It is not unusual for Jeff and me, and members of our front-line team, to hear the following cry for help from mid, major, or planned giving representatives of a non-profit here in the United States or in Canada or Europe: “They just told me I have to raise 16% more than I did last year!  What can I do? There is no way my caseload of donors will do that!”

And we just shake our heads and wonder, once again, why the authority figure has pushed this number on to their front-line fundraiser. But we do know why. It’s the need or want for money.  Someone has “just decided” that a nice growth goal for the organization should be X and the mid, major, and planned giving efforts should “do their part” to deliver Y.


I know. Stretch goals are nice to have. And those of us who have experience in commercial companies know how it works. I have managed sales teams for commercial companies. I know the routine – setting annual goals and targets.  But in all those situations we started from the bottom up, just as we should start in a non-profit.

Here’s how it works for major gift caseload management, and this is our strong conviction on how goal setting should be done:

  1. Be sure your fundraisers have full caseloads of qualified donors. We see so many caseloads that do not have qualified donors on them and, if they do, there are not enough donors on the caseload. For a full time, major gift officer 150 qualified donors is the right amount. Anything less than that is a waste of the investment in that MGOs labor. Get this straightened out before you move to the next point.
  2. Start with the donor and their giving history. Look at what the individual donor did in the last three years, what they did last year and, within that context, set a goal for the coming year. If the donor has strong inclination (desire to give) and high capacity, flag that donor for special management and inclusion on a stretch goal list but do not change the goal you have already set.
  3. Add up the goals for each donor you have done this with. The sum of all donor goals equals the total goal for the caseload. The sum of all the caseloads equals the total goal for the major gift effort. This is the number you hand into management. If management does not like the goal, then start talking about investing in more MGOs to manage more qualified donors and thereby raise the goal. You cannot and must not just raise the goal absent taking this important step. This happens so often which is why goals are missed, MGOs are either passively or actively “punished” for missing their goals, and the MGO’s tenure in the organization is cut short as the fundraiser flees the situation for safe harbor somewhere else. Do not do this. It will hurt your organization.
  4. Create a separate list that has stretch goals for selected donors. Be careful with this list. If a manager, who has an unreasonable growth mentality, gets ahold of it, you will find yourself in a precarious situation where the goal setting you did, following the three points above, is changed to include these stretch goals. Just do this privately where you have a plan to manage the select group of donors differently to attempt to present to the donor a giving opportunity that matches their passions and interests in such a compelling and attractive way that it causes increased and, sometimes, transformational giving. Believe me, this really does work. We’ve seen $5,000 donors give $250,000 when presented with a donor offer they just needed to fund. Or the donor who was giving $450,000 a year (petty cash to this donor if you knew his capacity like I do) who gave $9 million. Your stretch goals may not be as dramatic but, in our experience, every caseload has two to three donors who can give transformationally.  So, look for them and add them to your stretch goal list.

Annual donor giving goals are a very delicate matter rooted in the giving history and capacity of the donor. There is no other way to set those goals separate from the process I have outlined above. So don’t try. Just go with the donor and what their giving is telling you.

Now, it is true you can change donor giving by presenting better donor offers to each of your caseload donors. And since you know that, then you should set about DOING it. Then take the result of THAT giving and set goals. Do not just set the goals on wishful thinking. Donor giving facts are friendly. They will lead you to the right conclusion.