Why Every Organization Needs a Major Gifts Program (And Where to Start)

Nora Hennessy
April 26, 2023

Whether you’re in a small or mid sized organization, or part of a development team of one or 25, you are probably raising major gifts. 

You may just not know it. 

My clients and colleagues know I love major gifts, and I’ve worked with them at all levels during my 20-year fundraising career. My experience ranges from leading fundraising for a small environmental organization that was 100% dependent on contributed revenue, to serving as a midsize museum’s first Director of Major Gifts, to overseeing a major gifts portfolio at a large research university where I partnered with individuals who made six-, seven- and even eight-figure gifts. 

I see so many clients who don’t have formal major gifts programs. But they still have major gifts donors. And it's crucial to understand who those donors are and what motivates them to give to your cause.

But let me take a step back and address some common questions that I hear about major gifts. 

Q: So–what are major gifts? 

A: Simply put, major gifts are the largest donations that your nonprofit organization receives. They might be from individuals, foundations, or even corporations. What a major gift looks like is unique for every organization and will depend on various factors, such as:

  • Your organization’s size - its budget, staff, programs
  • Your organization’s historical fundraising program and activity
  • Your organization’s average gift size

The amount of a major gift donation isn’t standard across all organizations; it’s unique to each organization.

Q: How do I determine what a “major gift” is at my organization? 

A: There are couple of simple ways to determine your organization’s current major gift threshold or range:

  • Pull a list of all donors and gifts from the prior year with the largest at the top; those are your major donors. If you dig a little deeper and look back three to five years and see these same names at the top of your list, then these individuals are making multi-year major gifts; they believe deeply in your organization’s mission and are worthy of your sustained time and attention.
  • Calculate the average amount of the top 5-10 gifts to your organization in the past three years. This average indicates your major gift threshold or range.

For some organizations, $1,000 might be a major contribution, while others might have a major gift threshold of $10,000. A large organization or established nonprofit may have a major gift threshold of more than $100,000.  

Wherever your organization is on this journey, your major donors and gift size will change as your organization evolves. What’s critical is that you are spending time with these donors, learning what motivates them to give to your organization and showing them the impact of their support.

Q: Why are major gifts important?

A: Typically, major gifts make up a significant percentage of an organization’s total contributed annual revenue, and this is often more true for organizations that are 100% dependent on philanthropy. While gifts at every level make a difference, major gifts enable a nonprofit to deliver and scale its programs and as a result deliver a bigger impact on the community or communities it serves.  And while we don’t talk about it very often, major donations ultimately help recruit, retain, and reward the hard working staff who deliver the program and without whom your organization could not exist. Whether a staff person or major donor, people are the heart of every nonprofit organization.

You likely have a major gift strategy of some sort that is resulting in your largest donations. If you don’t, and are still receiving large donations, then you have an opportunity to be more strategic in your approach to cultivating and stewarding these donors and their support. 

Q: How do I find time for major gifts with all the other things I have to do? 

A: Devoting time and attention to your major gifts strategy doesn’t have to be a full time job.  It can be as simple as prioritizing your organization’s top 5-10 donors and making sure that you have a plan in place to check in with them quarterly. It can be about making thank you calls to mid-level donors and qualifying their interest in increased support. I like to say that major gifts work is an art and a science. It can be highly complex, driven by data modeling and research; it can also be a matter of focusing on a few key prospects and donors in a strategic way. And it’s always more fun when it’s a team sport and your board and development committee play an active role. 

After all, these are the largest donations your nonprofit receives and can have a powerful impact on your organization's ability to complete large-scale projects, increase the size of your internal team, or level up your programming. A little time spent on a major gifts strategy can go a long way.

Bonus: Check out this FREE Sample Individual Stewardship Plan 

Once you’ve identified your major gifts donors, this individual stewardship plan is a great way to steward those relationships so you can continue receiving gifts year after year. 

If you have questions about starting your own major gifts strategy or anything you read here, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at nora@evolvegg.com–I’d love to hear from you!