Cultivating Top Donors

Cultivating Top Donors


By David Allen, Development for Conservation

I’m working with three clients right now who are each planning for this year’s cultivation of top prospects. January is an ideal time to do this exercise. Most of these prospects (not all) will be solicited in the Fall, and right now, we have 9 or 10 months in which to plan meaningful engagement that will help them say “Yes!” later.

My top prospects include just about anyone who will be singled out for special cultivation attention. In other words, not treated simply as a group. One client is working with more than 100 such prospects. The other two are working with about 50 each.

The number doesn’t matter. The process is the same, and it is scalable to meet each specific organization’s needs.

Interestingly, I am writing this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S.  One of the King quotes that I ran across yesterday was this one:

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

With apologies to King for applying Civil Rights language to Major Gift Fundraising, this is what I’ve been saying for years. Start with just five people if you must, but just start!

Regardless of how many you are able to work with, plan the year’s cultivation for each prospect individually. This process takes time. For some organizations, this might take a week or more of dedicated effort.

Consider these two excerpts from blogs I posted in 2016:

from Cultivating Top 100 Donors, posted in August 2016

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.


and from Annual Giving Leaders, posted in September 2016

So now the question “Why will they say “yes!”?” Donors will say yes to you because you have communicated effectively with them throughout the year. I’m going to incorporate the following list of special communications for these special donors.

  • 2 special story-based updates on current programs
  • 1 Annual Report
  • 1 invitation to attend a donor club field trip
  • 1 invitation to attend a donor club dinner event
  • 1 mid-year coffee with the ED or a board member

There are three types of communications on the list: 1) mailed information, 2) events and gatherings, and 3) in-person meetings. The mailed information is designed to look like special information, regardless of how many people get it. They could be delivered by email, but the impact is stronger on paper. And the message is simple – “your annual gifts to this organization are making great things possible. Here – let me show you.” The Annual Report is delivered in a special envelope, hand addressed of course, and mailed a week or so before anyone else gets it – an advance copy. It delivers the same essential message.

The events are exclusive events – only donor club members and prospects are invited. (Board members are always invited!)

The invitation to coffee will not be accepted by most donors, but just like all the rest, the invitation itself carries most of the cultivation value. And the donors who do accept are the donors most interested in the programs and projects. Hint: they’re also Top 100 candidates someday, too. For this reason, among others, don’t let this activity slide. You need to get to know your donors. Having coffee with them, without asking for money each time, will be a treat for both of you.


So this is how we started with my current clients:

The default solicitation strategy is that each prospect will get at least two invitations to give every year. One will be a renewal of their membership at some appropriate level. The other will be either an appeal letter or a personalized request for the annual fund or some specific project or program. These are solicitations we need to individually manage.

The default cultivation strategy is that every prospect will attend a house party or a lunch/coffee at least once between February and May, attend one field trip outing between April and September, be invited to the annual donor event in October, and receive a personalized membership solicitation visit either between that event and the end of the year. (All Board members will be solicited in January and February.)


Are you preparing individualized cultivation plans for your top donors? I invite you to share your experience here. What’s working for you? What’s not?





Photo by Simon Migaj courtesy of



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  • Heidi Habeger
    Posted at 09:16h, 16 January

    Perfect timing as I’m starting to work on my individual cultivation plans. Each year I revisit my list of who I’m cultivating – make sure we’re cultivating the right donors/prospects. Any suggestions for making sure I’m focusing on the right people?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 10:03h, 16 January



      1) Revisit last year’s list and remove anybody that is not responding. This might include people who say No. It might also include people who simply do not respond in any way.

      2) Look at donors who have made a first gift at some predetermined threshold level (I use $250). You might consider adding them directly or qualifying them in some way first, such as inviting them to a house party, field trip, or small event.

      3) Also look at donors who have made a first gift at any level to your organization. Circulate the list with the Board to see if anyone catches someone’s eye. Again, you might consider qualifying these new donors in some way first, such as inviting them to a house party, field trip, or small event.

      4) Last, if you have access to a donor research tool (Ask me about Donor Search), you might look at the top donors revealed by their screening work.

      Thanks for the question!