New Years Challenge: Find Three (New) Major Gift Prospects

New Years Challenge: Find Three (New) Major Gift Prospects


12 January 2021


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Have you challenged yourself for 2021? Lose 5 pounds, paint the house, learn Spanish.

What about organizational challenges? Secure an Americorps Volunteer, achieve accreditation.

How about start a major gift program?

Nationally, more than 80% of charitable giving comes from individuals. If 80% of that comes from 20% of donors…..

In the development assessment work I’ve done, about two-thirds comes from people giving $250 or more. If you already have a robust major gift development program, you know what I’m talking about. If you have one that is not robust, or if you don’t have a major gift development program at all, think about this:

Major gift development is the fastest and most effective strategy for increasing unrestricted giving as well. Of all the lowest hanging fruit, it’s the most lowest hangingest.


Here’s a question for you to consider as we start 2021 afresh: What do you need $25,000 to do?

I mean specifically.

Not “for ops” or “for stewardship.”

But rather, “to provide match on a $50,000 Forest Service grant,” or “to purchase seed for the restoration of 160 acres at the XYZ preserve,” or even “to help cover the closing costs for the Jones property conservation easement which is being donated.”


Giving money to an organization that doesn’t know what they need it for is like shopping at a store with empty shelves. “But we promise you’ll like what you buy!”

Start this year by working up a list of “shelf items” you can bring down to match some specific donor interest as you need to. Keep at it until you have 8-10 items on the list. You can have more, but keep in mind that we’ve after a diversity of options, not a bunchload that are all shades of the same thing (like eight different land acquisition projects).

Also, try to keep it real – your $500,000 endowment is relevant, but it belongs on a different list.

Now write a short paragraph about each one.

Just eight (or just eight new ones)


And, here’s the leap of faith: There are at least 10 people on your current donor list who can afford to give $10,000 to make one of those items possible. And there are at least three of those ten who will say yes when you ask them.

You mission – should you choose to accept it – is to find them.


OK – so let’s back up.
  • You’re going to want to ask for $10,000 for $25,000 things, because many people don’t want to “do it all.” They would rather make a big difference toward a project that others are contributing to as well. In this spirit, asking for $10,000 toward a $25,000 project has a greater chance of success than asking for $10,000 toward a $10,000 project. (And in the happy circumstance where someone DOES want to do it all, the all is now $25,000 and not just $10,000!)
  • You want to start wooing ten people, because not everyone will be open to your wooing. The ratio is probably more like 1/3, so starting with ten makes finding three more likely.
  • And you want to start the exercise by quantifying what you need money for, so it’s not so fuzzy.


Where will you find ten people?

They will be in your current database. They are people who already give you money. Got someone in mind who doesn’t give at all yet? Work on asking them to give something this year – anything – and then save the wooing for next year. This is a completely separate exercise.


How will you find them?

Remember the premise – that they give money already, that they have capacity to give beyond what they are giving now, and that you don’t already know them.

Have your Board members scan through a donor list from last year to see if they can pick out people they might know who could give more or who have given larger amounts to other charities. Use an electronic screening service (like DonorSearch). Or take an educated guess based on their home value, neighborhood, or type of car they drive. You’re only looking for ten people.

Just ten (or just ten new ones)


Then what?

Then make a plan to reach out to them – call, write, or email. Express interest in their reasons for interacting, for giving, and for supporting the work. How did they hear of you? Have they seen____? How do they prefer to receive information? And so on. Remember that out of the ten, you’re looking to get to know three people better.

Technically, what you are doing is qualifying three prospects. See also What is a Qualified Major Gift Prospect?

Just three (or just three new ones)


What about the $10,000 part?

Draft an engagement plan. Start by assuming that you will ask for $10,000 from each of the three people by or before November of 2021.

Imagine them saying yes. We’re collectively great at imaging people saying no. And there’s a million reasons they might. But let’s focus on the opposite – why will they say yes?

Set your sights on these benchmarks:

  • By March, you will have contacted all ten and have a better understanding of the three you will be able to connect with. You will have a better understanding of the kinds of things they like and appreciate about the organization.
  • By June, you will prepare specific information about a specific program or project that resonates with them and starts to make the case for supporting it.
  • By September, you will invite them to experience personally the program or project they feel closest to. This might involve a site visit, an introduction to other like-minded people, or a media experience (like a video) prepared with them in mind.
  • And by November, you will ask.


Just three (or just three new ones)


For a more detailed treatment of starting a major gift development program, see: How to Start a Major Gift Program in 2020 – The January Donor Planning Meeting


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Peter Lloyd courtesy of



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  • weeksbay1
    Posted at 15:40h, 13 January

    Great column this week! We do not have a Major Gift Development program, but we are poised to put one into place this year due to a complete new name/rebranding that took place last year. We are coming off great momentum from the name change (media exposure, etc), so 2021 is the perfect time to do this. Thanks for the great tips!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 15:49h, 13 January

      You are most welcome. Thank you for your comment and good luck as you brave the new world of major gift development!