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Viken Mikaelian

Viken Mikaelian

CEO Major Gifts LLC

Major Donor Cultivation 101

Whether your organization is a large, well-known charity or a nonprofit with a small budget, major donor cultivation matters. It’s one of the most important aspects of fundraising because it initiates and builds your nonprofit’s relationship with potential donors.

Major donor cultivation takes time and effort. It’s important to remember that major donors are not going to give you money just because you ask them – you need to make a meaningful connection with them first. This means getting to know their interests and what drives them, and finding ways to connect your organization’s work with their philanthropic goals. Who are they? What do they do? Where do they live? Why are they interested in your organization?

Not only do donors give their financial support to your organization, they also spread the word about its work and help you attract new donors. Without careful attention, however, such networks would not exist. Cultivating major donors can be a daunting and nerve-wracking task, but if it is done effectively, your efforts will increase the number of your prospects as well as the amounts they are donating.

Why Major Donor Cultivation Matters

Major donor cultivation is a critical part of fundraising because major gifts help nonprofits reach their most ambitious goals. Since strong relationships are at the center of fundraising success, organizations must invest in cultivation. This means providing opportunities for prospects to get to know your nonprofit and decide whether they would be willing to invest in its programs.

Establishing trust with potential donors is at the heart of major donor cultivation. This process takes time and effort and is achieved through many points of contact and stewardship. With a limited staff and budget to devote to fundraising, organizations need a systematic approach to major donor cultivation to maximize their chances of securing major gifts from their donors.

In contrast to direct-mail solicitations and pitches for donations, a cultivation plan focuses on building relationships at all stages of the donor-engagement continuum: from first contact to relationship development, stewardship, gift solicitation, and, ultimately, legacy. What follows are some strategies for building long-term donor relationships and fostering deeper connections with your donors.


5 Ways to Cultivate Major Donors


#1: Set Up Meetings

The best way to start the major donor cultivation process is to set up face-to-face meetings with donors. This allows you to get to know them and learn more about their interests. You can also discuss your organization’s work with them and explain how they can help support its efforts.

Regular meetings with contributors shows them that they’re important to your organization. Plus, it allows you to get to know your top-level supporters on a more personal level, cultivating trust and strengthening your relationships with them.

#2: Pick Up the Phone and Call Them

To be sure, nothing can replace an in-person conversation. But if you don’t have time or opportunities to travel to meet in person with your prospects, pick up the phone and call them.  Phoning donors is an extremely effective but surprisingly underutilized fundraising strategy.

Even if you don’t have a personal relationship with a donor, most people will give you 10 minutes of their time if you come across as genuinely interested. It’s important to remember that cultivating donors is not just about asking for money. You’re building relationships that can lead to mutually beneficial interactions: a possible gift for your organization and a legacy for the donor.

#3 Put Them on Your Email Newsletter List

Nothing can replace a personal touch, and that’s why personal e-mails are so important for major donor cultivation. The best way to get started developing a major donor list is by asking your supporters for their e-mail addresses at every opportunity. Then you can begin to personalize the e-mails you send to them depending on how you want to nurture your leads.

Tailoring your e-mails is not just about sending the most relevant message to each prospect; it’s also about forming a meaningful bond with that prospect. Often you are not the only nonprofit on a major donor’s radar, which is why major donor cultivation requires a multi-pronged approach, with email newsletters just being a step of the process.

#4: Invite Them to Take a Tour of Your Office or Facility

Tours are fun and allow your backers to learn more about what you do and how you do it. These tours can be used as an opportunity to inspire additional donations from those who have already given and those who are considering giving in the future. In addition, these tours help you build relationships with all of your donors.

By inviting your largest donors for a tour, you demonstrate that you value their support and that you appreciate their time and input. By following up with them after the tour, you can ask for additional donations or get feedback on improving operations in the future.

Your staff should be made aware of any potential site visits so they can also be prepared to show off their best.

#5: Ask Them for Their Advice

Although most prospects are extremely busy, they usually like being asked for advice. Why?

Philanthropists want to help others, and they often enjoy sharing what they know about effective giving. They also have many ideas about how an organization might use their own wealth, and they may appreciate opportunities to discuss them.

Donors often like the idea of being a “big fish in a small pond.” They enjoy having the ear of someone in a position to make things happen and then seeing the organization employ their advice.

Fundraising Is All About Relationships

Understand what drives people to contribute to your nonprofit financially: they want their gifts to matter, they want to help others, and they want to support an organization or cause they care about.

What makes major donors so valuable is that they tend to have more money available and are willing to give more if they believe in the cause and see a nonprofit’s demonstrated commitment to its goals. This is why you need to provide supporters with clear examples of how their gifts will impact your organization’s work.

Since major donation campaigns tend to be rather time consuming, try to get as much as possible out of each interaction. For example, if you have an annual gala that’s always the same date and time every year, send out annual invitations (rather than making telephone calls or sending e-mails) that let people know exactly what their donations for admission will be used for.

Once you’ve cultivated an annual donor, don’t let them go stale! Send them thank-you notes so that they feel appreciated throughout the year. This is an easy way to engage in major donor cultivation because you can use the same text for all of your mailings, saving both time and money.


Major donor cultivation is about building relationships one by one. Truly great fundraising opportunities are rooted in a nonprofit’s personal relationship with its donors. The ability to cultivate these relationships on a large scale is what distinguishes the most successful fundraisers.

By the Numbers

Consider the recruitment opportunities for your organization that these stats indicate:

  • About 63 million Americans (25% of the adult population) volunteer their time, talents, and energy to making a difference.
  • These people spend an average of 52 hours/year volunteering.
  • 72% of volunteers are involved with only one organization, while 18.3% are involved with two.

Random interesting stats presented monthly from various sources.