Everywhere we go, Richard and I are asked, “Where can I find major donors to support our organization?
My answer is to stare at the part of their face just above the upper lip… otherwise known as “right under your nose.”
Okay, maybe that’s not such a funny joke to you, but in almost all cases major donors are right there in your donor database. For some reason this is just not “sexy” or plausible for Executive Directors and CEOs.
We’re always talking to development folks about how their CEO is pressuring them to meet the “rich guy” in town or “those wealthy donors that support the hospital” in your community. As you know, that rarely works, yet those EDs and CEOs keep asking you to do it, thinking that some sort of magic is going to happen.
Well, let’s give those EDs and CEOs a little grace. Many of them just don’t understand fundraising, let alone major gift fundraising. They’re feeling pressure from their boards. And there’s always a story floating around, it seems, about some random encounter a development person has with a wealthy person who wasn’t a donor; that person was inspired and decided to give a million dollars to the organization on the spot.
“See how easy it is? Just go out and find them.” If only it were that easy!
Quite frankly, finding major donors is hard work. There are no shortcuts. It takes discipline, focus and tenacity. It takes faith, too. Faith that, if you stay with it, you’ll find donors who want to invest in your mission.
This is especially true for smaller non-profits who don’t have many donors to begin with. So I’m going to specifically address how to find major donors for the small organization in this post; in the next one, I’ll address those larger organizations that have many donors on their database.
So where do you start? I’m going to tell you how I would do it if I were a new development director asked to start a major gift program at a small non-profit. And I’m going to actually give you the hierarchy of importance of each of these areas to find those major donors. Here we go:

  1. Your donor database — We believe that every organization, no matter how large or small, has major donors who are already donors to your organization. It’s a matter of finding them. The first thing I would do is query the database for any donor that has given $1,000 cumulatively in any one of the last four years. These donors have the potential to be major donors. Notice I said potential. You still have to qualify these folks. You can read about that here.
  2. Keep digging within your database — If you’re a small organization, you may not have many $1,000+ cume donors, so you need to dig deeper – go all the way down to $25+ if you have to. Now, if you have some wealth indicator information about these donors, this helps you even more – especially those that are giving lower amounts. For example, you may have someone that gives you $50 a month or $600 per year. Their giving alone doesn’t indicate to me that they’re a major donor. They have potential, but they’re not there yet. However, if I had information that this donor is in finance and owns a $2 million home, I would have a “potential” major donor.
  3. Ask your stakeholders – If you don’t have wealth indicator information, then I would take those names and start asking staff and board members if they know any of those donors. That’s right: print out a list of everyone and start asking your stakeholders who they know. It sounds tedious, but the potential payoff is huge for your organization. After asking staff members and stakeholders, I would then start my own research on my donors. There are many ways to find information on your donors. Start at Google and go from there. It’s amazing what you can find. This is exactly what I would do.

Only after exhausting all efforts within your own database would I then even consider going out and finding potential major donors. So this is where I would look, by matter of importance:

  1. Referrals and introductions from current major donors — I would ask my major donors to introduce their friends and colleagues to my organization. Ask them to hold a small house party so you have the opportunity to connect with your mission.
  2. Ask staff and board members to make connections for you — One of the few times I would advocate some kind of meaningful event is that it creates a way for staff, board and other major donors to invite other potential major donors.
  3. Presentations in the community — If you’re a small organization, the advantage you have is that you’re probably local or regional in the scope of your mission. This allows you to speak at community events (such as Rotary) to talk about what your organization does in the community. From those meetings, some people will raise their hand and want to know more about what you do. When I was a young development director for a local non-profit in Philadelphia, I did this frequently and out of the dozen or so presentations, I think I brought in a handful of folks who became significant donors to the organization.

I’m not going to lie – finding major donors outside of your small database is very hard work. But if you’re a small organization, you sometimes have to do it. I’m just warning you that it will take time, energy and a lot of disappointment before you find some quality outside donors who will support your mission.
I’m sorry if you were looking for a magic bullet to find major donors. There isn’t one. But if you can follow this guide and work work work, you’ll find major donors who have a passion and interest in your organization and will want to invest in it. I know you can do it.
Be sure to read my next post, when we’ll talk about larger organizations and how they too can find major donors.
This post was originally published on September 25, 2015