Development Planning from Scratch – Cultivating Top 100 Donors

Development Planning from Scratch – Cultivating Top 100 Donors

One of the donor segments that should be pulled out for special attention is the Major Gift Prospect segment. I call it the Top 100, even though the actual number of donors you cultivate at this level may not actually number 100. Each donor in this segment is selected because of their financial capacity and their documented interest in the organizational mission. Through thoughtful, systematic, and sensitive cultivation, they may very well be able to make something big happen.

Thinking strategically and over a period of several years, you will want to have three different conversations with each of these donors:

  • One that discovers what programs or projects might be of particular interest to them,
  • One that invites them to further explore specific programs and projects that might be of particular interest, and
  • One that invites their investment in a program or project that appeals to them.

There are clearly exceptions that prove the rule, but generally speaking, these conversations do not happen by accident. Nor do they happen spontaneously with a donor walking in the door to declare their interest and intention to invest. They happen as a result of thoughtful, systematic, and sensitive cultivation. They happen because the donor has developed a significant level of trust with the organization and the staff and volunteers involved. They happen because the donors have built a relationship with the organization’s ambassadors.

Each of these donors deserves his or her own individual interaction plan. And just as we did with Board members (See Cultivating the Board), you will want to imagine the relationship from the donor’s perspective. What will they see from the organization? Will it come from a single “voice” (better)? Or will each communication be from someone different (not as good)?

  • Start with their membership renewal request. Is it delivered in person? By mail? Email? Will you send a follow-up or call the donor if they do not respond? After what interval of time?
  • Now consider the printed and emailed newsletters. Are they sent “from” the organization? Are they packaged separately to arrive “from” the Executive Director or one of the board members?
  • Will the donors be, and if so how will they be invited to organizational events: the Annual Meeting, the Donor Appreciation Dinner, and the Fundraising Gala? What about public field trips and nature tours? Workparties and other volunteer activities?
  • And finally, how and when will you have the conversations with them I listed above?

Donor by donor, each by each, consider and draft an interaction plan for each prospect. It’s tedious and time-consuming, and the more donors you begin to seriously cultivate, the more tedious the process becomes. I suggest taking two weeks out of each January and slogging through it, but you might operate on a different timeline.

(BTW, this does get easier once you’ve done it several years running. I realize that I am in danger of making all this sound too complicated. If you are not doing major gift development now, pick 5-10 donors to plan for this year and just start. You’ll be glad you did!)

In my Major Gift Development training seminar, I list the following as basic principles:

  • Facetime is KING – think in terms of creating opportunities to spend time with the donors instead of just sending them stuff.
  • Redundancy – one of the most fundamental cultivation steps is to introduce the donor to other people (Board members, staff, other donors, and so on).
  • Relationship is recorded in the files – keep good notes, and get them into the office; there may come a day when someone follows you in the relationship.
  • Asking = Cultivation – when you request, receive, and express appreciation for their annual gift, the sequence has great value as cultivation.

Keep in mind that part of the conversation each year is whether or not we expect to make any real progress. I mentioned above that these donors are selected because of their financial capacity and their documented interest. In other words, financial capacity alone does not warrant this level of organizational attention. They must have “cultivatable interest.” You may not be able to tell this right away, but several years without any progress might give you a clue eventually.

OK, have you got interaction plans for each of these donors? Then Map It.

Like we did for Board Members, add columns to the spreadsheet representing communication or cultivation touchpoints for each of the prospects. So, for example, one of the columns might be Receive Spring Newsletter; or Personal Invitation to the Donor Dinner, or Hidden Lake Birding Walk; or Invite to Dinner with the ED. (Think of the touchpoints as things they receive or attend, as opposed to things you send.) Use the cells for dates and/or to list the person responsible for making it happen. So for example one column might be Invite to Hidden Lake Birding Walk, and the cell might be May 11.

We would expect many of the cells to be the same. But not in all cases. Consequently, again, note that you may have LOTS of columns – that’s OK. I have created a template spreadsheet for a fictitious organization to illustrate how it might look. You can download the spreadsheet file HERE.

(You may get an antivirus notification warning you not to download this file unless you trust the source. If you’d rather not download it, send me an email to fundraisinghelp-at-sbcglobal-dot-net, and I’ll send it to you by email.)

In my fictitious example, I planned several touchpoints for each donor, including personally renewing their annual contributions in the fall. I will only be asking one of these donors for a major gift, $15,000 in March. (The others will not be ready this year.) Note also that the touchpoint is the invitation in most cases. Unlike Board members (who can be coerced to come to events) 75% of the cultivation value for donors is in the invitation.

Also note that each donor is assigned to a specific board member as their lead contact. In most cases, when they receive something from the organization, it comes from one of two people, the assigned board member or the staff contact. This makes it personal, as it should be.

I’ve frequently been struck by how similar this planning process is to that of landowner contact in high priority protection areas. Planned, deliberate, sensitive contact. Intensive listening to the expressed interests of the donor prospects. Priority placed on personal contact and interaction. Detailed notes in the files.

Isn’t it funny how we are more comfortable asking people to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of land than we are asking people to donate cash? Often both gifts result in land the donor loves getting protected for generations to come.


Photo by Khürt Williams courtesy of

* * * * *

The Development Planning Sequence so far:

The BIG Picture


Soliciting the Board

Cultivating the Board


* * * * *


Fundraiser’s Almanac
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about for August. What are YOU thinking about?


Taking A Hike!

In fundraising for land conservation, we often say that “the land sells itself.” By this we simply mean that if you can get a potential donor out on the land to see, smell, touch – feel – for themselves, often that’s all you need. Here’s the thing, though – it works for US, too. Don’t just report what someone else has told you about how things work. Go experience it yourself. Replace your ability to narrate in the third person with an ability to testify in the first person.


Joining Your Own Organization

With that same concept in mind, I respectfully suggest that you join the organization you support. Send a check in one of the standard mailing envelopes. Donate on-line. Try the monthly donation program with a credit card. Or send a check in a plain envelope. And then track what happens and report back to the organization what it’s like from the donor perspective.


Saturation Mail

The essence of Saturation Mail is that the same piece is dropped in every mailbox within a defined area. It is addressed to “Postal Patron” or “Current Resident.” And the cost is about 12 cents each. The only catch is that you have to mail it at least to everyone in a carrier route – usually about 400-800 addresses. Where we get hung up is generally in the scope of such an effort. But consider this: you do not need to saturate your entire service area at the same time.


Membership Drives and Recruiting “Renewals”

Here’s an out-of-the-box thought: Instead of thinking about recruiting new members, let’s think about recruiting new renewals! A new renewal would be defined as a person making their second gift – their “first” renewal. I think membership recruitment lends itself to a Membership Drive strategy.

Share this!
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.