This article is adapted from the 7th edition of Fundraising for Social Change for the Grassroots Fundraising Journal. For the first part of this two-part article, originally published online on February 12, 2016, click here.
Materials for Major Gift Solicitation
In addition to the gift range chart and a list of prospects, three more elements need to be in place before your organization can begin to solicit major gifts: 1) what, if any, benefits you will give to major donors that are not available to other donors; 2) materials that describe your work and how to make donations; and 3) people to solicit the gifts.
Benefits: While helping the organization is the main satisfaction for the donor, an added incentive will show that you appreciate the extra effort the donor is making and will remind the donor of his or her gift to your organization. Ideal incentives should be meaningful without costing your organization very much—for example, free tickets to a special event your organization is hosting, a mug, or a book related to your work. There is no evidence that one kind of benefit works better than another, and there is some evidence that donors prefer more personal attention and more information about your organization rather than tangible benefits. Certainly, the benefit should not be very expensive. Under IRS law, any value of a benefit that exceeds the vague criterion of “token” is not eligible for the same tax deduction as the rest of the gift. For example, if someone gives $500 to an organization and receives an etching worth $50, the donor can only claim $450 of this gift on their tax return because $50 is more than a token amount. If the same group gave a T-shirt or tote bag worth little or nothing on the open market, the donor could claim the whole $500 as a tax deduction. The IRS is increasingly questioning expensive benefits for donors, and donors can be annoyed by having to remember that what they gave your organization is different from what they can deduct.
If you decide to have a benefit, the benefit should be easy to deliver, which is why many organizations use mugs or books (no color or size options, won’t get stale, etc.). Because of the number of items people commonly get for their gifts to public television, public radio, or major national organizations, a small organization should probably offer something that is related to its programs.
For example, an organization working for stricter controls on and alternatives to the commercial use of pesticides sends a short booklet on alternatives to pesticides for home gardens and indoor plants. An after-school program for inner-city children asks the teachers to save drawings students made and sends them to donors along with its thank you notes. This benefit is truly of token value, but it is very popular with donors. Now the organization has one day on which the children are asked to make “thank you” drawings. A public policy think tank has a monthly “briefing call” that donors can join. The policy director gives a short update on the policy issues the organization is working on, discusses pros and cons of different positions, and invites questions and comments. This is popular with some major donors and also gives the staff an early sign of what questions and comments a friendly audience might have about a particular policy position. What is nice about these kinds of benefits is that they can be extended to anyone who has gone above and beyond for the organization, including long time donors or faithful and reliable volunteers. A major donor program can be run successfully without giving any benefits beyond what are offered to all donors, such as the newsletter. This approach will only work if the donors are thanked personally and promptly and if the organization keeps in touch with them using the ways recommended in the section on renewing major gifts later in this article. Personal attention and information on what work the organization was able to do as a result of the donor’s gift will always be the most effective benefit for maintaining and upgrading your donors’ giving.
Descriptive Materials: It goes without saying that every organization needs a good, up-to-date website that delivers information through pictures, graphs and even short videos, in addition to text. But solicitors need some print materials separate from the website for major donors. Some organizations create a brochure aimed at a major donor audience, but many eschew that expense in favor of simple 8½-by-11 sheets of paper with “Frequently Asked Questions,” a copy of the gift range chart, and a list of what the money will buy. These documents are put into an attractive folder with a picture or the logo of the organization on the front. Each sheet lists the website so people can easily give online, but also has a return envelope for the many people still using checks. Because these materials will be used primarily in personal solicitation, they should focus on ways to make thoughtful gifts. For example, encourage people to make a monthly pledge, and describe the tax advantages of giving highly appreciated assets. The information in the packet is essentially a published, though perhaps condensed, version of your case statement. It also helps volunteer solicitors by giving them something to leave with a donor and to refer to if they forget some information they meant to impart. Make sure all your print materials are completely clear about how to give and encourage the donor to visit you online.
Solicitors: Finally, you need to have a core group of people willing to do the soliciting. Some of these people should be members of the board of directors, but the board’s work can be augmented by a group of volunteers. These people should be trained in the process of asking for money, but they do not need previous experience in asking for major gifts, nor do they need to know many prospects personally. But they must be donors—ideally, major donors—themselves.
Keeping in Touch with Major Donors
One of the most frequent complaints from major donors is that organizations treat them like ATM machines—they punch in the amount they want and then walk away until they need money again. Keeping donors interested in your group requires showing some interest in the donor, particularly some interest in why the donor supports your group. To give major donors this extra attention takes work, but it is work worth doing for several reasons: first, because it is courteous; second, because it brings donors closer to the work of your group, making them potential activists or advocates; and third, because it will bring in more money. In addition to when you ask major donors to renew their gifts, you should be in contact with them two or three times a year. You will want