor level via direct marketing.  You need to plan for this dynamic.
  10. Keep A High View of the entire program and make sure the caseload value is growing, the MGO is productive and sufficient funds are being raised for the organization.

Now, if you did all of what I’ve written above and you did it with discipline, thoroughness and focus, your major gift program will be successful.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Yup.  But here’s the rub.  If you don’t watch it, you will not execute some of these points; you will take shortcuts; you will decide there are other things that are more important, and; you will find yourself wandering away from the course I have talked about here.

And that is where it all starts to grind to a halt.  So, be vigilant in all of these areas.  Do them with excellence and with great energy and excitement.  You will be really happy with the result.



About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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4 Responses to Starting A Major Gift Program Is Not Easy

  1. Dan says:

    I’ve spent the past year trying to convince my development director and organization president that we should have an actual major gifts program (as opposed to the glorified direct marketing/experiment in radical de-development/utterly disorganized cluster**** we currently have). Last week, I think I finally convinced them, so this post could not have come at a better time!

    Fortunately, I’ve already worked out rigorous answers to most of the questions you’ve raised here, thanks in large part to your blog. I’ve been a reader ever since your “10 Reasons Why Most Major Gift Programs Suck!” post, and I have tried to read everything you’ve written at least twice ever since. The philanthropy world is in your debt!

  2. Thanks, Dan! So glad you are making it happen. Let us know what snags you run into.

  3. Richard Ajluni says:

    I am that major gifts director, hired just for this program and in very solid and well run organization, and we are preparing to launch our non-campaign. Has anyone out there raised major gifts for program support, rather than capital?

    Richard A.

  4. Many of our clients do, Richard. It is simply a matter of conceptualizing and presenting program expenses (and the related overhead) as a larger “ticket” item. Capital campaigns have large “price” tags, many sub-elements in the millions. So does program. I’d be glad to talk to you off line about this, if you want.

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