Okay, this is going to be the last in the series of all the terrible things non-profits do that hurt major gifts. I hope by shedding light on these you will be able to evaluate your own program and organization and make a check list of areas to improve so that your major gift program can thrive. Here’s our final list.

  1. Your development team structure is wrong

    How many of you have your director of direct response managing the major gift team? Or maybe you have your Marketing Director managing the direct-response team. Do you have your events managed by major gifts? We’ve seen so many odd combinations of how development teams are structured, and they are hurting the performance of major gifts. What happens is that over time, instead of thinking about the donor journey, we create reporting structures based on personalities and internal structures that make it easier for the non-profit to “get by.” If your development team is not structured around the donor pipeline, it’s set up wrong. There should be no siloes, there should be communication throughout the team… why? Because this is about the donor, not your internal department issues. Setting your structure up correctly allows the donor the ability to express their passions and interests at the level of giving they want.

  2. Using direct-response fundraising as your only means of raising major gift revenue —

    No, this is not a joke. You would not believe how many organizations are not building relationships with donors, meeting with them and personally soliciting major donors for gifts. Instead, they rely almost exclusively on direct response appeals or higher-end “proposal” mailings as their way of asking a donor to give. I’m sorry, but a donor that wants to make a high five, six, or seven figure gift will not give through direct mail. This is why we see so many low four-figure gifts in donor files from donors that have much more capacity.

  3. Inefficient donor content for MGOs to use

    Non-profit leaders say to MGOs, “go out there and bring in some big gifts,” yet they don’t give them the tools to be effective. One tool that MGOs really need is good content to share with donors that will inform and inspire donors about the programs and projects an organization has. Do you have content that talks about the need you’re addressing? This is important to steward, cultivate, and ultimately create an inspiring offer for the donor to invest in.

  4. Mandating the same communication to all donors

    This is sort of related to the above, but so many non-profit leaders fail to think about the different audiences they have and how they might communicate differently. So, what happens is that an “edict” goes out to staff from leadership that essentially says, “We have this emergency need, here is the email or letter, etc that is going out to our entire donor base.” This happens all the time. The problem is that in a healthy major gift portfolio, the MGO knows the passions and interests of their donors and THEY should be the final keeper of what type of communication should go out to their donors, NOT leadership who is not thinking about donors, but their own internal needs.

  5. MGOs don’t enter donor information in the database —

    Look, I know many MGOs who struggle with details, but the worst thing for your organization is when you don’t have a system in place, or you are not managing your major gift staff appropriately to accurately enter donor information and communication notes into the database. If you care about building a long-term relationship with a donor, then keeping track of that relationship is paramount. Whatever system you employ to make this happen, whether it’s part of an MGO’s KPIs, hiring assistants for your MGOs who can do this work, or creating a culture where it’s unacceptable not to be up to date with donor information, if you are honoring the donor, this is always done. And it’s honoring to the next MGO who will eventually take over the portfolio at some point. Bad information impedes major donor program growth.

  6. Not knowing your donor’s passions and interests —

    While I’ve sprinkled this in with some of the other barriers, this one, along with qualifying donors, gets a special mention. The whole work of a major gift officer is to match a donor’s passions and interests with the projects and programs of the organization that are changing the world. That’s fundamentally it. So, if you don’t know your donor’s passions and interests, you and the donor will never fully realize that donor’s potential. Yet, when we first start working with an MGO, typically the vast majority of the donors in their portfolio, they have no relationship with. “Then what are they doing every day?” is what I ask. I mean, this is why non-profits hire human beings to connect with donors. Major gifts is meant to be hands-on, specifically so that an organization can find out a donor’s passions and interests. So if this is not happening, you are hurting your program.

  7. Saving your best donors for the CEO, who does nothing with them —

    This happens quite frequently, where you have a CEO who because of their ego thinks they are the only person who can talk to a particular donor. But, what typically happens is that the CEO doesn’t have a plan or system for connecting with these donors, so they’re not communicated with properly, and they could be doing so much more. If you have a CEO like this, assign an MGO or manager of the team to “manage up” to the CEO to tell them what needs to be done for those donors. That way communication is flowing, and you can use the CEO in the best way for that relationship.

  8. Giving circles or clubs —

    So many failing major gift programs have giving circles or clubs. I get the initial reason why non-profits wanted to create them as it can incentivize donors to give more. But there are two problems with it:

  • It just encourages transactional giving rather than giving to the mission of the organization.
  • It creates a mindset in the donor that all they need to do is continue to give at that level so they can have the benefits of that club or membership. By and large, donors don’t need giving clubs. Instead, find out who the donor is. Why do they give to you? What’s their story? What are they passionate about? What is it that your organization does that inspires them? In other words, develop a relationship with them so they give from their heart to help change the world… not to get the benefits of your club.

Well, there it is. Now, I’m sure there are many more and if you think we missed some, please tell us in the comments what you’ve found are barriers preventing major gift programs from thriving. Then we can avoid them!