Identifying Major Donors: 6 Clues in Your Database

Fundraising Practices

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Obtaining major gift donations is one of the most critical aspects of a nonprofit’s fundraising strategy. The process has many complex steps, each of which has to be considered and executed with care.

The first stage in the process, in which you search for and identify prospects for major donations, may be where your fundraising bottleneck is located. After all, you’ll never get enough major donations if you’re asking the wrong people. But you can’t ask everyone—so how can you choose?1

Your donor database or CRM software contains a wealth of information that can help you answer this question. There are many details of a prospect’s personal and professional life that can reveal their giving capacity. When trying to locate potential major donors, look for clues in your database such as:

  1. Wealth indicators
  2. Past giving
  3. Board memberships
  4. Past engagement
  5. Personal relationship to cause
  6. Business
  7. Past major donation trends

Identifying major donors is exactly why you spent all that time doing prospect research.2 Let the data you’ve collected throughout that process serve you in a major way by looking for these major gift prospect clues.

1. Wealth indicators

The first thing you’ll look at when examining a major gift prospect are the straightforward markers that indicate their giving capacity.

Before you can wonder whether a prospect wants to give a major gift donation, you have to determine whether it is even within their budget to do so. Donor data can you help you with this by bringing your attention to a few attributes that can give you an idea of a person’s wealth. These are:

  • Real estate holdings. A person’s real estate holdings can offer deep insights into their lifestyle and wealth. You can use the data in your donor database to get an idea of the total value of their real estate holdings. A person with millions of dollars in real estate is much more likely to be open to a major gift.
  • Business relationships. A person’s business relationships reveal a lot about their wealth. Their employer, position, and colleagues all serve as important signals in determining their giving capacity. You can also use this data to look for new prospects.
  • Stock ownership. The SEC website lets you search their database of corporate filings, so you can determine stock ownership for all public companies. Find what information you can about a prospect’s stock portfolio and you will have a better idea of their giving capacity.

These purely financial data points,3 known as wealth indicators or wealth markers, give you insight into a particular prospect’s ability to give charitably. Next, look at philanthropic markers to determine their willingness to give.

2. Past giving

Of course, if a major gift prospect has given to your organization before,4 it suggests they are invested in your cause and want to see your nonprofit succeed.

But you if you are looking into a person who has never given to your specific cause, past giving of all kinds can help determine their philanthropic interests and decide whether they are a good fit. These transactions are often publicly available, especially if for political causes.

Make sure to fill your donor database5 with this information even for prospects you aren’t currently looking at—you never know when it might come in handy in the future.

Recording the date of each past contribution allows you to cross-reference wealth markers and other factors with the recency of a prospect’s last gift. You can easily segment your donor list, creating categories for:

  • Current donors. These are people who have contributed to your organization in the last year. Interacting with current donors requires a balance. Your cause is fresh on their mind, so they may be inclined to increase their contribution. On the other hand, asking for a major gift so soon after their last gift may suggest you are unappreciative. The best thing to do is broach the major gift subject in the months leading up to their next gift.
  • New donors. These donors gave for the first time last year but have yet to give again this year. It may be too early to ask for major gifts from this group. Ensure, however, that they continue giving, even if their gifts do not yet qualify as major.
  • Multi-year donors. This group has yet to give yet this year, but have given in multiple past years. This factor, when combined with wealth indicators, may show you the best candidates for major gifts as it has been neither too short nor too long of a time since this group’s last donation.
  • Lapsed donors. These are people who have given before, but not during this or the previous year. The more years that have passed since the last donation, the less likely they are to give again, much less give a major gift. But, if it has only been one or two years, you may be able to turn them back into a current donor or even a major gift donor.

Keeping detailed donation records allows you to have a well-rounded donation history for each donor that, when combined with other factors, can tell you if they are a good major gift candidate.

Past giving is just one way to measure a prospect’s willingness to give, however. Dive deeper into your donor profiles to further increase your chances of landing a major donation.

3. Board memberships

If a person is a board member or has an otherwise high level of engagement with a charitable organization, it means their commitment to a cause goes deeper than just their pocketbook.

A nonprofit board member is also likely to be wealthy and well-connected. Knowing people who can provide you with connections in the nonprofit realm can do wonders for your organization in the long run.

By engaging with these prospects, you can both explore opportunities for major gifts and cultivate long-lasting, positive relationships.6 These people devote a lot of time and thought to charitable causes—let them know how yours can fit into their mission.

Be on the lookout for board members at organizations that work closely with yours or that serve a similar cause. If you can make the case for why your nonprofit complements their mission, you may gain access to a new source of major donations as well as connections in the nonprofit world.

4. Past engagement

Other types of engagement with your or another nonprofit can suggest that a donor is ready to contribute a major gift.

For instance, someone who has volunteered at events in addition to donating is likely very invested in your cause. Cross-reference your wealth screening data with your list of past volunteers to find out if any of your favorite ticket-takers or pamphlet-passers are able to deepen their commitment to your cause.

Another type of past engagement to look into is sponsorship. If you have a relationship with an individual or business that has served as a sponsor for any of your past fundraising events, ask yourself whether they might consider strengthening the relationship with a major gift donation.

5. Personal relationship to cause

A donor who has a personal or familial connection to your cause is more likely to care deeply about the change that your nonprofit effects.

For instance, if your nonprofit is devoted to developing treatments for a certain illness, a donor with a family history of that illness may want to consider giving a major donation. If you can make the case for how your organization takes concrete steps to improve lives, your pitch may hit close to home and spur the prospect to a major gift.

Besides family history, you can look for indicators such as:

  • Recurring donations that pertain to a certain cause, region, problem, etc.
  • Involvement with many organizations in a similar field
  • Outspoken advocacy in public forums, e.g. on social media

These types of actions indicate that a donor has a deeply held mission or belief that may apply to your cause. If you don’t know this information, philanthropic markers such as past giving are a good first step to finding out.

6. Business

Besides serving as a wealth indicator, having information about a donor’s employer or business can also can also benefit your nonprofit in one major way: matching gifts.

Many companies have what is called a matching gift program,6 which means they will match their employee’s donation up to a certain amount. Most companies offer a match ratio of 1:1, but some offer ratios of 2:1 or even 3:1.

An employee match program can double, triple, or even quadruple the size of a donation. This is especially useful for small- to mid-sized nonprofits, for whom the “major gift” designation is more likely to fall under the cap of many companies’ employee match programs.

Use a tool like Double the Donation7 to easily find information about companies’ matching gift programs and let your prospects know how they can get the most out of their donations.

Further, if a donor is an executive at a corporation with a history of philanthropy, you may be able to solicit a major corporate gift.

A corporate gift comes under the name of the company rather than the individual, and provides an opportunity for much larger donations. Make the case for why teaming up with your organization will serve a worthy cause and create positive PR for the business.

7. Past major donation trends

What many nonprofits don’t realize is that even after you have managed to collect some major gifts, you can use information about your major donors to improve your fundraising strategies.

If someone has made a major gift donation to your organization in the past, you likely have a strong relationship and know a lot about them. You may be able to take lessons from these relationships that you can apply to your prospect research and stewardship going forward.

Make a list of all your major gift donors, and look for what connects them. Cross-reference this list with the other data you have collected throughout your prospect research process8. Have you been more successful when you utilize a certain type of outreach? Do you seem to communicate better with donors from a certain background?

By identifying what has made you successful in the past, you can be better prepared for challenges that arise in the future.

If it has been a struggle to obtain major gifts for your nonprofit,9 consider that the problem may be coming when you decide who to ask and how to ask them.

By taking advantage of the data you collect in your donor management software, you can make sure you are always doing the most you can to help your cause.

Look through your prospects10 for these key data points and you will be well on your way to meeting your major donor goals!


Author bio

This guest post was contributed by Sandra Davis and our friends DonorlyDonorly offers donor research-focused nonprofit technology consulting services.


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