What is Major Donor Fundraising Anyway?

coinsI’m often asked about the type of fundraising that I specialise in and, as well as saying ‘small non-profit’, I also say, ‘major donor’ as, along with sponsorship, that’s primarily where I’ve raised money for most of my fundraising career.

But the usual question that follows is ‘what’s that?’ So, what is major donor fundraising and, more importantly, should your small charity be doing it?


A major donor is a high net worth individual or family who have the potential to make a significant gift that will make a difference to your charity and its programmes.  So, as well as individuals, family trusts can fall into this category too.

The definition of a major donor though varies from charity to charity and depends entirely on your previous fundraising; your campaign/programme targets and what you consider a major gift to be ie one that will make a real difference to your work.

If you’re very small and tend to get in small inidividual donations, you might consider £500 to be a major gift. If you’re a larger charity – or one with a major donor gift programme in place (remember that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a large ‘outfit’ just that you’ve recognised major gifts are likely to be the best way for your charity to raise money) – you might consider a major gift to be anything over £10,000.


So, as a fundraiser, how can you raise major gifts?

In a few rare cases, a major donor will approach a charity.  This has happened to me once in 20 years and it was when I worked at a major, high profile charity.  Chances are, this won’t happen to you so, in order to secure a major gift, you will have to thoroughly research and then develop a relationship with your major gift prospect to the point that you know when and what to ask for.  It’s only with this kind of donor ‘prospecting’ and relationship building that you will be able to successfully raise major gifts.  So if you don’t have the time or resources (and remember, your board fall into the latter category), it’s unlikely that you will be able to make a real success of major donor fundraising.

Affinity and relationships are crucial to any successful major donor programme and, if you don’t already have the relationships, you should seek to build them where possible.  You MUST inspire your prospect – this is true of any fundraising but particularly major donor.  It’s a two-way relationship.  You’re asking them to meet your needs through their donation but, by getting to know them and bringing them on board with your charity, you’ll also be meeting their needs too.

In almost all cases, major donor fundraising is most successful where senior management and the board are involved.  Your CEO and/or Chair must be prepared to give their time to develop relationships with major donor ‘prospects’.  It can’t all be left to the fundraisers.

One of the keys to major donor fundraising is of course, the ask.  This never happens upfront and, very often, doesn’t happen for a long time after you’ve begun cultivating the relationship with the donor.  Ideally, by the time you come to ask them for the gift, you’re relatively sure they’ll say yes.  The timing is perfect, you will have an excellent knowledge of your prospective donor, you will know their net worth, their likes and dislikes, other gifts they’ve given – and who is the best person in your charity to ‘make the ask’.

All of the time that you’ve spent cultivating and getting to know your major donor means that you should be in a position to ask for the right amount and towards the right programme, almost guaranteeing your success.


There are pluses and minuses to major donor fundraising.  The downside is that it takes a long time, often requires you to build relationships you don’t already have and needs the involvement and support of others within your charity outside the fundraising team.

The pluses are, of course, the potential to receive game-changing amounts of money and access to key decision makers or people of influence. 


In my next post, I’ll deal with the structure and implementation of a major donor fundraising strategy to help you put this into practice…


Meantime, please ask any questions about this type of fundraising in the comments below!

Comments are closed.