How To Make Sure Your Major Gift Program Is On Point—And Reach Success!

I’ll never forget the MGO who had booked a flight to a city in another state to “visit” donors.  He hadn’t actually: (a) analyzed whether they were the right donors (they weren’t), or (b) booked any meetings.  He was just gonna show up and “make it happen”.

Then there’s the major gift manager who has no plans for her MGOs, doesn’t monitor (or care) who they are talking to, has never considered what programs and projects should be presented to donors, has no reporting in place and simply leads her staff with, “If the donor gives more than $1000 in one financial period, then you manage them.”  Whew.  This is just amazing.  And what is more disturbing is that the management above this person allows it.

I am repeatedly shocked at how so many major gift programs, managers and MGOs, operate without any plans or any logical approach to work.  You wouldn’t consider planning a vacation without giving any thought to your destination until the morning you start out – although I have to admit that might be fun.

Yet, in many major gift programs we see (and we see a lot of them in North America and Europe), there is no formal, logical approach to planning.  It’s no wonder those programs are failing when their managers and MGO’s “lead from the gut”.

In our writings for this blog, Jeff and I have carefully laid out what the initial planning process for a major gift program should be.  Stated simply, it’s basically this:

  1. You need to have the right talent – we’ve told you this criteria.
  2. The right donors need to be selected.  This is about recency, amount and capacity.
  3. You need to contact those donors and see if they want to relate to you – that’s qualifying.
  4. Once you have your list of qualified donors, you need to set financial goals for each donor.
  5. You need to tier the donors in some hierarchy that shows relative value (A,B,C) so you know how to spend your time.  Not all donors are equal.
  6. Then you have to create contact, cultivation and ask plans for each donor.
  7. You can’t move forward without securing program information – something to present to the donor not only for reporting back on how their gift made a difference, but also preparing asks.
  8. And finally, you need to, along with your manager, create performance evaluation measurements and reports in order to let people outside yourself know how you are doing.

So, before you can even get started, you need to do all of this planning.  If you don’t, you will be “leading from the gut” and I guarantee that you will be off course by the end of the first day!  If you’re bored and impatient as you read this, you might want to consider a different job. Seriously, you will not succeed as you could unless you line things up properly.

Now you’re ready to “hit the road” and execute your plan.  Hopefully you have a good administrative assistant to help. If your boss won’t provide this kind of support, have him or her read this post about how administrative support will increase revenue

In addition to the initial planning, Jeff and I have very strong opinions about what other types of planning activities need to happen on an ongoing basis.

Besides executing your plan, you need to do two things on a weekly basis:

  1. Stay in touch with your cause.  I’ve written about this several times.  It is the subject of making sure your heart and your head are connected to your cause.  Do not allow yourself to get buried in the plans, the numbers, and the day-to-day such that you forget the cause.  I always start my day – always – with some form of the following thought:  “I am so thankful I am alive today.  I am thankful I am loved and cherished.  I am thankful I can help others make a difference in our world and thereby make a difference myself.  Today I will seek to stay in touch with the pain, tragedy and hurt of humankind and the state of our planet so I can keep my heart soft and my motivation to help high.  I am thankful for my problems because they keep me humble, human and open to the wisdom and circumstances of others.”  You must stay in touch with the WHY of your work.  And I would do this every day, not every week.
  2. Plan next week’s actions .  Every week, dedicate some time to plan next week in sufficient detail so you know you are working effectively and efficiently.

Then on a monthly basis:

  1. Assess your progress against goals and plans.  It is very important to look at what you purposed to do (the plan) and how you are progressing against it. Go to a quiet place and take two hours or more to do this once a month.  Some of your individual donor plans may need to change.  Do it. It will reset your compass.
  2. Secure program info.  In the initial planning you already secured program information.  Now, on a monthly basis, you should continue to do so.  This includes visiting program, if you can, talking to program people, talking to the people helped, etc.  Get your face and heart into it.  You must do this every month or you will lose touch with the core of what you are doing.  You need this information for your heart, your head and your donor.  Plan to get it, every month.
  3. Report to management.  Of course you need to report what you are doing to those outside yourself.  If you think this activity is a waste a time, go back and read my recent post on influence. It’s in YOUR interest to tell your boss and others what you are up to.

On a quarterly basis:

  1. Assess progress against goals and plans. See copy, above, on monthly.  Also, modify individual donor plans as needed.
  2. Assess donor qualification.  Take a look at your caseload donors and determine whether some of them have simply, through their behavior or lack of it, shut down.  In other words, while you thought they would be connecting with you, every attempt you have made to connect has failed and, therefore, it may be time to replace them with another donor who does want to connect.  Be careful here – we don’t want you trading a bunch of donors out every quarter.  That would undermine the integrity of your caseload.  But you may have a few that require some attention. The point is, look at this once a quarter.
  3. Evaluate donor tiers.  While you are evaluating donor qualification, also evaluate your original tiering (A,B,C).  Now that you have a quarter under your belt, you have more information on each individual donor’s “value” and potential.  You may want to “upgrade” some donors to an “A” status, where you will spend more time. You may downgrade others.
  4. Assess quality of program info.  You have been securing program info every month, or even more frequently.  Now it’s time to evaluate whether you are getting the right information and if the program information system you are using is really working for you.  If it’s not, i.e., if you are not getting meaningful and useable program information, then you need to re-engineer your program info gathering system.  Do it so you can get back on track in this important area.

And, finally, on a yearly basis:

  1. Assess progress against goals and plans.  See copy, above, on monthly.  But also, on a yearly basis, evaluate how effective your planning has been for each donor.  What do you need to change?  What worked?  What didn’t?
  2. Re-calibrate your caseload.  This is the time you take a very serious look at your caseload and decide what donors to keep on the caseload and which ones to replace.  The key criteria for replacing donors is simply this:  you have discovered, by contacting the donor, that he or she is just not as interested in partnering with you as you may have thought. That’s it.  You must move on.  And as you re-calibrate, you will need to go through process outlined at the top of this post to re-qualify and plan.
  3. Evaluate the year’s efforts.  Much like point #1 above, this is the time you step back and look at how you did, what you did and what worked.  You then purpose to keep doing the stuff that worked.  You also purpose to identify where you have failed and what you could do differently.  You do this so you can get help and change your ways.  This is very important.  There is no sense in just doing the same old things.

There you have it – a blueprint for major gift planning.  You may want to print this out and post it where you can see it regularly.  Some of our client MGO’s have actually scheduled these planning points on their calendar to make sure they DO them.  Good idea.

The point is, you really do need to have a structure and logic for what you are doing and where you are going with your donors. If you don’t, your donor will suffer, the organization you work for will suffer and, just as importantly, YOU will suffer.

There is no need to let all of that happen!



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 How To Make Sure Your Major Gift Program Is On Point—And Reach Success!

  1. Beth says:

    I very much enjoy all the tips that you share… you two really help the working development officer do a better job and think about the big issues. Cheers!

  2. Richard Perry says:

    Thanks so much, Beth. We just love it! And your words of encouragement really help!

  3. Giselle says:

    We began turning our major gifts program around these past couple of years and focusing more on donor relationships …. and the “plan” you shared in this article is the only way to go. I appreciate very much you reinforcing what should be any MGO planning process to their programs. Keep up the great articles …. they are both motivational and beneficial!

  4. Richard Perry says:

    Thanks,Giselle. It’s so easy to forget about the donors and focus on the dollars. And most everything about our “systems” gets us off this point. That’s why it’s good to be vigilant, plan well and constantly check on the nature of our current course. Thanks so much for your feedback.

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