Evaluating Your Major Gift Program: Three strategic questions for nonprofit leaders

by Suzanne Battit

Posted March 25, 2024

When Dr. Ruth Gottesman, Ed.D. – Professor Emerita in the Department of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City – announced that she was donating $1 billion to make the school tuition-free, it seemed like a bolt from the blue. But attracting major gifts — even the rare one of this size —is far more likely to be the result of a rigorous approach than a random event.

The long-term success of a nonprofit’s fundraising is almost always predicated on a strong major gift program, and the ability to identify and cultivate donors like Dr. Gottesman is a hallmark of such a program. Major donors have a strong affinity for the mission and impact of an organization and an unyielding commitment to its success. Indeed, at age 93, Dr. Gottesman – the very wealthy widow of an early business partner and long-time investor with Warren Buffett – has been affiliated with the medical school for 55 years and serves as the chairperson of its board of trustees.

While monumental gifts like Dr. Gottesman’s may be an anomaly in the world of major gifts, every nonprofit can assess their major gift program to be as strong and effective as possible. Here are three strategic questions to assess your program so you can elevate it to the next level and beyond.  

Are we getting the appropriate return on investment (ROI) for our major gift program?

A major gift program should have a positive ROI from its first year on. But if that’s all it is delivering, chances are good that you are leaving charitable dollars on the table.

While the ROI varies among nonprofit sectors, a mature program could be delivering revenue that is 10 times the investment in staff salary or better. Among clients, we usually find that the investment in major gift officers averages $150,000 per officer, each of whom could potentially be raising a few million dollars annually.

To elevate the ROI of your major gift program, consider these three fundamental elements: right prospects, right asks, and right metrics.

Right prospects: Each portfolio in the major gift program should contain a group of qualified prospects, and there should be a plan for cultivating, asking, and stewarding those prospects. Prospect analysis, a refreshed wealth screening, and portfolio development can help ensure that the major gift staff is focused on the most promising donors.

Right asks: The major gift staff must be able to present donors with a compelling and urgent case for funding. This means crafting funding opportunities that will resonate with donors, making asks after strategic and thorough cultivation, and tendering asks via the most appropriate staff based on relationships and the level of the ask.

Right metrics: There should be metrics in place that ensure the major gift staff is focused on and accountable for activities that will deepen donor relationships and engagement and bolster revenue. Activity metric should include things like visits, proposals submitted, new prospects engaged, etc., and revenue metrics should include not only total amount raised, but also percentage growth over last year and revenue from new prospects.

Is our major gift program campaign-ready?

These days, new campaigns come fast — every 5-7 years in most nonprofits. A well-run major gift program not only provides the funding for a nonprofit’s annual activities and special projects, it also helps to ensure that the funds needed to support future campaigns have a higher likelihood of being secured.

The donors who will make a lead gift to your next campaign are most likely the donors who are making major gifts to your organization today. One of the key goals of the major gift program is to ensure that these donors are ready to make those additional and higher-level gifts when the time comes to launch new campaigns.   

To ensure that today’s major gift donors are ready to become tomorrow’s lead campaign donors, nonprofits need to engage with them in deeper and more direct interactions. There should be an engagement strategy that identifies potential major gift donors and – when and where appropriate – brings them together with the organization’s leaders, including the president/CEO and board chair. It also might include opportunities for key prospects to join the board and/or a committee or advisory group.

Does our major gift program nurture transformational giving?

Your major gift program should be building relationships with the potential “Dr. Gottesmans” in your organization’s donor base. These are the current donors who have the capacity and desire to give transformational gifts – whether outright or as part of a planned gift.

Data and analytics are one enabler here — new or refreshed wealth screening and other kinds of prospect analytics can be helpful in identifying mega-donors. But often these transformational gifts come down to the relationship you are building with the donor.

Some key signs that major gift donors may be ready for transformational giving are:

  • A strong affinity for your nonprofit as demonstrated by increased gifts, giving over a long period of time, and giving repeatedly as needed. These are donors who have responded positively to asks for increased support over time.
  • Expressions of interest in the big picture of your organization. These are donors who want to know more about your organization’s mission, impact, long-term planning, succession, and leadership.
  • A desire to do more for your nonprofit. These are donors who talk specifically about wanting to make a long-term, lasting impact on the organizational mission.
  • A high level of engagement with your organization. These donors are willing to or already serve in a leadership or volunteer capacity.

Major gifts enable nonprofits to achieve their missions and extend their reach. These gifts are far too important to leave to chance. They require a strong and accountable major gift staff and program that can deliver a consistently high annual ROI, a wellspring of campaign-ready donors, and the occasional mega-donation that brings with it new opportunities to make a positive impact on the world.


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