What is a Qualified Major Gift Prospect?

What is a Qualified Major Gift Prospect?


13 March 2018


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I’ve made a big deal in the past about the word “major” modifying the word “gift” and not the word “donor.” (It’s not a large donor. It’s a large gift!)

And I’ve made the case that every donor is capable of making a major gift – for them. It’s not how big the gift is in absolute terms. It’s how the donor decision gets made – is this a major decision for them?

As organizations, we talk about major gift donors against some arbitrary threshold – like $250 or even $1,000 – but we use it more as an internal term used to identify people for specific recognition. Even adding the word “donor,” as in “major gift donor,” implies that it’s already happened.

I’m reviewing all this because I’ve been thinking about how we could all use a definition of major gift, or major gift prospect, that is more helpful in terms of future planning. Something that tells us what to do and how working with them to cultivate their future interest will be different than working with everyone else.

Here’s the definition I’m working on:

A Major Gift Prospect is a donor whom we want to ask for a $5,000 (or more) gift within the next three years in support of a specific project, program, or outcome.

Note that I am implying that they are already a donor at some level. This is intentional. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general, we want to be spending organizational cultivation energy on prospects who are already interested enough in our organization to be giving something. Also, in the same way that every donor’s major gift threshold will be different, this $5,000 threshold will be different for every organization. However, $5,000 is probably the least it should be.

NOW – not every major gift prospect wants to be cultivated. Not everyone will return our overtures of interest. We’re beyond capacity, now, and talking about inclination. Some will be very interested. Some will tell us that they’re not. And some will simply ignore our calls and letters. So now we have to introduce the word “qualified.”

A Qualified Major Gift Prospect is a donor we are actively building a relationship with – intentionally cultivating for a $5,000 (or more) ask within the next three years in support of a specific project, program, or outcome.

A qualified major gift prospect implies that:

  • A person responsible for the cultivation has been assigned – a “lead.” For All-Volunteer Land Trusts, this will be a Board director. For land trusts with staff, a staff lead has been assigned, and in some cases, a Board director “peer” lead has also been assigned.
  • Staff and Board members are actively engaged with the prospect in intentional cultivation: activities aimed at asking for a gift of at least $5,000 toward a special project, program, or outcome within the next three years. The actual ask amount will be different for each prospect (and the threshold is arbitrary).
  • The prospect is identified as being “in the pipeline” and the leads are tracking the cultivation activities or “moves.” Implicit in this discipline: every prospect will always have an assigned and calendared next step, and every lead will always have a list of calendared “next” activities for which they are responsible.
  • The prospect is an Annual Gift donor.


Each Prospect will have an annual cultivation plan designed uniquely for them. In a very general sense, the cultivation plans will feature at least four “touches,” and as many as seven or eight, spread throughout the year. These cultivation activities will fall into the following general categories:

  • Annual Gift Renewal – Staff and/or Board lead involvement in the renewal process in a very personal way, both in solicitation (signing the letter and/or supporting the effort with a phone call or visit) and in acknowledgment (letter, card, and/or call).
  • Invitations to events – coffees or lunches, small “house party” events, larger “signature” events, field trips, or personalized site visits out onto the land.
    • One intentional outcome of these events is that the leads introduce prospects to other organizational leaders.
    • Emphasis is on getting prospects out onto the land at least once every year.
    • A list of prospect possible engagement activities is maintained and regularly distributed to all Board and staff leads.
  • Disseminating News as it happens – News items and announcements come to the prospects from the leads (Board member preferred) rather than more generically from the organization.


If the prospect is known personally to one or both of the leads, they are considered qualified until they make it clear that they do not wish to be. This is why it’s important to understand which Board members know which organizational donors. We learn this information by screening the donors.

If the prospect is NOT known to one or both of the leads the first cultivation job will be to get to know them through a process called Prospect Qualification but more commonly known as “cold-calling.” The best time for this qualification work is immediately following one of their gifts. In this way, the call is to say “Thank You.”

There may be prospects who are very happy making significant annual gifts – even gifts of $5,000 and more – but who are not considered major gift prospects for any number of reasons. These donors should obviously be cultivated as well – primarily through invitations to events – just not as personally or intensely.


Your turn – Does this make sense to you? What are you doing now to qualify and cultivate your major gift prospects?


Cheers, and Have a great week!




Photo by Skitter Photo courtesy of Stocksnap.io.


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1 Comment
  • zshefska2016
    Posted at 06:37h, 13 March

    David, I have always appreciated your blog posts — this one in particular. I know we’ve chatted in the past about data, but we should connect on this topic as well… Cheers!