When we evaluate a non-profit’s major gift performance, we really zero in on two things: value retention (caseload value in terms of dollars retained year over year) and donor retention (number of donors on a caseload that continue their giving year after year).
What we usually find when digging into the performance of the major gift program is quite dreadful. Over a four-year period of tracking donor behavior, most non-profits’ value retention is only in the 30-60% range, and donor retention can be worse.
That’s a lot of money and donors going out the back door of the non-profit. Sometimes that means millions of dollars and hundreds of people.
Remember, these are major donors, not $10 donors!
What’s worse is that many non-profits don’t even know it’s happening, because new donors are coming in, and their giving is masking the attrition of the “old” donors.
So it becomes a revolving door. Current donors stop giving, and new donors take their place. Year after year after year after year.
No real growth happens. Revenue remains flat, and leadership starts wondering what the problem is.
I’ll tell you the problem: we get so enamored with “new donors or new money” that we fail to cultivate and steward the donors we have. If you’d just listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash and their song “Love the One You’re With,” your major gift program would start to flourish and really take root.
But we can’t seem to get it in our heads that this is exactly what we need to do. Here is what seems to divert our attention:

  1. The ED tells the MGO that “there are a lot of wealthy people in town, I want you to bring us some.” Disaster! The MGO goes out chasing money, rather than building relationships with his caseload of donors.
  2. The organization has dozens of events to bring in new donors that the MGO is expected to “help” with. So the caseload gets neglected because the MGO is running out to the party store to get napkins and paper plates.
  3. Even though the MGO has a full caseload of donors, the CEO tells the MGO he needs to do more prospecting and she expects that 25% of his time should be dedicated to finding new major donors — and because the MGO has NO discipline, that 25% turns into 75%. Revenue plummets, retention tanks, and everyone wonders why major gift revenue is so behind.

Are any of these scenarios familiar to you? They are to Richard and me. We hear one of these three almost every day. It’s a sad, broken story, but one that can easily be fixed if you create focus and discipline in your major gift program.
By staying focused on retaining value and donors year over year, you will find yourself creating goals for every donor, a strategy to obtain those goals, and a disciplined communication strategy that is designed to cultivate and steward donors. This will result in building solid relationships and ultimately significant gifts to your organization.
But your focus has to be your current caseload of donors. Not the “rich woman” on the other side of town who has a ton of capacity. Don’t allow yourself to stray off the path of minding your portfolio of donors.
Again, your focus needs to be on relationship-building, retention, upgrading, retention, casting a vision, retention, helping donors find joy, retention, challenging donors to higher levels of giving, retention, providing outstanding donor service and finally, retention.
If you focus your energy on that, you will be wildly successful and your donors will find joy and fulfillment in their giving. Don’t be deceived by the promise of the shiny new object (“there’s gold out there if we just mined it”). No, there is gold right here in your own donor base and in your current caseload. Don’t “mine” new donors; MIND your current donors.