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For Charities, Tips & Advice

Q&A - Cultivating Large Donors for Your Charity

Lisa Manfield March 10, 2015

Growing anything from scratch -- an organization, a large donor strategy -- is always a bit daunting. But if you’re looking to seed your charity’s funding mix with perennial sources of support, large donors and major gifts are an important funding branch to cultivate.

To get some insider tips and strategies on how to effectively recruit and retain large donors, we went to someone who not only does it day and day out, but who also teaches it: Siobhan Aspinall.

Meet Siobhan

Siobhan Aspinal

Siobhan Aspinall has been fundraising for over 16 years for the Canadian Cancer Society, the David Suzuki Foundation and the United Way.

She is currently the Director of Development at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, working primarily in major gifts.

She teaches two fundraising courses at BCIT, and is co-chair of the professional development committee for the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Q: How can charities identify prospects for major gifts?

A: There are a bunch of ways to do this, but the most important thing is to start close to home. Focus on lapsed major gift donors, current donors who are close to you, board members and other leadership volunteers. It's always easier and smarter to start with people who are (or were) close to you before finding brand new prospects.

If you're starting from scratch, definitely throw it out to board members first for personal giving and possible connections. Then try some detective work using some of these ideas:

Research prospects: Get ahold of some prospect research software (either with a paid subscription or free access through the library). You can enter search words related to your mission and find funders that give in your area.

Connect on LinkedIn: Get on LinkedIn, connect to your board members and other organizational leadership, and research their contacts. If you find any potential leads, then get your connector to set up a meeting.

Look at competitors: Find out who your competitors’ funders are by checking their website, annual report and donor wall.

Q: What are your best tips for converting prospects into large donors?

A: If the prospects are already qualified - that is, they are interested in your mission, connected through someone already, and have the ability to make a gift of the size you need - then reach out and start cultivating a relationship. There are no hard rules around this, but here are a few cultivation suggestions:

  • Send them email/phone/mail updates on your charity’s successes.
  • Invite them to meet and ask them about their interests. Listen and look for connections to your own mission.
  • Invite them to events at your charity.
  • Keep great notes and assess when they might be ready to ask for a gift.
  • Recognize that these relationships take time to grow and that there is no set schedule for getting a major gift.

Q: What are your most successful door openers with new large donors?

A: The best approach is getting the door opened by a peer. When I call for a meeting, sometimes all I hear are crickets chirping. But when the person gets a call from a golf buddy, then we're in.

If there's no connector, I will always start by asking the donor about herself. I'll say something like: "I know you're interested in our work and have been a fantastic supporter - thank you. And I imagine we're not the only interest you have. What other causes interest you?"

Q: Should charities use social media tools to recruit new large donors?

A: I haven't heard of a lot of success with acquiring new donors with social media, although I do like LinkedIn as a prospecting tool (as mentioned above). A smarter approach with social media is to use it to cultivate or steward current prospects and donors.

I have one colleague who did such a good job stewarding a small gift by interacting with the corporate donor on Twitter, that they just contacted him to confirm a big six-figure gift. They credited his great work building profile for them with social media and said he stood out from other fundees.

Q: What are your most effective large donor touchpoints/communications strategies?

A: Oddly, the quick and dirty touchpoints seem to work better than the big stewardship reports! I do both formal and informal touchpoints, but really love sending short "I just heard this and thought you'd be interested" emails with breaking information from my charity. They require no thought or formatting, the shorter the better, and you know people will actually take the time to read them.

I once stewarded a national organization this way and they credited those emails with having put my renewal gift in their budget even before I had asked for it. Nice!

Q: Are there any resources you would suggest charities use to learn more about recruiting and working with large donors?

A: I love webinars, books and blogs in the sector, but a great idea is to find a mentor who does this kind of work and start buying her some wine. Here are some favourites:

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