Four Conditions for Major Gift Success

Four Conditions for Major Gift Success


2 August 2022


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


This week I’m thinking about what someone might need to know to make a major gift. In this sense, I am staying with my soapbox premise that the word “major” should describe the decision to give and not the person making it. My premise is that anyone can make a major gift, as long as the decision represents a big deal for them.

So what does it take for someone to give an amount of money away that represents a big decision for them?


The first condition obviously is that they have the money. But let’s face it. Most people do. At least in the dollar ranges most of us work within. People buy cars and trucks. They pay for cruises and vacation homes. They spend money on cell phones, massive TVs, and internet. When we start thinking about gifts of $25,000 and more, we probably need to worry a bit more about what people have, but for most of us, the amounts we are looking for are well within the range of what most people have.

Frankly, we spend WAY too much time worrying about how much money people have, because it’s the one condition we can’t influence whatsoever. And most of the time, we can’t even really know. Some people we know well have more money in their accounts than might be obvious by the way they live or the way we perceive the way they live. And some others, perhaps living in substantial homes, might be mortgaged to the hilt. We’ve all heard about the school teacher who passed away and left several hundred thousand to his/her favorite charity. S/he clearly had the money!

Most of the time, assumptions about how much someone actually has get in the way of fundraising. “They don’t have the money so I won’t ask them” becomes an excuse for not asking. And in that not asking, we are effectively taking their decision to give away from them – generally a bad idea. Just like “I can’t help raise money because I don’t know any rich people.” How rich does one have to be? If the reason we’re not asking is that we think someone is not rich, it says more about us than it does about them.

That’s not to say that we are doomed to fly blind. We can make some assumptions, and there are research tools out there that can help. But at least in this regard, whether they give money away is almost always a more important question than how much they have.


The second condition is that they believe giving will make a difference. “Whether they give money away is almost always a more important question than how much they have.” How do they see themselves? Do they see themselves as someone who can help? Someone who makes a difference through giving?

WE can influence this factor in how we steward them after they have given. After EVERY gift. Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry from the Passionate Giving blog call this donor stewardship work “YMAD” for “You Made A Difference.” We need to say more than just thank you. We need to give donors at least some of the credit for helping protect real pieces of property. Restoring habitat, producing clean water. When we do, they start to get the message (or have the message reinforced) that their gifts, regardless of size, made a difference. Created a positive outcome. Helped. For most people, that’s a really good feeling. And they will give again.


The third condition is that they want to see the project done. The land acquired. The forever management endowed. The forest/prairie/river restored. The learning center constructed. The kids’ programming supported. And so on. The question for us is “How would we know?”

Well, we might know because they have talked to us about it. Or responded to a survey. Or come to an event featuring the project in question. They might have visited the project with us, poured over maps, and walked the perimeter. They might live nearby or next door. They might have grown up nearby.

Why do we skip this step so often? Why do we ask for the gift before asking them – before knowing – what they might like to support? Why do we make the assumption that because WE are excited about a project, everyone else will be as well? At the end of the day, this is what cultivation work is all about. Getting to know someone – building a relationship. Learning as much as possible about why they might say YES! to a request. Why they might want to help make a difference.


And the fourth condition is that they trust us to get it done. Trust is earned – built over time. Trust comes from little things – like being on time and quickly saying “thank you” – as well as bigger things like having a track record of completing deals. Trust can be conferred from a Board member or a staff person to the organization – at least in the short term. That’s the reason I always recommend listing Board members on the letterhead and in the newsletter. Bona fides count. So do solid financial statements and annual reports. Trust can also be built through shared experience – walking through the woods, navigating a river in a canoe, listening to an elder speak at an event.


Does the person have the money is an important question, but it’s the one question we can’t do anything about. More important are questions about how they see themselves as donors, how much they might want to see a particular project done, and whether they trust us to get it done. If we can understand and focus on clearing these hurdles, we will raise more money for more projects than we ever thought possible.


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 Holly’s Coastal View courtesy of


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  • Chett Pritchett
    Posted at 08:00h, 02 August

    This is why I’ll always emphasize relational fundraising over transactional fundraising. Knowing your donors can lead to transformational giving (for them and the organization!).

  • Leyna Bernstein
    Posted at 07:44h, 02 August

    This is a really helpful blog. You’ve made me think differently about our donors. Thank you!