How to Find and Cultivate Your Million-Dollar Donor

secretmillionaire 2013-Sept11

You know you have one… or two, or even more.  In almost every caseload that we’ve helped develop for an MGO, Richard and I have found a few multi-millionaires who could be cultivated for a large six- or seven-figure gift.

We’re usually met with skepticism by the MGO at first. “There just aren’t any large donors in my caseload.  They are only giving $5,000 gifts.”  This is what we hear most of the time.

However, once we really dig into the caseload, and the MGO starts doing the research and getting to know the donor, a magical thing happens.  There are usually 2 or 3, sometimes more, donors who have massive capacity for a significant gift.

But it first takes that dogged approach of researching and getting to know your donors.

Now, of course, just because the donor may have capacity doesn’t mean he or she yet has the propensity to want to give you that big gift.  So, what should you do?

I’ve invited one of our client managers at Veritus Group, Rachel, to share her experience with a large capacity donor she identified and cultivated while serving as the Executive Director of a non-profit that empowered girls through training in math, science, engineering and technology skills.

Here is how Rachel did it:

Step one: Identify the donor’s interests. 

I’m going to illustrate this process with my own experience with a donor.  We’ll call him Mr. Smith.  He loved our mission and his giving quickly grew from a $1,000 annual gift to $5,000.

I knew Mr. Smith was a millionaire with great capacity.  A capital campaign was a few years into our future, but I knew I wanted him to make a lead gift.  I researched everything I could on Mr. Smith and invited him for a personal tour of our facility to learn more about his interests.  Just his interests – no solicitation.

I planned our visit like a wedding planner would a wedding.  I wanted Mr. Smith to have such a great experience that he’d tell everyone.  I produced a fun, engaging and emotional tour to connect him personally to our work.  He met one of our graduates, we got him involved with a science experiment extracting DNA from strawberries using alcohol.  He was moved by the testimonial and enjoyed rolling up his sleeves to experience how hands-on our work was.  I made sure we had a quiet, comfortable space to visit.  I left nothing to chance, planning every last detail of my donor’s experience.

Step two: Create a plan to nurture his interests and deepen the relationship.

I learned in our visit that he was a futurist.  I created a high tech advisory council to advise us on building our future computer lab and asked him to chair it.  He filled it with high tech C-level friends; we met over lunch in our space and engaged attendees with in-person testimonials from graduates, soliciting their advice on cloud computing trends that might impact our technology planning.  I discovered that Mr. Smith made giving decisions jointly with his wife, so I began cultivating Mrs. Smith and recruited her to chair our capital campaign steering committee.  In other words, I identified who they were as people and got them involved.  This helped them fall in love with us.

Step three: Making the Big Ask.

After years of cultivating the relationship and asking for increasingly larger gifts along the way, I solicited and received a high six-figure gift from Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  It was an amazing gift that transformed our small non-profit, but even more importantly, Mr. and Mrs. Smith felt incredible about giving us that gift.

Rachel did a great job outlining what you can do once you’ve identified a donor with the capacity to give a large six- or seven-figure gift in those three steps.  In hearing her story, it’s clear how much time and effort it took to build a trusting relationship with her donor.  Think about it — she created a whole new advisory council just for this donor to lead.  That is a ton of work.

Now, Rachel had other donors she was cultivating as well, but this donor took a majority of her time.  And it was time well spent.

That is key.  Richard and I always talk about tiering your caseload, but even within your “A” level donors, there are 2 or 3 who have tremendous capacity that you could spend a majority of your time cultivating for those mega-gifts.   We know they are in there — you need to find them.

Once you do, they will end up being the “game-changers” for your organization to help take your mission to another level.  Rachel did it… so can you!




  • Crystal says:

    I continue to be disappointed at the lack of mention on this blog of prospect research and management colleagues. I thought for sure that a blog post entitled “How to Find and Cultivate Your Million-Dollar Donor” would say something about working with prospect research colleagues, whose job it is to find these multi-millionaires in the existing donor base, who research their existing giving to other organizations, their family foundations, their properties, their businesses, the boards they sit on, and record this information in your organization’s database. I realize that it is the gift officer who really gets to know the donor and discovers their interests at your organization. But there is so much information that your research colleagues could give to you.

    Gift officers, you are NOT alone. You have hard-working, intelligent colleagues who really, really want to help you with your goals, if only you would ask them. Veritus Group, please consider including in your advice “reach out to your prospect management and research colleagues.” I realize that small shops may not have the resource of a full prospect research department. But most have at least one person. A successful development program is a team effort- your colleagues are here to help you, whenever you’re ready to accept that help.

    • Hi Crystal, thanks for commenting. Yes, you are right, if you work at a non-profit that is fortunate enough to have dedicated researchers by all means reach out to them. This is there job. And, they do wonderful work. I do want to point out to you, however, that the VAST majority of non-profits do NOT have researchers who can help MGO’s know who their donors are. They just don’t have the resources.

      But, you’re point is well taken. If you have a researcher on staff, USE THEM!! They will make you successful.


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  • Cynthia says:

    Sorry but I have to disagree with Crystal about working with prospect research colleagues, whose job it is to find these multi-millionaires in the existing donor base. I’ve been doing major gift work for 25+ years & worked with many wonderful donors making multi-million dollar gifts. I agree, research is great for the first part of major gift work: Identifying prospects who seem to have capacity and adding them to someone’s portfolio for qualification purposes. Once qualified, I’ve not found the research department to be critical to cultivating and soliciting for major and million dollar gifts. At this point, the only research that has worked for me is meeting with the prospect eyeball-to-eyeball and getting to know them. A lot. Most research departments glean their information from public sources. Sometimes there’s good data. Most times there’s zero data. Sometimes the data can even be deceiving. Please don’t take offense. I work at a major University with an extensive research department and use them extensively for things way beyond bubbling up multi-million dollar prospects. I’ve seen too many major gift officers put off the first personal visit or not make the ask because they need more “research.” From my perspective, that’s reluctance and an excuse. The only way you’re going to raise the highest level gifts is by focusing on your best donors; having a plan for each; and actually executing the plan. It’s very simple but like it says in this awesome blog, it’s takes a ton of hard work on behalf of the gift officer.

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