Three Steps to New Major Donors for Your Independent School

When I started doing development work, one of the things that always seemed daunting was major gift fundraising—finding donors who had the affinity and capacity to make a transformational gift the school.

By Alexandra Reardon, CFRE

But over the years I discovered it wasn’t actually daunting at all. Eventually, many of those donors I found and cultivated became the biggest donors to our capital campaign.  

Major donors are not hard to get if you know where to look and what to do once you find them. The secret to finding and keeping major donors? It’s three things:  

  • reviewing your annual giving data,  
  • having a good stewardship plan in place,  
  • and being a relational fundraiser.   

Find New Major Donors by Tracking Annual Fund Gifts

So where do you start finding new major donors? In the annual fund.

Begin to track donors who give multiple times a year or make significant monthly gifts to your school; see what happens when you begin to ask this group for slightly larger gifts each year.   

One of the KPIs to look for is increased year-over-year giving to your school’s annual campaign. For example, if we had a donor who typically gave $200 to our fall appeal and then suddenly gave $1,000 to a spring appeal, my annual fund manager made a note and put that person on my radar. I would then call to thank them, which made a real difference. And when I had someone from the board or a well-known school volunteer leader make that call, I saw even more stunning results. 

Never Underestimate the Power of a Thank You

We once had a first-time donor give $500 out of the blue—not during the annual appeal.

My annual fund manager put the new donor in our major gifts stewardship pipeline; we sent her a handwritten postcard thanking her for her gift and telling her about the immediate impact their gift was making to the children. As a result, the donor’s next gift was $2,000. At this level, our stewardship plan indicated the next step was to have our board chair make a phone call and thank her. Once the chair made the call, she was surprised by what she learned.  The donor shared that one of the reasons she gave more is that she felt appreciated and seen. The chair was shocked that the donor had never received a handwritten thank you note or a thank you call from an organization before.   

Our chair began further building the relationship when she asked the donor her story as it related to the organization—her “why,” if you will. She learned that the donor had an affinity for helping young students who lived in underserved communities. This gave our chair an opportunity to discuss some of the new financial aid and scholarship programs we were launching; the donor asked to learn more as she was interested in making a larger investment! 

Building Meaningful Relationships is Key

I know it sounds simplistic, but listening to your donors is incredibly important.

When donors reach out to your organization, make sure you follow up with them and find out why.   

I recently had a conversation with a friend who works in development at a museum. One of their museum members reached out to her department after receiving the museum’s quarterly magazine. He wanted to know more about the corporate sponsorship levels he saw on the back cover. She learned that this member owned a business and was interested in exploring ways that he could give through his company. Over a few conversations, she worked to understand the member’s passion towards the museum’s mission. She did not push quickly. Instead, she took time to listen and develop a targeted proposal that centered around his interest in abstract art. His company became a $10,000 sponsor for a specific exhibition later that year.   

By listening to him, understanding his “why,” and being responsive, she turned a $125 annual member into a major donor. Now, she can continue her cultivation and create a long-term relationship that may result in a leadership gift to the museum’s upcoming capital campaign. She built a trust with her donor which is what relational fundraising is all about. The same can be done at your school. 

The bottom line is this. Every school’s CRM or donor database is filled with potential major donors who are giving far below their capacity. If you know how to find them and then build a relationship with them, your development or advancement program will soar. 

About the Author

Alexandra Reardon has 30 years of fundraising experience as a nonprofit executive and chief development officer. She specializes in major gifts, capital campaign management, and using impact stories to inspire giving. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive. Connect with Alex on LinkedIn.

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