The Power of Relationships in Securing Major Gifts

by John Greenhoe, CFRE

If you have been fundraising for a while, I do not have to tell you that it can be hard work. However, if you rigorously follow the mantra, "relationships rule," it will become much easier over time.

It is important to add that relationships take time. Many nonprofits/NGOs that want to start raising large/major gifts mistakenly focus almost solely on becoming proficient at the "ask." Unfortunately, such strategy is akin to putting the cart before the horse. It is virtually impossible to ask a prospect for a gift - especially a large gift - if we do not know them. There first has to be a relationship.

In my many years of attending professional fundraising conferences, I have participated in numerous sessions focusing on major gifts. I have also participated in sessions on moves management, cultivating donors prior to the solicitation and stewarding them once the gift has been made. All of these topics are incredibly important. I have also read a number of top-notch books focusing on the solicitation. Again, these are great "go to" reservoirs of knowledge.

Despite these comprehensive learning avenues, I felt these was an aspect to the major gifts process that had been vastly undeserved. In 2013 - after being discouraged by two prospective publishers from doing so I wrote a book entitled "Opening the Door to Major Gifts," (CharityChannel Press).

The book focuses on the very beginnings of the major gift cycle, the initial 'in-person' visit with a potential donor. Such a visit is known as a "discovery call," in which a judgement is typically made as to whether or not the individual might one day consider making a major gift to your nonprofit. 

The book resulted from a frustration that I experienced early in my development career. I found that setting up meetings, especially meetings with individuals who were not personally connected to our nonprofit, was a difficult task. It took a great deal more time than I had anticipated to arrange for the meetings, and a number of people I contacted either did not want to meet or did not have time to meet. The challenge was complicated by the fact that major gifts was just one of my fundraising responsibilities; a commonality that many charities face.

As I'm sure you know, if you are not feeding new prospective major gifts into your pipeline on a regular and systematic basis, sooner or later your efforts are going to stall. So, whether you are new to fundraising or have been active in the profession for years, you must understand the critical importance of the discovery call.

It is critical to devote a significant portion of your time to making quality first visits with prospective donors. You absolutely must get out from behind your desk to visit with your donors, and prospective donors, face to face. A hard and fast rule of this profession is that people give to people whom they know, and whom they trust.

How important is the task of mastering the discovery call? Take a look at the average portfolio of a major gift officer. A number of industry benchmarks indicate that if there are 150 individuals in a fundraiser's portfolio, as many as half of them (75) will be prospects who haven't yet been properly qualified. Therefore, it is critical for today's development professional to become proficient in prospect qualification.

Again, I hope you will take my advice and strive to arrange as many meetings as possible with people whom you feel could significantly support your organisation. Be fair-warned that the qualification of donors is, generally speaking, not an easy task. Hard work and discipline are essential. At the same time, bringing new donors to your organisation can be a lot of fun. You'll meet some amazing people, many of whom will share your passion for your nonprofit.

John Greenhoe is Director of Major Gifts, Development & Alumni Relations, for Western Michigan University, USA and can be contacted on 

The Power of Relationships in Securing Major Gifts



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