Major Donors: How to Attract (and Keep) Them

Gia Chow
Gia Chow

If you’ve been in the fundraising game for a while, you’re aware of the important role major donors play. On average, gifts from major donors make up the bulk of a nonprofit’s fundraising revenue each year.  

Put simply, major donors are individuals who make the biggest donations to your org. 

Who Is A Major Donor?

There isn’t a universal dollar amount that tips someone into the ranks of a major donor – that threshold varies based on the size and budget of a nonprofit. Smaller organizations may consider $500 a major gift, while larger nonprofits may start at a $1,000 mark.

With any significant donation, major donors aren’t easy to come by no matter how big or small your nonprofit is. It takes time, effort, and trust to build lasting relationships with high-level donors. To help you successfully create and sustain a major donor program, we’ve pulled together key takeaways from this workshop with Charles Burge and Chanda Lockhart.

About The Presenters 

Charles Burge serves faith-based nonprofits as a Nonprofit Development and Communications Executive. He loves coaching people and helping them find the best way to develop major donors within their organization.

Chanda Lockhart brings 15+ years in development and marketing to the table. She has a background in education and youth-serving orgs, especially grassroots org and small shops. She’s data-obsessed and strives toward community-centric fundraising

Attracting Major Donors: “People Give To People”

At its core, fundraising is a people business and it’s intensely personal especially when it comes to major donors. A fundamental concept to keep in mind is that people give to people that they know and trust projects and concepts that they believe in

As you soak in the mantra above, we’ve dialed in on some guidelines for attracting major donors.

Guidelines for Major Donors

1. Go For The Donor (Not The Dollar) 

If you go for the dollars, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose the donor. Instead, if you go for the donor, the funding will follow. Your donors are smart and they can sense when a relationship is transactional rather than genuine. In order to truly build a genuine relationship with a major donor, you have to understand their passions and what drives them.

2. Provide Value

Give your major donors a reason to talk to you. Ask yourself, what value do you provide for them? For instance, the value that you provide can be your organization’s mission and the impact of your programs. 

3. Be Honest

Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Remember, people give to people they know and trust, which means you have to prove yourself trustworthy to your major donors.

4. Do No Harm

Building relationships with major donors is a lot like taking the hippocratic oath. Respect your donors, their privacy, and their boundaries. If they feel like they’re being played, it erodes any existing trust and the potential longevity of a relationship.

5. Greater The Engagement, Greater The Giving

This one is kind of obvious – the more that your major donor is involved with you and engaged with your organization, the greater the giving will be!

The Steps of Donor Cultivation

Donor cultivation is a lot like dating. You’re trying to get to know the person better over time, build a relationship, and hopefully have them stick with you for the long haul.

1. Discovery

In this step, you’re identifying prospects. Your donor is getting to know you and you’re getting to know them. After a while you get the sense of whether or not they’re interested. If they’re not interested, it won’t do you any good to continue pursuing a relationship so you have to respect them and move on.

2. Cultivate

Cultivation is all about getting to know your major donor at a deeper level. It’s learning their communication preferences and finding out where their passions and interests lie. Once you understand these critical aspects about your major donor, you can craft an outreach strategy tailored to their needs.

3. Ask

Similar to how you wouldn’t propose to someone on the first date, you want to build a solid connection with your major donor before making a big ask. If it seems awkward when you pop the question, you’re probably not doing it right.

4. Report

Donors want to know the impact of their gifts. How you report back to a donor is going to vary with the donor, especially a major donor. Some major donors are story-oriented; they want to hear a story about how their gift impacted a family or individual. Still, others may prefer high-level stats or an executive summary of what you accomplished in the last year. 

5. Repeat 

These donor cultivation steps are actually part of an infinite cycle. After reporting back (and thanking) your major donor, you’ll want to keep them engaged with your mission in hopes that they will renew or increase their gift.

Retaining Major Donors 

Now that you’ve got your first gift from a major donor, you’re probably wondering how you get them to come back.

What Is Personalized Stewardship?

Having a personalized stewardship plan is a fail-proof approach to retaining major donors. It’s a systematic approach to cultivating, improving, and maintaining your relationships with major donors. In order to successfully steward a relationship, you’re going to have to lay some groundwork:

The Groundwork

Is Their Relationship With You, A Board Member, Or The Organization? 

Ultimately, you want your donors to create a relationship with the organization and its mission.

Why? Because you’ll see that donors follow their friends. When you have a major donor tied to a board member (or an individual affiliated with your org), you will usually lose the gift or see a decrease in giving once that individual rolls off.


Personalize your communications to your donor! Rather than sending generic emails, use their first name or add a personal note. These small touches really do make all the difference by showing your donors that you care. People give to people – not to email machines.

Donor Intention

Donors have different reasons they give and it’s important to understand why they give:

  • Are they interested in reciprocity? Is this a quid pro quo gift?
  • Are they interested in a long-term relationship or is this a one-off gift? 
  • If it is a one-off, can you transition it into a long-lasting relationship?

Pipeline (Moves Management) & Plans 

Ensure that your major donors don’t fall through the cracks. You want to make sure you have a plan in place from the day the gift is made through your fiscal year and in an ongoing cycle. You need to make sure you’re maintaining the relationship. One way to ensure that the ask is being made on a consistent basis is by implementing pledges.


Once you’ve completed the groundwork, you’re going to want to learn all that you can about your major donor. Here are recommended steps to the personalized stewardship approach.

1. Ask Them

The first step in getting to know your major donor is by asking them how they engage with organizations they support.

2. Learn Everything You Can

Make sure you can answer questions about their work, education, family, wealth, network, and passion points. Paid donor prospecting software (iWave) can help you screen for wealth but the internet is flush (LinkedIn, social media, etc.) with professional and personal information. Once you’ve done your research, be sure to park this info in a place where you can easily reference and update (like a CRM).

3. Create Investment Reports

Reporting back is crucial when it comes to sustaining a major donor relationship which is why it’s important to show them what’s coming out of their investment in your organization. 

Investment reports show your major donors the data and how their money is being put to work. Compared to annual reports, investment reports  are customized, higher-level, and do not include a lot of narrative or storytelling. These can be created in powerpoint, google slides, or even canva. 

4. Know What’s Next

You always want to be thinking ahead. If you plant the seed for your next campaign or event, you’re positioning yourself for another ask down the line. 

How you choose to plant the seed is up to you. You can include what’s next in ongoing conversations or touchpoints or you can include it in your investment report. 

5. Stay In Touch 

Don’t ghost your donors – especially major donors! Whether it’s through quarterly communications, your organization’s newsletter, or another channel, keep your major donors in the loop.

When it comes to staying in touch, it’s important to acknowledge the shift in donor communications. Anecdotally, donors aren’t as interested in in-person site visits as they used to be pre-covid. However, while in-site visits have dropped off, video engagement has jumped so it may be worthwhile to try video communication if you haven’t already.

Pro Tip: Unsure about whether your donor would appreciate a phone call? It depends on the donor. Phone calls are great for quick touch points, but let your donors know you’ll be calling ahead of time.

Ready To Find Your Next Major Donor?

Strangers are just major donors you haven’t met yet. To learn more about how our CauseVox CRM can help you track and manage donors so that you can keep them, schedule a demo

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