How to ... Recruit and maintain major gift donors

Major gift donors are increasingly important for charities. "The amount we receive this way is definitely going up," says Alan Gosschalk, director of fundraising at Shelter

Alan Gosschalk
Alan Gosschalk

The Red Cross expects to double major donor income between 2004 and 2010 and will expand its major donor fundraising team from four to six people next year. NfpSynergy's report 21st Century Donor adds: "Giving to a cause they care about passionately will increasingly be as much a part of many rich people's lifestyles as mortgages, second homes and holidays."

It is also a cost-effective way to fundraise: for every pound spent, major donations bring in between £8 and £10, says Paul Marvell, head of major donors and events at the British Red Cross.

The number of occasions when individuals receive lump sums of money - from bonuses or divorce, say - has increased in the past five years, according to the Barclays Wealth Insights paper, and the amounts concerned are now large enough to make these people consider philanthropy. But how do charities woo big donors?

1. Identify your prospects Shelter's major donor research team scans its own databases for prospects. Susan Mackenzie, director of Philanthropy UK, recommends starting at home. "Look to your own organisation's trustees - they might be able to recommend potential prospects."

Marvell adds: "We sift our direct mail base for donors who have given above average donations."

The Red Cross identifies prospects from attendees and committee members at its high-value events as well as networking with existing donors and contacts made through corporate relationships. "We have a network of senior volunteers across the country," says Marvell. "In some cases they are extremely well connected and provide a rich source of donor prospects."

Research tools such as the Community Foundation Network website help identify individual or corporate donors outside the organisation, says Mackenzie.

The Red Cross keeps an eye on wealthy individuals in the City who are likely to come into money. But Shelter's Gosschalk says: "Its hard to contact someone cold and get a positive response. We ask existing supporters and regular donors if they have good contacts."

2. Understand donor motivation Philanthropy UK's research suggests that belief in the cause, the wish to leave a legacy, a sense of duty and having a good relationship with a charity are all motivators.

The Red Cross's Marvell says: "It could be affinity to the cause - for example, a cancer charity that a family has historically supported."

Gosschalk looks to moral responsibility. "People think it's wrong that others suffer hardships while they themselves are lucky," he says.

3. Engage them Philanthropy UK's Mackenzie says a bespoke approach works best, depending on donors' interests and their capacity to give: "We get them excited about the organisation, communicate the charity mission to them and point out the impact they could make."

This could happen at a trustee lunch or by means of a site visit, she says. "If it was a senior volunteer, the chairman of that project might make a peer-to-peer appeal," she adds.

A chief executive might make the initial approach to a really senior external prospect outside the organisation, according to Mackenzie; then senior level staff would maintain the relationship.

4. Find out what donors need "The key is finding out what kind of recognition the donor wants," says Marvell. "These can range from letters from the chief executive to the opportunity to have something named after them."

Sometimes a simple update on the results of their donations is sufficient; some people like to be taken to social events, gala dinners or balls.

"For really important cases we take donors on project visits around the UK - or, in exceptional cases, to see international work," Marvell adds. "It's something we try to avoid, but if they are really important we treat them as a stakeholder and get them involved."

5. Know what turns them off "A lack of professionalism, not listening to what they want and how they want to be treated, or being too pushy are all potential turn-offs," says Gosschalk.

"Not delivering what you promised," adds Marvell.

"Not being respected, thanked or appreciated," says Mackenzie. "Plus lack of evidence that their contribution has made any difference."

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