Leadership: The Key to a Successful Major Gifts Program

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    The most critical factor in creating a Major Gifts Program is the availability of a group of volunteers and professionals who will accept responsibility for the success of that program.

    This Leadership Cadre, which should (ideally) include one-or-two savvy and committed Board Members, must include a couple of current (preferable) or soon-to-be major donors, the CDO (chief development officer) and/or Major Gifts Officer, and (an educated) CEO. This is your Major Gifts Committee.

    That committee would, first, be responsible for the initial creation of the list of those who they identify as “Suspects” – a term used to denote those people that we think might be able to make a major gift … and might want to do so if properly motivated, but for whom you do not yet have enough information to be sure.

    Next is the linking (on paper) of each of those Suspects with a “Cultivator” – an individual (a volunteer leader who could be a board member, a current or a soon-to-be major donor, or other logically identified person) who knows him/her, who has access to him/her and can-and-will be involved in the process of turning him/her into a “Prospect.”

    If your Cultivators build relationships with your Suspects that involves them in working with your organization toward attainment of its mission, when they are actually asked for the (major) gift, they are more likely to respond, “Of course, what took you so long to ask !?”

    But, to get them to the point where they can be considered serious Major Gift “Prospects,” you must commit to a process that may not result in such a gift for months, or years — and it can be a different timeframe for each Prospect.

    Sure, you might be able to get your Suspects to write one-or-more checks during the cultivation period, but the amounts of those checks would likely not qualify as “major” – they would not fit into one of the top categories on the “Gift Range Pyramid,” and not, therefore, move you significantly closer to your dollar “goal.”

    Getting the Prospect to make those (non-major) gifts, however, is an important part of his/her buy-in process.

    Since the Cultivators are the people through whom you have access to each Suspect, they are the most likely people to introduce the Suspect to your organization, bring him/her to see/participate in program or special activities, and do most of the educating of this new “Friend” of yours. (“Friend” often being used interchangeably with “Suspect.”)

    The growth/success of your Major Gifts Program is dependent on the number of Cultivators working for and reporting to the MG Committee. Those reports will include their contacts with Suspects, suggestions for the substance of future contacts and, eventually, providing significant input for deciding each Prospect’s “Ask.”

    Note the segue, converting a Suspect into a Prospect – that happens once the Committee has information to the effect that a person has the means to make a major gift, and sees that there is enough of a relationship between the Suspect, the Cultivator and the Organization to suggest that he/she will probably become a major donor.

    Ideally, the Cultivator is someone who is-and-has-been involved with your organization and has already made one-or-more major gifts; but, the role of Cultivator may also be played by someone who is also in the process of being cultivated.

    So, back to the role of the Major Gifts Committee: In support of the above is the creation of a file for each of your new Suspects … so you may record all relevant information, maintain a log of all contacts with them and keep a “calendar” of planned cultivation opportunities for them.

    The Committee should meet on a regular basis – the old “textbooks” say weekly, but the current reality is likely to be less often. Those meetings would be to determine and/or modify strategies for cultivating each Friend/Suspect, to hear reports on contacts that have been made since their last meeting, to “Evaluate” Prospects and set a timeframe for Solicitation, and to maintain a level of expectation for the activities of the Cultivators and Solicitors.

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