7 Principles of Successful Major Gift Solicitation

Changing our world starts with two people: (1) a generous person willing to give and (2) a courageous person willing to ask.

What I am about to teach you about major gift solicitation is rooted in 30+ years of practice.

Since 1986 I have led over 60 capital campaigns and conducted approximately 4,000 face-to-face major gift solicitation visits on behalf of Catholic schools and parishes.  Some yielded gifts of $10,000 or $25,000.  Others $1,000,000 and more.  Most were somewhere in between.

Major Gift Solicitation 

Principles will serve you better than a script.

The one thing I’ve learned: when it comes to major gift solicitation, there is no single formula.  There is no script.  The questions, passion and pushback that you will encounter is as varied as humanity itself.

So don’t look for a fundraising consultant to tell you what to say for this person or that.  It’s a fool’s errand, and a rather pricey one.  With some guidance, you can learn the seven principles of successful major gift solicitation.  

Principle #1:  If you give top prospects advance notice that a campaign is on the horizon, you will ultimately raise more money.

Together with the president of a Catholic high school, I met with a Fortune 500 CEO in his office.  We were there to ask him for a million dollar gift to his daughter’s school.

He could not have been more gracious — or forthright.  He smiled and said he would support the capital campaign with a major gift.  “But I have two more people coming today who will also ask for a million dollar donation.”


For every household capable of making a major seven-figure gift, there are 20 – 40 nonprofit organizations seeking a gift of that magnitude.

 In one sentence he brought home the intense competition for major gifts.  After that encounter, I researched the number of nonprofits in various markets vs. the number of people capable of making a seven-figure gift.  I estimated there were between 20 and 40 nonprofit organizations for every household capable of making a gift of that magnitude.

That’s a sobering statistic.  Every development director worth their salt targets the same small, precious group of people capable of making a six or seven-figure gift. 

With so many competitors, how do you ensure that your Catholic school or church are on the donor’s short list?  If there are twenty other nonprofits seeking six-figure gifts, how do you rise to the top of that list?

The short answer: As much as two years before launching a campaign, identify those who are your best prospects. In informal ways, give them a heads-up that a campaign is on the way.  This is how it’s done…

In the Capital Campaign Tutorial I drove home the point that 10 – 40 donors are responsible for 80 – 95% of total dollars raised.  Statistically, that is how most Catholic school and parish capital campaigns play out.

Ask yourself: who are the 10 – 40 individuals who will contribute the lion’s share to this capital campaign?  These are the select individuals who need advance notice. Let them know a capital campaign is “under consideration.” Then when other charities come knocking, they can budget with the knowledge that you are waiting in line.  

You can then continue behind-the-scenes campaign preparations, knowing that those closest to you will ‘be there for you’ when the time comes.

Your Board wants to move quickly with a capital campaign. But you haven’t even identified your top 40 major gift prospects. What should you do?

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience

Principle #2: When donors are meaningfully involved in the work of your Catholic school or parish, they make bigger gifts. 

You’ve given your top 10 – 40 prospects advance notice that a capital campaign is on the horizon in a year or two.  Now our attention turns to engagement of these constituents.

People may give to many organizations, but typically give major gifts to a select few. Why do some Catholic apostolates garner major gifts, while similar nonprofits do not?  It comes down to one word: involvement.

If your Catholic school or church is to receive a donor’s best gift, it will likely come from someone who has been meaningfully involved in your ministry. 

 Engagement happens on two levels.  For example, asking a prospective major gift donor to chaperone a school dance or help with a church bar-b-que provides an opportunity to get to know him.  That’s good.

But there is a deeper level of engagement, the kind that underpins most large major gifts. Give the donor an opportunity to use his best talents to help shape the future of your school or parish.

What does that look like?

Imagine a Catholic high school facing many problems: low enrollment, poor faculty salaries, buildings in need of upgrades, and public perception that needs improvement.

Involvement precedes Investment

Meaningful involvement is the single most important factor influencing major gifts. 

Few Catholic school principals have the breadth of experience to comfortably deal with the ‘business’ side of running the school.  In college, most studied subject areas other than business. They were educated at universities that presumed graduates would teach in a public school.

Consequently, most Catholic school teachers have no formal training in marketing, recruitment, fundraising and a host of other issues that Catholic schools encounter.  As teachers move into leadership positions, their background is often inadequate.  

In the process of giving their time and expertise, something changes in the heart of the donor. 

 In our need we find a win-win.  Most principals need help in the area of finance and marketing.  Most prospective major gift donors are experienced, trained, and talented in those same areas.

Why not ask for help?  Certainly among your alumni and parents there are individuals with great wealth who would be willing to share their expertise if only asked.  Need help with financial forecasts?  Form a three-person ‘working group’ to put together a five-year financial plan for the school.  Need help with marketing?  Ask those with experience in advertising and marketing to help shape the school’s messaging and materials.

In the process of giving their time and expertise something changes in the heart of the donor.  They feel a part of the organization, someone trusted to help shape its future. 

Meaningful involvement is the single most important factor influencing major gifts.  

Let me repeat that: People who first give their best talents later give their best gifts.  The two go hand-in-glove.  

People who first give their best talents later give their best gifts.  

This is the single most important principle driving the success of your capital campaign.  And it happens long before you print up a campaign brochure or name a campaign chair.

So how do you engage prospective major gift donors, even if you currently have little or no relationship?  

Do you need more ideas on how to engage prospective donors?  Tell me the circumstances and I’ll offer suggestions.

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience

Principle #3:  When you relate to major gift constituents as friends, they will respond in kind

Fundraising consultants will tell you that major gifts are all about relationships.  That is a weak word.  I prefer ‘friendship.’

To be clear, I am not implying that you have to be friends with your major gift prospects in the same manner as a fishing buddy.  What I am suggesting is that you relate to them the way you would a friend.

True friendships are rooted in candid honesty. 

That same dynamic is at play between the leaders of Catholic schools and parishes and their major gift constituents. It will be a more formal relationship than those you enjoy with family friends, but the underlying elements of vulnerability, honesty and trust are very much the same.  

We need to encourage donors to share what is really on their minds. That is how a mere relationship blossoms into a friendship.  The best Catholic development professionals know this.

When you encourage donors to share what is really on their minds, relationships blossom into friendships

Both leaders and donors have a vision for the future of the school or parish. Both have needs and concerns.  

Dare to share the challenges you face.  Sincerely seek advice.  Allow donors to help shape the future of your school or parish.

Principle #4   You will raise more money if you understand what the donor is feeling.

Millionaires are people, too.  They have emotional needs, insecurities, doubts, and carefully guarded personal troubles.  

Meanwhile, all day, every day, people come to them wanting something.  Vendors, employees, civic groups, politicians, nonprofit organizations and miscellaneous toadies of every stripe.  It must be very exhausting to receive them all graciously.

So if you are fortunate enough to secure an appointment to ask for a million dollars, arrive with a sensitivity that money doesn’t alleviate life’s problems.  Upon greeting, I no longer offer a routine, “How are you?”  Instead I say, “Thanks for seeing me.  How’s your day going so far?”  I ask in a sincere voice that invites something other than a rote response.

Many times the donor will take the occasion to unload.  It’s like he is looking for someone who understands.  With one honest inquiry at the end of a long day, I’ve had people confess frustrations with their spouse, children, employees and a host of other issues.  

I recall one guy completely flummoxed at day’s end.  He moved the water cooler from one hallway to another and that upset his employees.  “Good grief!” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to keep 100 people employed and they are anxious about filling their water bottles.”  Welcome to the wonderful world of entrepreneurship. 

Every business leader has unique personal and professional challenges.  But I have found three concerns universally shared by all:

  1. Is the campaign going to hit goal?
  2. Are others doing their fair share?
  3. Will you be a good steward of my gift?

In this video, I explain the feelings behind each of these concerns.  I then offer suggestions on how to use this insight in solicitations; what to say and not say.

Principle #5: You will raise more money if you are prepared to answer donors’ questions.

Remember that 10 – 40 donors will likely account for 80 – 95% of the total campaign revenue. These gifts of $50,000, $100,000 and more are not solicited via the mail.  They come from eye-to-eye conversations.

This is where the rubber meets the road.

Secure the Appointment

The first thing you need is an appointment.  That is typically the ‘bottleneck’ that slows down a capital campaign.  Why? Because people with big money know the routine.  They know that if the president, principal or pastor are coming to see them, it’s not for chump change.

Consequently, they almost never take an appointment unless they are pre-disposed to making a gift.  That’s why the principles described above are so critical.  It’s also the reason you, and not a fundraising consultant, should have conducted the feasibility study interview in advance of the campaign.  Calling for an appointment is more organic, more comfortable, if the request for a solicitation meeting comes on the heels of an earlier conversation you had with the person—one in which he expressed interest in the project.

If they take the appointment, there is a 90% chance of getting a gift.

If you have done these relationship-building steps, asking for an appointment will be relatively easy.  It’s a ‘warm’ lead.  If you haven’t, getting the appointment requires more skill.

Just remember: Everybody has Somebody to whom they Can’t Say No.  If you can’t get through, it simply means you were not the right person to ask for the appointment.  No shame in trying.  Find the right person.

Prepare for the Solicitation Meeting

So you have the appointment scheduled.  How should you prepare for the meeting? Be ready to answer five questions on the mind of every major gift donor. 

1. What do you need? Why?

This is the easy part.  With words, drawings, and photos describe the project you are trying to fund.

Frame the project in terms of benefits.  What are the good things that will result from a successful capital campaign?

Who will benefit?  Personalize the benefits.  Use stories.  For example, Catholic schools can tell the story of a student, their circumstances, and the bright future that awaits them if project X moves forward.

2. What will it cost?

If the project is new construction, know your budget.  Did you include Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment? Architect and construction management fees?  Short term financing fees? How recent are your estimates?  Have you factored in inflation or other things that could cause the budget to increase?

When asking for a major gift, crisp answers to these questions will give you credibility.

3. Who said you needed it?

This question often goes unasked, but it’s on the mind of every donor.  It speaks to the credibility of the decision makers.  If trusted business people worked with administration on the decision to move forward with the project, the odds of a major gift go up.

4. What assurance can you give me that you will reach goal, and use my money as intended?

Sadly, there are many nonprofits who rush into campaigns.  They haven’t accurately estimated income and expense, nor identified the number of major gift prospects needed to reach goal.

Consequently, a few early solicitations go well.  People make big pledges.  But then the school or parish runs out of major gift prospects and the campaign languishes.  In some cases, the promised construction never materializes.

That is why major gift donors are skittish. They need to know that you accurately estimated expenses.  They also want assurance that you have enough big names engaged in the effort to raise the desired goal.

5. How much do you want from me?

You must be prepared to put a number or range on the table.   But that is not enough.  Be prepared to explain why you are asking for that amount.  Explain how their gift fits into the funding plan.  Give them confidence that if they make a gift at this particular level, you are confident you can finish the capital campaign in short order.

Principle #6.  When you ask intelligently, all things are possible.

You have the appointment.  You are prepared to answer questions.  You know the amount you will request, and you can explain how you arrived at that amount.

It’s time to ask.

People want to say yes.  It’s part of human nature to want to be helpful.  Your job is to find something they can say “yes” to.  The best development professionals take people’s well-intentioned comments and gracefully turn them into action items.

If you asked for a large gift, it will take time for your constituent to make a decision.  They may need to discuss it with a family member, business associate, or financial advisor.  They have to weigh your request for a major gift in light of several other nonprofits.

You will need to follow up in a timely manner.  Two, three, four or more follow-up ‘touches’ are not unusual.  After all, you are asking for a major gift. Patience, persistence and sensitivity are watchwords for success.

What if you ask for a gift, are told they “will do something,” but then don’t hear from them despite repeated inquiries?  How should that be interpreted?

First, it’s not uncommon.  Assume the best.  It’s not like people wake up in the morning with “give money away” at the top of their to-do list.  Especially when the economy is booming, I find people are so busy making money they haven’t time to give it away.

At the same time, there might be a reason they aren’t getting back to you with a decision.  After putting a number on the table, did you ask whether you were in the right ballpark?  Did you have a heart-to-heart talk?

Here’s what sometimes happens.

You ask for a big number.  He says he’ll think about it.  Feeling a little uncomfortable, both parties happily return to small talk.  You leave with no idea if your request was in the right ballpark.

That, my friend, invites delay.  Here’s why:  It could be that your number was completely out of line with what he thought you were going to request.  Sometimes the person can’t possible say “Yes,” and is too embarrassed to say “No.”

So they say nothing at all.  Ever.  No decision, no return call.

That’s why, after asking, and giving the person time to reply, I like to follow up with something like this: “This is the biggest project in our history, so the numbers we are suggesting may be surprising to some.  I just need to know whether we’re in the right ballpark.”

If you are, great.  It moves the person verbally one step closer to committing at that level.  If not, that’s fine, too.  Let’s discuss the real number the person would truly consider.  That done, you will feel any unspoken discomfort melt away.

Finally, it’s sometimes helpful to send in reinforcements.  Is there someone on your board or campaign leadership who can make contact with the prospect to put in a word of encouragement?  Is there a business associate or another major gift donor who can endorse the project with a call?

I refer to this as ‘behind the scenes’ lobbying, and it is a powerful tool that many nonprofits fail to properly use.

Principle # 7  Spend 95% of your energy on Major Gift Solicitation.  Don’t get distracted.

Securing appointments and closing major gifts is time consuming.  And frustrating.  Days go by without closing any gifts.

Consequently, there is a temptation to forego the focus on major gifts.  The Board wants to see action.  So administrators prematurely begin the ‘general phase’ of the campaign with mass mailings to hundreds or thousands of constituents.

The result?  An enormous amount of effort, a few hundred new gifts—and another $200,000 in pledges toward a $10M goal.  

Why so little?  Even if you get a good number of gifts, it takes a lot of $100, $250 and $500 gifts to even hit $25,000.  Just do the math.  

Meanwhile, the people who have the capacity to make major gifts—required to hit the goal—haven’t heard from anyone in a while. You’ve been too busy with the mass marketing campaign. Consequently, those who were considering a major gift grow cold on the idea.

This is the mistake I’ve seen time and again, and one to avoid. As a general rule, your Catholic school or church should only go ‘mass market’ when you are confident that you are within striking distance of reaching the goal. To be clear: don’t expect mass marketing to constituents in your database to bring in more than 5 – 10%.  

For example, let’s presume you have $7M in pledges on a $10M goal.  You’ve asked a number of big players to support the campaign, and they are “considering it.”  There are others still waiting to be asked.

In this scenario, where there are active major gift deals in the making, why would you redirect energy toward your general database of constituents? 

At best, that effort might bring in a few hundred thousand dollars.  So you move the needle from $7.0M to $7.3M.  Now what?  Your major gift prospects — the key to success — grow ‘colder’ by the day.  That extra $300K isn’t going to get the job done.  

I’ve rarely seen a Catholic school or church with the manpower needed to simultaneously run a major gifts effort and a mass marketing campaign.  One or both will suffer, and it’s usually the major gift prospects who are put on the shelf — to the detriment of the campaign.

The takeaway?   After you’ve picked the low hanging fruit among your major gift prospects, the pace of the campaign will slow.  Expect that.  Soldier through it.  

Don’t get sidetracked by moving too quickly into the mass marketing effort.  Keep working the major gift prospect list until you feel you have exhausted nearly all possibilities.  Hopefully, at that point you will be at 95% of goal.  Then you can engage mass marketing to the rest of your constituents for the last 5% needed to reach goal. 

Has your campaign stalled?  Need a fresh set of eyes to get you to goal? Let’s talk.

Greg Jeffrey – 30 Years Experience