It’s so interesting to watch how non-profit leaders and managers decide what level of giving per year qualifies a donor for a mid-level or major gift classification.

Just ask the question: “What level of giving constitutes a mid-level giver in your organization?” and you will get a variety of answers:

  • Many organizations will say $500-$999
  • Many universities will say $5,000-$24,999
  • Larger non-profits will say $2,500-$9,999
  • Smaller ones will say $249-$699

A mid-level giver can be almost any level of annual giving that you can think of. Probably the only common point for everyone is that any donor who gives less than $250, or even $500, is a “general” donor or the “bottom of the donor file” in the general donor segment.

And this same logic applies to major gifts. A major donor is someone who gives $1,000+. Or $5,000+, or $10,000+, or $25,000+. Or even $50,000+. You get the picture.

But all these classifications start with the wrong premise, in our opinion. They start with what some authority figure in the organization believes constitutes a mid-level or major gift. And that’s it. Done. Finished. No more discussion.

I recently saw a major survey of European non-profits where the researchers asked scores of organizations, large and small, what they used as mid-level and major gift criteria. They all responded, and the survey organizers authoritatively declared the mid-level and major gift criteria for each country, as if the culture of that country determined giving levels.

So now you have development directors and managers in many organizations in Europe taking that research and reorganizing how they think and work with their donor files.

This is all wrong and just ridiculous. Here’s why.

In our opinion and experience, your mid-level and major gift criteria should be related to the amount of labor the organization has to properly cultivate and manage those donors. 

Here’s the reason. I think we can all agree that mid-level and major donors should be managed by a higher level of personalization and personal touch. But if you can’t align your labor to the pool of qualified donors, then you either need to adjust your personnel or adjust your criteria.

For instance, let’s say you have decided that a major donor is one who gives $10,000 or more per year. But after you have qualified the pool of donors who meet that criteria, you only have 75 donors to work with. Since you can manage 150 qualified donors as a full-time major gift officer, this means you are only working half-time. What are you going to do with the other half?

It will probably be other things outside your portfolio. Unless you start looking at qualified donors who give under $10,000, which means you are effectively changing your major donor criteria. And it’s ok to change it! Say that it’s $5,000+, and start working with all the donors who qualify.

Here’s another way to look at it. You work for a large non-profit. The number of qualified major donors who give $25,000 or more is 450. And the number of qualified donors who give $5,000 to $24,999 is also 450. There are 1200 donors who give between $1,000 and $4,999.

But you have 6 full-time mid-level and major gift officers. Jeff and I would recommend you assign three of your most experienced major gift officers to manage the donors who give $25,000 or more, three of your other frontline fundraisers to manage the donors who give from $5,000 to $24,999, and then treat these six employees as the two tiers of major gift management.

Then, hire 2 mid-level officers to manage the 1200 donors who give between $1,000 and $4,999.

This approach starts with the donor and their giving, not the opinions of managers and leaders or some survey someone organized.

Think about it this way. Imagine a donor gives you $7,500 a year, but you already have a full caseload of qualified donors giving that much or more, so you toss the donor into the direct marketing file. The result? You will either lose the donor over time or you will not realize the potential the donor has to give.

Just because you have 750 donors on your file that give you $25,000 or more per year does not mean that there are not another 750 donors in your file that could do the same thing but are currently giving less than $25,000 a year. Because you are not thinking that way, you are staffing wrong, managing wrong, and not realizing the potential of those donors who could give more, but aren’t doing so because they’re not being engaged.

Jeff and I encountered this exact situation at a major east coast university here in the United States. The major gift criteria was $25,000+, and they had over a thousand donors in that category. And then they had over 32,000 donors giving $10,000 to $24,999 who were treated as mid-level donors. We met several of those donors. One of them, a very successful entrepreneur who could easily give $100,000+ a year to the institution, was hidden from their sight because of their criteria. He said to us: “I am not sure they even care that I’m a graduate from the university. They don’t even know me.” And there was a wound in this man’s spirit which limited his giving.

My point with all these numbers and logic is that your mid-level and major gift criteria needs to match the labor you have directed toward properly managing those donors.

And if you have too many donors in any category, add staff. Don’t hesitate or think you can’t afford it. The truth is you can’t afford not to do it this way. If you continue down the path you’re on, you will continue to lose millions of dollars from donors who believe you don’t care about them. That is not a good place to be in and, sadly, that is where most non-profits are.