16 Things to Expect in Your Nonprofit’s First Year

The first year of your new nonprofit will likely be a blur of excitement, learning new things, and meeting new people.

And, of course, fulfilling your mission.

It’s amazing how much of nonprofit life is about tasks other than the important work your nonprofit set out to do. You know – the work that makes people’s lives better?

You can find yourself really busy doing all the things. Fundraising. Social media. Donor appreciation. There is so much to stay on top of. But then you have moments of pure joy when a program comes together, your reality aligns with your vision, and you feel like you wouldn’t want to be doing anything else right now.

For many nonprofit leaders, the first year can feel like one intense emotion after another crashing into one another. All while you try to keep cool and maintain an image of a calm, confident leader who knows everything is going to be okay.

To help you navigate and find your way, here are 16 things you can expect in your nonprofit’s first year:

1. You will feel overwhelmed. It is normal to feel overwhelmed in the nonprofit sector, especially in your organization’s first year. There is so much to do all the time! You will need time management and organization tools and strategies. You will learn to accept that you cannot do it all. But, still, you might feel overwhelmed to varying degrees at various times.

2. You will feel exhilarated. When your efforts pay off and your organization is able to change a life, meet a need, be there for someone going through a difficult time, remove a barrier, or throw someone a lifeline, you will feel more amazing than you ever thought possible. This is why you started this journey in the first place!

3. You will have a successful event or program that exceeds your expectations and makes you think that, YES, I can do this. Maybe it’s your first day of providing food to people in need. Maybe it’s your first community event. Maybe it’s your first fundraiser. When all your planning pays off, you will feel validated that you are on the right path.

4. You will have an event or program that does not go according to plan and makes you think that maybe you were crazy to think you could do this. Yes, there WILL be things you try that don’t quite work out. This is part of nonprofit life, trying new strategies and seeing what works and what does not. You will learn to learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward.

5. You will have a tiny moment of clarity that reminds you why you chose this path and affirms that you are on the right path. The tiny moments can pack a punch even more than the really big moments. The one-on-one connection with a person your organization is serving. The text you receive from a person who benefitted from your organization. The tiny problem you solved that allowed everything to fall into place. These moments keep you going and fill your heart.

6. You will wonder how on earth you are going to raise the money you need to meet so many needs. This could be a weekly, daily, or hourly occurrence. That feeling of … how. But as you get the training you need, put a fundraising plan in place, and experience small successes, you will realize that you can raise the money you need for your organization to thrive.

7. You will feel like you could accomplish so much more if you did not have to worry about money. If only you could focus 100% of your time and energy on the work your nonprofit does in the community. Wouldn’t that be great? It can be frustrating to feel like you have to spend so much energy on fundraising. But when you find the right strategies, fundraising will get easier, and you will have more time and energy to devote to programs.

8. You will feel the need to broaden your mission to meet all the needs you see in front of you. This is mission creep, and during the first year of your nonprofit, it will be tempting to take on more responsibility so you can help more people, meet more needs, save more animals. But as you grow into your role, you will realize how important it is to remain focused and grow slowly in tandem with your capacity.

9. You will be filled with love and gratitude for your board and volunteers. It is an amazing feeling when your board members dig in and do the work and move the organization forward. It is beautiful when volunteers go the extra mile to meet the needs your organization exists to serve. There are moments when everyone works together for the greater good, and you will experience and savor these moments.

10. You will feel like you’re all alone. But as surely as you will experience moments of unity, you will at times feel like you can’t count on your board, your volunteers, or your friends and family. Your volunteers have other priorities and their interest in being part of your organization’s work can ebb and flow. As time goes on, you will learn how much you can count on from each board member, volunteer, friend, and family member.

11. You will feel the urgent need for a social media coordinator. Managing multiple social media platforms can be a significant time suck. Social channels are important for your nonprofit’s growth, but you can only put so much time into the task. Invest in a social media scheduling tool, and put together a team from your board and volunteers to share the task of creating and posting social media content. Social media management is also a great task for an intern.

12. You will scream into the void for lack of a director of development or professional fundraiser. An organization has to grow to be able to afford to pay someone to shoulder the responsibility of fundraising. Yet how can an organization grow without that person? The reality is, your startup nonprofit has a fundraiser … YOU! With time and the right strategy, you can find your fundraising groove and fully fund your programs. Seriously, you can.

13. You will not know which cloud-based donor platform to choose. It’s one of the most frequently asked questions among nonprofit leaders. Which donor management system should we use? The market is crowded with options, all with different features and pricing plans. You want to choose something you can stick with for a long time. Don’t agonize over these types of decisions. It’s like buying a car. Get something that meets your needs, is in your price range, and you can see yourself using. Pick a platform and embrace your choice!

14. You will rage in frustration over your email marketing program. Sending regular emails to your supporters is an essential strategy for building a loyal base of donors and volunteers. Many of your social media posts will go unseen by a huge chunk of your supporters, but creating nonprofit emails can challenge your patience in so many ways. As you get into a routine and learn the ins and outs of your platform, you will dread it less. Still, a volunteer who enjoys creating nonprofit emails is a gift.

15. You will feel like you have so much to learn and not know where to start. Online courses and webinars can teach you a lot. A mentor can also be extremely helpful during your organization’s first year. You can also learn by networking with other founders of nonprofit organizations and participating in Facebook groups. In time, you will not be the student, you will be the teacher.

16. You will look back on your first year and realize that, WOW, you learned and accomplished a lot!


About the Author:

Sandy Rees is the author of this guide to a nonprofit's first year.Sandy shows founders and leaders of small nonprofits how to fully fund their dream so they can make the difference they want to make in the world. She has helped dozens of small nonprofits go from “nickel-and-dime fundraising” to adding 6 figures to their bottom line. As a trainer, she shows her students how to find ideal donors, connect through authentic messaging, and build relationships that stand the test of time, so that fundraising becomes easy and predictable. Find out more at www.GetFullyFunded.com.

Capital Campaigns: Resources and Tips for Nonprofits

Train your team in running effective capital campaigns and other fundraising efforts with Nonprofit Courses.Nonprofits raise money for a ton of different purposes. There are programming costs, day-to-day logistics, and other mission-driven needs. But what about those larger projects that require huge investments like purchasing a new building or expanding on an old one? Enter capital campaigns.

A capital campaign is a unique type of fundraising campaign that has the potential to raise a lot of money for your organization—when done right.

At Nonprofit.Courses, we know all about running effective capital campaigns, and we’ve dedicated the time and resources to help others do so as well. In this guide, we’ll discuss the following to help you better train your team before launching a campaign:

Ready to learn more about successful capital campaigns and how to run one for your organization? Let’s dive in!

Frequently Asked Questions About Capital Campaigns

Whether you’re looking to host your first capital campaign or simply optimize your fundraising strategy going forward, you’ll likely have some questions about the process. We’ve compiled a few of the most-asked questions (and answers) concerning capital campaigns and how to get started:

What are capital campaigns?

Strictly speaking, a capital campaign is an organized effort over a specific period of time using one or more fundraising methods to seek money to purchase or build a building, land, or large piece of equipment—what accountants define as “capital.”

While the term is still in use, it’s really not applied in the same way as it was first conceived. It’s more accurate to call what most nonprofits describe as “capital campaigns” as simply “campaigns.” That’s because the people who ran the first capital campaigns quickly discovered a major flaw in the “capital campaign” concept: the double ask.

Let’s say that you’re a regular $10,000 donor to your local hospital’s annual fund. The hospital depends on your gift, and thousands of others, to pay for indigent care for the area’s homeless.

This year, however, the hospital announced a major expansion, including a new institute for indigent medicine with special facilities to address the unique needs of the homeless. You’re approached for a $100,000 capital campaign pledge to be paid over five years. Yes, the $20,000 payment each year is double your current gift, but you see the need and you’re up for it. You say yes.

A month later it’s annual fund time, and your friend, Annual Fund Al asks for your $10,000. Hold on! You just made a commitment to the new institute. Your $20,000 commitment was a stretch. You can’t do an additional $10,000 on top of that! Al and his buddies on the hospital’s development committee are all getting the same answer across the board and come to realize that “double asks” don’t work.

Thus, the problem. A campaign that is purely a capital campaign tends to diminish the available funds to the annual operating support of a nonprofit. This problem is magnified at the lower end of the giving scale where you depend on large numbers of donors to make many small gifts to fund operating expenses.

That’s why today’s campaigns incorporate multiple opportunities for giving that are not specifically “capital” in nature. A typical major campaign solicitation might be a “combined ask,” incorporating a request for annual operating expenses and the capital objective of the effort.

What is a capital campaign plan?

While anyone can solicit a charitable gift at any time for any purpose for your nonprofit, it’s not surprising to find that effective fundraising isn’t random. In fact, by introducing the word “campaign” into the conversation, you imply an organized effort with specific objectives. And of course, the key to this organization is a plan.

A campaign plan is a step above a fundraising plan. Fundraising plans tend to focus on a single method of soliciting gifts—like proposals to foundations, direct mail, peer-to-peer, events, or whatever method you use. For example, creating a plan to run this year’s direct mail program is a fundraising plan.

A campaign plan organizes those methods for a defined period of time to meet one or more revenue, and thus missional, objectives.

For example, say you’re building an endowment for a chemistry scholarship. Your campaign plan might include major gift solicitations to alumni who did well in the chemical industry, proposals to foundations and companies that support chemistry education, and a “Good Chemistry” dinner-dance at Valentine’s Day. Your coordination of all of these is a major part of your plan because you want to be able to announce your final success in meeting your goal at the event.

How do capital campaigns raise money?

Capital campaigns themselves don’t raise money. The methods of fundraising you choose to use as part of a campaign raise the funds. The campaign is just an umbrella label—a marketing tool—to focus your fundraising efforts around one or more mission objectives.

So how do capital campaigns raise money? Any way you want! Direct mail, in-person solicitations, and engaging fundraising events are some of our favorites—and we’ll discuss other ideas in more depth below.

What are capital campaigns used for?

As mentioned above, capital campaigns are used for capital projects. Usually, that’s defined as major equipment, land, or buildings. Some organizations include endowments in the definition of “capital.”

More general “campaigns,” on the other hand, can be used to raise money for anything. You may create an endowment campaign to bolster your nonprofit’s financial stability, or perhaps cast your annual operating fundraiser as an annual campaign. You might even host a “mini-campaign” to seek funds for a specific program objective!

While you can have fundraising programs to meet any of these objectives, a “campaign” implies a coordinated effort among many fundraising methods to reach a common goal.

What types of organizations run capital campaigns?

Capital campaigns tend to be run by nonprofits that have capital needs—those whose mission requires buildings, land, or major equipment.

However, any nonprofit can use campaign concepts and methods to meet the revenue needs of any mission objective, whether they have “capital” needs or not. That means just about any organization can run a campaign—including educational institutions, hospitals, churches, social welfare charities, and more.

What are the phases in a capital campaign?

The basic campaign sequence occurs in three key phases: planning, quiet (also known as silent), and public. Let’s go over each one and how you can get the most out of your efforts:

Planning Phase

The planning phase is not just getting your ideas on paper. It’s about identifying and organizing your missional, and thus financial objectives (typically through developing a strategic plan) and finding out whether you even have the community support to raise money for your cited as your need (often accomplished with a feasibility study).

After you determine what you want and what your community will support, create your campaign plan by setting the goals for what you will fund and for how much, then outline a timeline and fundraising methodology to meet those goals.

Tip: It’s important that your plan has complete board support before moving forward.

Quiet Phase

After all of the planning, it’s no surprise that to your key constituents, your quiet phase isn’t so quiet. Using a “top/down, inside/out” strategy, solicit your biggest potential gifts first, starting with those people who are closest to your organization—including your board and top nonprofit staff leadership.

The objective in the quiet phase is to secure at least 40% (although ideally 60%) of your total campaign funding objective. Why? That’s key to your next step: the public phase.

Public Phase

The public phase is just what the name says—the time when everyone in your constituency and the broader public knows that you’re on the hunt to meet major mission (and, of course, revenue) objectives.

This is where how well you did in the quiet phase makes a big difference. It’s pure psychology. If the public sees that you have already raised so much of the total, the remainder looks much easier to complete.

This is magnified if you have influential names making significant quiet phase gifts.

Let’s face it. Humans are social creatures who respond to hierarchy. If well-known community leaders (whether people, companies, or foundations), are behind a project, the chances of others getting behind the effort greatly increases.

How do I train my capital campaign team?

It’ll be hard to pull off a successful capital campaign if nobody on your team knows what they’re doing or how their tasks play a role in the overall effectiveness of the mission. You don’t want to rely on a guess-and-check method to find out what works, either.

The good news is that capital campaign methodology is very well established. Today’s technology allows for better organization and a broader array of fundraising methods to enhance and accelerate your campaign.

Plus, the availability of low-cost and on-demand training means you can equip your staff and volunteers with the resources they need to do their jobs better. That’s where Nonprofit.Courses comes in! Our wide array of online courses on nonprofit-related topics, like capital campaigns and more, mean you always have the educational resources you need in your back pocket.

Capital Campaign Best Practices

Planning and pulling off a successful capital campaign can be difficult—but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Here are some tried-and-true best practices for hosting profitable capital campaigns and driving results:

1. Work With a Capital Campaign Consultant

Over many years, staff leadership, fundraisers, boards, and volunteers regularly move in and out of an organization. Since most campaigns are multi-year programs, the chances of having the same staff in place from one campaign to the next are slim. And while all staff and board leadership should receive education on campaign basics, a successful campaign can hinge on whether anyone has the experience to pull it off.

That’s why we suggest working with a fundraising consultant: a consultant specifically experienced in capital campaigns can be invaluable to meeting your objectives and better pursuing your mission.

While a typical in-house fundraiser may go through a capital campaign once every five (or more) years, a campaign consultant could easily advise five campaigns in a single year. Plus, they could bring the added benefit of knowing your specific geographic discipline’s market and funders, and provide an objective perspective to your monetary goals.

2. Complete a Feasibility Study Prior to Your Campaign

What is a feasibility study? It’s determining whether you can meet your campaign mission and revenue goals through a systematic sampling of those people with the potential to make significant gifts and/or be influential to others.

Since a campaign’s failure can leave a major stain on the nonprofit’s leadership and cast the viability of the nonprofit’s mission in doubt, testing the waters, with a feasibility study is essential to see if you have a compelling case for a campaign.

Oftentimes organizations opt for a capital campaign consultant to perform a feasibility study because they can offer a veneer of impartiality when approaching potential major funders and influencers. However, others choose to take a more DIY approach that can be handled with proper planning and resources.

3. Build and Train Your Capital Campaign Fundraising Team

Campaigns are great on-the-job professional development opportunities for nonprofit staff and volunteers. They stretch job descriptions and allow for tons of new experiences. However, providing education and training will make everyone’s life much easier by providing an idea of what to expect and how various efforts are supposed to coordinate.

If you can find staff who have campaign experience—all the better. If you can’t (which is often the case) look for staff who can work well in a daily-changing environment and are constantly seeking new challenges.

For volunteers, you’ll need some of the most networked people in your community—whether you define community as a geographic area or a discipline. Your volunteers are essential in identifying potential donors who have a strong interest in your mission with the means to make a difference.

Then, be sure to provide campaign staff and volunteers with the resources they need to begin their outreach!

4. Set a Lofty Yet Reasonable Fundraising Goal

Have you heard the phrase “stretch goals”? You will if you’re involved in a campaign. First, you’ll hear it about your overall campaign goal, but it might also be applied to an individual donor’s gift.

A major purpose of any campaign is to get everyone—donors and community members alike—to expect more from the nonprofit and themselves. This is why campaigns are more than just funding your mission objectives. They’re are about setting new standards for programs and giving and building your nonprofit’s reputation.

For example, campaigns are great ways to change a donor’s “philanthropic setpoint.” It turns out that once a person makes an initial gift, they tend to stay with that amount until something causes a change. Let’s say you graduate college and send $25.00 to your alma mater. Ten years later you still send $25 even though you could afford $100, and that $25 may only be worth $10 in today’s today’s power.

Capital campaigns are a great way to change setpoints through the urgency of the need. Once somebody increases their gift in response to a campaign, you have a much better chance of them continuing at a higher level for their subsequent gifts.

So how do you set your goal? Take a look at previous fundraising data. How much did your organization’s last campaign bring in? How much do you think your donors can give? Answer those questions carefully, and then stretch the numbers a bit and you have your answer.

5. Leverage Strategic Prospect Research

Every charitable gift occurs because of a confluence of three important factors: C, I, and A. By ensuring that your donor prospects have the following characteristics, you increase the likelihood of reaching your campaign goals:

  • Capacity to make the gift that’s requested
  • Interest in your mission
  • Access to the person making the gift

Prospect research, especially for major donors, qualifies a potential giver’s CIA.

While today getting information on someone is easier—and faster—than ever before, the best prospect research starts and ends with personal interaction with the potential funder. Nothing is better than an informal sit-down with a prospect, so you can get to learn what concerns them and excites them, and determine what your nonprofit offers that interest them.

The bottom line? Don’t skimp on (or be afraid of) prospect research. There are ethical standards to follow, as well as a ton of free and paid sources that can help you know whether you’re spending your time with the right people who can make a difference to your cause. After all, you don’t want to waste hours of your team’s time attempting to procure a major gift from someone who simply can’t fulfill the ask!

6. Craft a Powerful Case for Support

Perhaps the most important document you’ll create for your campaign is your case for support. This case encompasses how your mission is essential to your community and why you are the best organization to carry out that mission. It details who you impact, how, and what you need in terms of the program, physical material, and money to be the best.

Very few people but internal staff, board members, and key prospective donors may ever see the internal case. The external case, on the other hand, is a summary document of the internal case, usually dressed up in the form of a brochure, pamphlet, or web page.

A comprehensive campaign may even have different case documents for each constituency or project. These are drawn from the information in the internal case and serve as the fodder for all of your publicity materials.

Capital Campaign Strategies That Work

We mentioned previously that capital campaigns themselves don’t raise money—it’s the strategies within that bring in the funding. Here are a few of our favorite tactics for increasing fundraising revenue through a capital campaign:

1. Multi-Year Pledge Campaigns

The pledge is probably the most used campaign tool available to a nonprofit. In fact, every gift to a nonprofit is a pledge—it’s just that some are paid immediately (such as a check written today that you deposit tonight), while others are paid over longer periods of time.

Pledges that are made and paid in small parts over time—typically once a year for a period of several years—provide a major psychological advantage to your fundraising efforts. It allows the donors to feel like they are doing something significant for your mission.

It’s the same reason that buying on credit allows you to buy that television today that you’d need to otherwise save over time. You get the satisfaction and enjoyment of seeing that TV in your living room today and pay for it each month. A donor gets the satisfaction of being a donor now and paying for that feeling over time.

There’s another reason you want pledges, too, beyond making your donor feel good. Pledges are usually made for more money than a donor would have contributed if they had given one gift at a time over the same period.

For example, someone who makes a $10 gift annually may like the idea of being a $100 donor to your campaign—and will increase their gift to $20 per year to do it. They’ve doubled their gift and get the recognition ten times more. Recognition is cheap—and both they and your mission will win.

2. Major Gift Solicitation

Regardless of how you define a major gift (as described in-depth here in our blog post on major gifts), these significant contributions are the key to a successful campaign.

Think of your campaign like a barrel. The faster you fill the barrel, the faster you can deliver your programs. Next to the barrel, you have bowling balls, bocce balls, and marbles. While you could pour all your marbles into the barrel first, and they’re lighter and easier to pick up than bowling balls, you don’t have near enough to fill your barrel. You have a lot of bocce balls, too, but still not enough to fill the barrel.

To successfully fill your barrel (i.e. complete your campaign) you need to start with the heavy-lifting first—your bowling balls, otherwise known as major gifts. Then you fill in with bocce balls where you can, followed by marbles taking up every gap. You might even have lots of tiny ball bearings to really make it stuffed to overflow!

What does this mean for capital campaigns? Start with the major gifts and work your way downward—and stuff your campaign with the smallest gifts at the end.

Tip: focus on building personal relationships with major funders. They want to feel like an invaluable part of the team (which they are!).

3. Capital Campaign Fundraising Events

There are three kinds of fundraising events popular alongside capital campaigns.

The first kind is your smaller, more personal events that occur to educate major contributors on the objectives of the campaign, and sometimes even to get their formal pledges then and there. Think of a dinner party or reception where the president or board chair makes the case and asks for a commitment. These are typically held even before a formal campaign announcement has been made.

The next kind, ironically, is the campaign kickoff. Why the irony? Because at the “kickoff,” you usually announce that you’ve already raised as much as 60% of the goal. Really, this is the start of the public phase, and the kickoff event aims to raise visibility and enthusiasm for the effort and give a push to the final 40-or-so-percent.

The last type of event is the campaign completion celebration. It’s time to announce that you’ve reached your goal and encourage anyone who hasn’t already to come aboard.

As far as the actual event planning goes, all of these events can be formal or informal, big or small. You can charge an admission fee for tickets or use them to leverage individual, personal asks later. Either way, hosting engaging fundraising events is a great way to drive donations and turn attendees into life-long supporters of your work.

4. Matching Gifts Drives

Everyone loves a bargain, right? Well, welcome to the world of matching gifts.

Match gifts campaigns—usually sub-campaigns targeted to a specific group as part of your larger overall campaign—are great ways to build good-natured enthusiasm for your cause and raise more money because of it. Matching gift efforts help people who are on the fence decide to make their gift and accelerate giving among those who are afraid that they’ll miss the bargain.

Match gift campaigns 0ften start by getting someone to issue a challenge. For example, a major donor might say, “I’ll give you $X if you raise $Z by this date.” The concept will generate excitement among your targeted constituency and lead to increased giving by supporters.

Even better? Many of your donors likely work for companies that have existing corporate matching gift programs in place. This means that when an individual makes a gift to your nonprofit, they can then request a matching gift from their employer. Once the employer confirms the initial gift with your organization, they’ll send in their own donation as well.

5. Online Donation Appeals

More and more, capital campaigns are turning to online appeals for their final, public phase of campaign fundraising. Often known as the “cleanup” phase (not a derisive term—it comes from the cleanup hitter as the best position in a baseball batting lineup) it’s an opportunity to gather everyone’s support, especially those who you couldn’t ask in person.

And that’s important. After the campaign is over, you never want to hear “I wasn’t asked.” Everyone’s gifts are important—and online appeals let you ask just about everyone, easily and efficiently.

6. Capital Campaign Fundraising Letters

A more traditional and sometimes even more lucrative method of campaign cleanup is the campaign fundraising letter. When you consider that your email inbox or social media feed gets dozens, if not hundreds of messages daily, a physical letter in a mailbox could be a much more effective tactic for grabbing your supporters’ attention.

Postal mail also better appeals to certain demographics, and, regardless of the demographic, when combined with online appeals, is proven more effective overall.

For best results, send your cleanup solicitations to everyone, including past campaign donors and non-donors alike. A lot of them will even make a second, bonus gift!


Capital campaigns can make or break your nonprofit’s fundraising, and as a result, its mission. They’re not something to enter in lightly, and should never be used to “kick-start” or otherwise begin a fundraising program where there was none before.

A well-planned campaign will boost your nonprofit in funds, and more important in your ability to carry out your mission. And with both, your successful campaign will lift your nonprofit’s reputation as an organization on the move, and your staff and volunteers with it.

To learn more about strategic fundraising efforts and optimizing your nonprofit training, be sure to check out our other educational resources:

Train your team in running effective capital campaigns and other fundraising efforts with Nonprofit Courses.

Nonprofit Development: The Complete Guide [With Resources]

Train your team in effective nonprofit development with Nonprofit Courses.A big part of running a nonprofit is ensuring your organization (including its team members, logistical concerns, and mission-focused operations) are fully funded. And how do you do that? Nonprofit development.

At Nonprofit.Courses, we specialize in providing nonprofits with low-cost, on-demand training resources to bring their teams to the next level. Our online courses cover a variety of topics—including nonprofit development. That’s why we’ve put together this handy resource to guide you in the right direction toward effective team-wide training. Specifically, we’ll cover the following: 

Ready to learn more about nonprofit development and how to optimize your team for success? Let’s jump in.

What is Nonprofit Development?

Development is one of those multi-purpose words that require a good deal of context to use appropriately.

For example, when I worked at a religious organization with programs focusing on what many of us would call Christian missionary work, “development” might be shorthand for “economic development.” When I raised money for a different university, I would get promotional mail for construction equipment. Clearly, someone had my job title, Director of Development, confused with a role in the facilities department. At another time of my life, I consulted for a business where they had a Program Development Office.

So yes, context matters—a lot.

In the nonprofit world, especially among nonprofits who actively seek charitable gifts, “development” is often shorthand for fundraising.

But why? Because “development” refers to the act of building relationships that lead to charitable gifts. It’s really referring to “relationship development.”

However, some nonprofits, especially larger institutions like universities and hospitals, will use the word “advancement” instead of development, to reflect the concept of advancing the mission of the organization.

Some may further argue that an Advancement Office has a wider scope than a Development Office. Development offices tend just to focus on raising money, where advancement offices may encompass alumni relations, marketing, and, for universities and private schools, recruiting. But in common usage, the “advancement” label quickly boils down to a shorthand for raising money, just like “development” does.

What is the difference between development and fundraising?

However, it’s also necessary to point out the differences between development and fundraising, although the terms are often used interchangeably. Ideally, development is more than fundraising.

Fundraising speaks to the act of asking for money. To an educated purist, fundraising is short-term—get the gift and go to the next prospect.

For example, think of a person on the street soliciting funds for a charity. That’s fundraising. The ask cycle is quick. They move from identifying you as a prospect to engaging you in a dialogue to cultivating your interest in a matter of seconds. Then they ask. Once done, whether you give or not, they leave and the relationship is broken.

Development, on the other hand, is seen as a more long-term process, even if you never meet the person. If you’re on a direct mail list, you might ask “why do they keep on sending me mail when I haven’t given to their cause?” It’s because they’re working to develop a relationship with you—and that starts with familiarizing their brand, even if it’s just your seeing their envelope in the mail.

While that may not be the most effective strategy, the idea is that whether you are raising money through direct mail or a person-to-person solicitation, neither is effective with a cold ask. Instead, you need to create a commonality of interest—in other words, develop a relationship—for the donor to be responsive to your request.

The power of development is that a well-established relationship pays tremendous dividends over time. As your relationship with the donor grows and they become more attuned to your mission, they will make more, and larger, gifts to your nonprofit. Fundraising doesn’t do that.

Which is why you need development.

Crafting a Nonprofit Development Plan

Now that you have an idea about why development is more effective than fundraising, how do you do it well?

Here’s a secret: nobody in development works alone.

Even if you are the only person in the nonprofit who is focused on charitable giving, if you go it alone, you’ll fail. In short: development is a team sport.

The best example of this comes from David Dunlop and Buck Smith. In the late 1970s, they created a methodology for systematically working with prospects. With so much pressure to raise money and so many people to ask, they were forced to get organized and enlist help. The result was what became known as Moves Management.

The concept is simple: Someone, who they called the “prime” was in charge of the process. That was usually the development officer. They enlisted others, called “secondaries.” Secondaries could be anyone, from your nonprofit’s volunteers to the president and board chair, or even acquaintances of the prospect.

Then they divided the tasks into two categories: foreground tasks—those which were specific to getting the gift from that particular donor, and background tasks—those that generally supported your efforts but were not targeted to the donor.

Let’s say you’re holding the “Best Buddy in Binghamton” award. If your prospect was being honored as a Best Buddy, then that’s a foreground move. If he’s in the audience seeing an example of where he could be next year, that’s a background move.

To sum it up, an intentional combination of foreground and background moves by the primary and secondaries are carried out to lead to a charitable gift solicitation of the prospect. But how, specifically, will you make that happen? Here are a few steps and best practices to follow:

Form a development team

The most important part of creating a development plan, whether it’s to ask for one gift or many, is having the right team. As management guru Jim Collins would remind us, to be successful you need to have the right people on the bus.

In development, that starts with your nonprofit’s leadership: the board chair and executive director. Yes, you need their blessing, but you need much, much more. They have to commit to actively participating. Hiring a development officer does not let them off the hook from asking for charitable gifts. In fact, it should increase the time they spend on it, and make it much more effective.

One of the least mentioned, yet most important jobs of a development officer is the role of “organizer-in-chief.” For example, notice above when discussing Moves Management that we didn’t say that the development officer makes the solicitation.

The most effective solicitations are made by the people who the prospect respects the most. That’s usually not the development professional. It’s more likely to be the top volunteer, the board chair, the top staff member, the executive director. It could also be another board member, or a community leader, or a mutual friend committed to your mission.

Think of a development officer’s job as a theater director. Yes, sometimes they’re in the play, but typically they’re behind the scenes, pulling it all together.

To give your development efforts some gravitas in your organization, you may want to formalize the roles through the creation of a Development Committee. It could be made up of just board members, or board, staff, and volunteers who are actively interested in your charitable gift revenue stream. The role of the committee is to engage in training to help them identify giving prospects and help you take the necessary steps to solicit the gift.

Identify specific organizational goals

And what about goals? Get more money, right? Sure—but it can’t stop there.

For many, especially members of your board, it may be hard to believe that money isn’t the only development goal that counts. This isn’t to suggest that money isn’t in the top two, but another measure can indicate so much more: the number of donors.

The classic development “chicken or egg” question goes like this: would you rather have one gift of a million dollars or a million gifts of one dollar each? Well, it depends, right? That single million-dollar gift may take three years to get, and once in hand, may not come again for another three years, if at all. On the other hand, getting lots of small gifts will cost you more money for solicitation. Yet for small gifts, the good news is that if someone goes away, you still have $999,999 left! Plus, some of those small gifts could grow into big ones over time.

The best answer is “a little of column A and a little of column B.” The total dollar is a measure of short-term health, while the number of donors is a measure of long-term health. Each is important for ensuring a well-funded mission.

Now that we established that you need both, it’s important to focus on when they come in. Creating a simple grid of months at the top, and a number of donors and dollars below each month is a good start.

Take a look at this nonprofit development chart.

Then, create a visual graph. If each month represents the “Y” axis, then let’s have one of three kinds of descriptions down the side:

  • The constituent type could be friends, alumni/patients/clients, board members, volunteers, staff
  • Gift level could be $1 to $99; $100 to $499; $500 to $999; and $1,000 and above
  • Method of asking could be direct mail, personal solicitation, grant proposal, special event, social media, etc.

How do you set your goals within these boxes? Most start with last year’s results and estimate based on your projected activities where each box will change. At a minimum, you should increase each box by the rate of inflation. Keeping a goal the same year-over-year is actually falling behind. In five years, you’ll begin to see the erosion in your spending power.

If you really want to up your game, look at exactly what you’re doing to raise money in a particular category, and don’t be shy about setting a challenging goal.

Create a development schedule

Your schedule of activities goes hand-in-glove with your monthly goals. For example, if each year you hold your gala in February, your monthly number of dollars and donors should reflect that. If you change it to March, don’t keep the February goals the same!

To start, reflect your broad solicitation activities each month, such as direct mail, social media, email, and events.

Then examine the submission requirement schedules of any businesses, foundations, and government agencies that require proposals. Enter their submission dates, then backdate to account for your work on the proposals and project when you’ll hear about the results.

The most difficult solicitation activities to schedule are your major gifts and planned gifts from individual donors. Of course, you can’t exactly plan when someone’s “will matures,” so that their bequest comes your way. It’s not much easier to project when they might sign a life-income agreement (ex: a charitable gift annuity) or even make a significant gift.

You might be disappointed to find out that the gift you expected in May won’t occur until June, but equally as excited when the gift you didn’t think would happen until September fills your hole for May!

The bottom line is that while your development schedule is in no way an exact science, researching and planning beforehand can set your team up for ongoing success.

Check-in and refine strategies

As you can surely tell by now, all of the above—especially goal setting, activity planning, and monitoring your progress—requires strong communications from all parties involved. In other words, there are no “to-da” moments (imagine a drape being pulled off an easel by someone in a top hat) in making, setting, or meeting goals.

Surprises, good and bad, cause unnecessary stress to your board, executive director, and financial management team. The temptation to hide your results to wow your audience or put off any discomfort must be avoided. Report your progress regularly, and to your surprise, you may get some offers to help.

Then, be sure to refine your development strategies as needed to ensure your team is still on track to meet your goals despite any roadblocks or setbacks. 

Nonprofit Development Training

Every day, nonprofit development makes progress as a profession.

Going back to Moves Management, when it was introduced, few people conceived of the need, or the benefits, of a system to solicit major gifts from individuals. Asking for big gifts was learned, and implemented by trial and error. Either you did the right thing or not, which meant you were good at it, or not.

Luckily, however, an accumulation of knowledge means that today’s development officers and volunteers don’t need to rely on guesswork. There are tried and true techniques in just about every method of charitable gift solicitation.

And the new methods? You’ll usually find that the same principles undergird them as the traditional methods. It’s just that technology has changed.

This is great news. A body of knowledge is evolving that everyone can learn based on their nonprofit’s needs and mission, and the learner’s interests and personality.

But how can you equip your nonprofit development team with the resources they need? Here are some great courses and videos to consider:

Creating Sustainable Development Systems for Your Nonprofit

Thinking about the long term is hard—especially with all your problems today! In this introduction to sustainable systems, Tycely Williams, Chief Development Officer at America’s Promise Alliance, takes you through the process of setting up systems including compensation systems and systems for employee feedback.

Creating a long-term future for your nonprofit—maybe even a future without you—is daunting. Get some peace-of-mind in this insightful program.

Create a Development Plan that Works

Does your nonprofit suffer from the Shiny Penny Syndrome—where they jump at every new fundraising idea they see? Does your board or management team expect you to raise unprecedented amounts of money with few resources and no help?

Linda Lysakowski is here to help. She’ll show you how to create a well-written development plan, including who needs to be involved, what a comprehensive development plan should look like, and how to implement and evaluate the plan within your organization.

This powerful course will also cover what the development plan is and is not, and how it helps you stay on track and not get derailed by every shiny object that comes down the road. You will learn why it is critical to involve the right people in the planning and where to get the information you need.

Bonus: This resource also provides learners with free samples and templates to use right away in helping create your plan.

The Storytelling Nonprofit Master Class

Humans learn through stories. No doubt, you need facts and figures to back up your nonprofit’s effectiveness, but to raise the money you need, be sure to tell the story behind those numbers as well. This is a first-of-its-kind online class that shows nonprofit professionals a step-by-step process for telling stories that raise money and awareness.

This course is taught through 10+ hours of instructional video content inside The StoryTelling Nonprofit’s online classroom. In addition to the instructional videos, you’ll also receive worksheets and resources that complement each lesson and help you implement what you’re learning. Finally, you’ll receive access to the discussion forums inside the virtual classroom as well as a private Facebook group for ongoing discussion and support with your storytelling.

Meet Your Mission and Achieve Your Vision Through Good Planning

Is your staff floundering because they’re not sure what their goals and purpose are? Is your board sick of so-called “strategic planning”? Can you hear the groans when you even mention the word? This powerful online course helps you turn their groans into words of praise when they discover how a properly crafted strategic plan can help your organization grow and thrive.

As you progress through this course, you will learn how to create a plan that works—one that helps your organization achieve its mission and fulfill its vision.

You will know what a good strategic planning process involves, who should be included in the planning process, what the final plan should look like, and how often it should be reviewed and updated. You’ll also learn about compiling research data, conducting planning retreats, and establishing measurements so the plan can be easily implemented, evaluated, and updated. You’ll even receive templates and samples you can use right now to create your plan and subsequently measure your progress toward it.

Bring the structure you need to operate most efficiently and efficiently to your team now.

Raise More by Creating Scalable Fundraising Systems for your Nonprofit

Are you always looking for new donors… always worried about when checks will come in… and constantly throwing new fundraising strategies against the wall to see what sticks? If it feels like your nonprofit is stuck on the donor treadmill, this training is for you.

During this webinar, you’ll learn:

  • What a donor fundraising system is, and why it is such a powerful tool for your nonprofit
  • The most important fundraising systems to build for your organization
  • A simple step-by-step process for building sustainable fundraising systems
  • Tips and strategies for successfully implementing systems at your organization

Fundraising systems are the sustainable funding models that turn struggling nonprofits into thriving organizations. A good system makes your fundraising knowable and scalable. It clarifies decision-making, conserves your resources, and allows you to raise more money while using less bandwidth at your organization.

The Impact Method™

In today’s fast-paced digital world, running a nonprofit with traditional strategic planning is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. It just doesn’t work. To make a real impact, you need a new method.

Enter: the Impact Method™. Thriving Nonprofits use the Impact Method™ because:

  • Their plans are meaningful, powerful, and always up to date
  • They have a roadmap to build their team
  • They have a system for continually improving
  • Their teams are agile, aligned, and focused
  • Their brand is clearly defined
  • Their key metrics mean something again

By following the Impact Method™ you can set your organization and its development team up for continued success going forward, allowing yourself to completely revolutionize your daily operations.


Yes, nonprofit development is about raising money. Some may even call it fundraising. Yet it’s much more than that. Nonprofit development is about creating a solid foundation of support for your organization for years to come.

Financial support is only one manifestation. How about when your expansion is challenged at the local town council. An effective development effort means your supporters are there to tell everyone what great work you do in the community.

What if someone who really needs your services is hesitant to reach out? If they knew someone who supported your mission financially, you have an advocate to encourage them to take advantage of your offerings.

How about if you hold a festival to help the community and raise money for your cause? The donors who show their love with their gifts will be the first ones to bring their family and friends to your event! When people step forward with their monetary support, they say your mission matters louder than anyone can do with words alone. It’s a win-win!

For more information on nonprofit development and day-to-day operations, be sure to check out our other educational resources below:

Train your team in effective nonprofit development with Nonprofit Courses.

Major Gifts Officer Training: 8 Resources for Success

Get started with Nonprofit Courses for your major gifts officer training.Nearly everyone at a nonprofit, or at least its leadership, has the same dream… a person of means walks through the door, pulls out a checkbook, and makes a gift so big that the organization never needs to worry about money again. 

Major gift officers are in the business of making that dream come true. 

While the donation described in the aforementioned scenario is hardly likely, transformational gifts are certainly possible. Significant gifts like these, that make a major difference in your mission, are worth pursuing. That's why a major gifts fundraiser’s job is to identify, cultivate, and steward potential major donors so that when asked, the prospect sees your cause as meeting their goals—and writes the check to make it all happen.

So how exactly do you get this done? Sure, asking is a major component of the strategy, and not asking is a big reason why major gifts don’t happen. Still, the actual asking is a brief, albeit important part of a proven process. In fact, to prove how brief it is, get out your stopwatch and time how long it takes to say “will you make a gift of [any amount here].” Probably less than three seconds. 

So, if asking is so important and so easy, why aren’t major gifts flying in your door? 

Because getting major gifts is a process. The good news is that the process is pretty well proven. If you're a major gifts officer or a major gifts officer in training, you just need to learn it. If you learn it and still aren’t getting results—go back and review it. Because the process works. 

But understanding the major gifts offer training process is for more than major gifts officers. 

Why? Perhaps the best comparison to use is with ice hockey. Every time a player scores a goal, that player gets a “point” on their record. Points add up, and clearly, the more goals you score, the more points you get and the more valuable you are to the team.

But unlike a lot of other sports, hockey recognizes that the player who touches the puck directly before it goes into the goal isn’t the whole story. Let’s say a buddy drives the puck toward the goal with a slapshot. You’re there next to the net, and just tip it with your stick, leaving the goalie way out of position—and you score! You get the point, but your teammate gets a point, too. Which is called an “assist.” 

Like in hockey, fundraising is a team sport. The person making the ask isn’t solely responsible for the gift. Your assist is just as valuable as your major gift officer’s goal. So if you know how major gifts work, you can be a major player in making goals—and getting gifts. Just like a hockey player with a lot of assists, your career benefits as well.

How do you learn to score the goals and make the assists in major gift fundraising?

That’s where strategic major gifts officer training resources come in.

As a nonprofit leader, you want your team to be well-equipped to raise money and meet their fundraising goals. When it comes to major gifts officer training, having the right tools in your toolkit is more important than ever.

Our suggestion? Train your team with on-demand, low-cost virtual resources like from Nonprofit.Courses. As an online, open-access platform for nonprofit content, including major gift development, Nonprofit.Courses lets you find exactly what you need from a voice that resonates with you and your nonprofit’s mission.

It's a great resource for anyone interested in the process of soliciting major gifts—whether you’re a full-time major gifts officer, a professional who supports the effort, or a volunteer who loves the cause. And if you're not sure where to start, we've picked out eight favorite resources to inform any fundraising professional about the multi-faceted approach to major gifts development. Let's jump in!

1. Basic Fundraising Concepts for Nearly All Nonprofits

Before you conduct any fundraising activities, it's important to have a solid understanding of the process involved. Regardless of whether you write an email asking for a small donation or sit in front of someone to request a major gift, the basic concepts are the same. 

Getting this big picture view from the beginning helps anyone seeking major gifts see fundraising from the donor’s point-of-view. You may be asking for something big that your research says is important to the donor, so why is your donor making a bequest to a cause they only hear about through the mail? Knowing how each component of fundraising works together by effectively grasping the basics can answer this question and more.

While we’re talking about basics, wouldn’t it be great if you, your colleagues, and your volunteers could learn about fundraising without all of the jargon and complications? Wouldn’t you like to see philanthropy from the joy of abundance, rather than a fear of scarcity? 

Fundraising consultant Larry Johnson hates it when someone calls fundraising a “necessary evil” that people avoid to the point that asking rarely occurs. To this nonprofit expert, fundraising is a joy—and his goal is to make it your joy, too. That's why he created an effective, proven method of raising significant money for your charity that’s approachable for everyone, and long-lasting in your nonprofit’s culture. 

This is huge, especially if you’re just starting out or wouldn't consider major gifts your full-time job, or if fundraising never “took” before in your organization. However, even if you are an experienced professional fundraiser, this major gifts officer training course gives a perspective that you rarely find to volunteers and colleagues alike. 

3. Build Donor Relationships that Lead to Major Gifts

Major gift fundraising is built on one foundation: the relationship. The connection between your donor and your cause—the people you serve and the staff, volunteers, and contributors who make it happen—leads to major gifts. But how do you become more than just friends? How do you build a relationship where your donor meets their goal of helping a cause they love with a major gift, and you meet your goal of getting significant support for those you serve?

That’s what Linda Lysakowski’s course, Build Donor Relationships that Lead to Major Gifts is all about. Linda knows that you need to have a genuine relationship with your donor based on mutual trust and interests. As one of the few in the world with the Advanced Certified Fundraising Executive (ACFRE) designation, Lysakowski has the experience you can trust to get the straight scoop on the most important part of major gift fundraising.

4. Become a Prospect Research Connector

Wouldn’t it be great if you could figure out whether someone had the capacity for a major gift, how to connect to them, and whether they are interested in your cause all before you visited them? That’s what prospect research is all about!

Prospect research can go deep into the details of a single person or review a broad list of people for indicators of who you should look at more closely. It’s a great tool to use before and after a connection with your prospect. 

Luckily, the Prospect Research Institute’s Research Connector program gives you access to a variety of tools and courses so you can focus your time on the people who can make the greatest impact on your mission.

5. The Storytelling Non-Profit Master Class

What if the classic television show “The Brady Bunch” started with a chart of the children’s names, ages, and parents, along with how many friends they had at school. Would you remember? Would you even care? Probably not.

Instead, the first words are “it's a story…” The show’s producers knew one simple fact: humans learn by storytelling. It's how we retain information. 

That's why Vanessa Chase Lockshin focuses so much on storytelling in nonprofit fundraising. She knows, and you’ll learn, how stories can make your case for a major gift much better than dry numbers, charts, or even facts and figures.

It’s not that she’s against numbers. This course just encourages you to bring your numbers, and your donors, alive through the best means possible: attention-grabbing, powerful stories. 

6. The Asking Conversation: Exactly What to Say in a Major Gift Solicitation and When to Say It

You've likely heard the objection, “what do I say?”  when it comes to practicing and making the fundraising ask. It's also the most frequently asked question when anyone inquires about how to get major gifts. 

It would be patronizing to tell you “it's easy,” when for so many people, it's not. Internationally recognized nonprofit expert Marc Pitman knows this, which is why he added “The Asking Conversation: Exactly What to Say in a Major Gift Solicitation and When to Say It,” to his Nonprofit Academy series of webinars.

So relax. Marc has the answers and is eager to share with his audience of fundraising professionals like yourself in this powerful major gifts officer training resource.

7. The Four Decisions: How to Lead Your Donor to Each

Those who benefit from your mission deserve everything you can do for them. So why are you leaving gifts on the table that can make a major difference in their lives? 

To start, you need to understand that your donor isn’t just a major gift, and their major gift isn’t the entirety of their philanthropy. You need the whole picture. 

In The Four Decisions, fundraising veteran Dan Shephard leads you through four choices that will help you see the whole donor instead of just their major gift. That’s a huge step toward a long-term relationship that will benefit your mission, and your donor, for years to come.

8. Impact Method™, by PivotGround

The Impact Method™ is a system of tools and processes that helps you get an organized strategy, optimize your capacity, and thrive with a process of continual improvement. It gives you the framework and methods to build the context that makes sense for you, your nonprofit, and those you serve.

This is critical in your ability to seek major gifts. 

A strategic plan tells you and your donors that you know exactly why you need major gifts. While you could ask someone for any amount of money, the first thing they’ll likely ask is why. A strategic plan puts the answer in the context of your mission. 

For example, if you offer after-school programs for children, you could say “we need a basketball court.” The donor might get it since they know your nonprofit works with kids. Yet you’d be much more successful if you said, “Our mission is to help children of our impoverished neighborhood to complete school and find a brighter future. When a child walks home from school, they have a choice: hang out and get in trouble or come to our rec center. We need to give them an incentive to come here so they’ll be in a safe, fun environment, and meet role models who can help them to succeed in life. A basketball court can be a great magnet for these kids and a tool for positive life lessons.” 

Just by comparing these two statements, you can surely see the difference and understand the power that is offered in the latter. A strategic plan shows your donors you have direction. It gives them confidence that you have the expertise to carry out your mission—and that their money will be well spent.


Seeking major gifts isn’t easy, but it's not impossible, either. Just a few years ago, most people learned by trial and error, making lots of mistakes and even losing their jobs because of it. 

That’s not true today. The eight programs above, and so many more available on Nonprofit.Courses, give you exactly what you need to solicit major gifts for the most important cause in the world: yours.

So, dive in! Define a major gift. Begin training your fundraising team. Start identifying people who love your mission—and have the means to make a transformational difference. Find out who knows them and forge an introduction. Make them insiders by showing them your great work and amazing results. Then make your ask!

If you don’t, you’ll both be disappointed—you for not doing the most for those you serve, and your donor for not fulfilling their dream of impacting a cause that makes a difference to them and the world.

To learn more about effective nonprofit fundraising operations and major gifts officer training, be sure to check out our other educational resources: 

Get started with Nonprofit Courses for your major gifts officer training.

Major Gifts: Build Your Program and Earn More Donations

Learn more about major gifts and other fundraising strategies with Nonprofit Courses.

Do you dream about your nonprofit doing more for your mission? Wouldn’t it be great if someone with the means enough to make a major difference loved your cause so much that they made a significant gift to your organization? Better yet, how about having a ton of people like that?

These dreams can become reality—really. But they’re not just going to fall out of the sky. You have to work for them by finding out who’s interested in your mission, making connections, bringing them into your world, and most importantly, asking them to walk with you in helping others.

Welcome to the world of major gift fundraising. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about starting a major gifts program and maximizing the funding for your nonprofit. Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:

Ready to learn more about effectively soliciting major gifts and pursuing much-needed donor support? Let’s jump in.

Frequently Asked Questions About Major Gifts

Whether you’re looking to create a major gifts program for the first time or simply aiming to revamp your current major gift fundraising strategy, you likely have some questions about the process. That’s why we’ve compiled and answered some of the most-asked questions on the subject here!

What are major donors?

Let’s start off by defining what a major donor is. The basic answer is easy: anything you want it to be! It seems a bit loose, but it’s true. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to defining a major gift. What’s “major” to you could be considered “regular” or even “minor” by another nonprofit, and your definition could be unattainable to others.

Your organization can define major gifts as anything you want that suits your circumstances. However, it’s a good idea to have a set standard for your nonprofit, so here are some ways to come to an answer:

  • Major gifts as defined by a dollar amount. This is the most popular definition. What dollar number seems big to you? If you regularly get $25 gifts, then $1,000 might be major. If you regularly get $10,000 gifts, perhaps anything over $100,000 is major. It’s all up to you, and will likely vary based on your typical donation size.
  • Major gifts as defined by a percent of your donations. What defines the top five percent, or even one percent of gifts to your nonprofit? You can draw the line there to decide what constitutes a major gift.
  • Major gifts as transformational to your nonprofit. What size gift would transform your nonprofit? How big does a gift have to be to make a substantial difference? Underlying this question is a well-defined strategic plan for your nonprofit’s future. For example, imagine you’re a nonprofit that rents office space. To really move your mission forward, you need to buy a bigger space so you can run your programs more effectively. In this case, gifts of, say, more than 10% of the total building cost could determine your definition of a major gift.
  • Major gifts as a stretch for your constituency. Complete an analysis of your current donor base and figure out what they can give. In a campaign setting, this is usually called a feasibility study, but you don’t need to be in a campaign to use the methodology. Most prospect research firms can analyze your donor list and help estimate their giving potential to define what a major gift would be for your supporters.
  • Major gifts as defined by an emotional response. This is a popular definition because it makes major gifts feel real rather than an arbitrary, abstract number. Ask yourself, “at what level, if someone came in with a gift of that amount, would you celebrate with a party, and maybe even give the staff member a day off?” That number is your definition of a major gift.

Whatever definitions and numbers you use, your idea of a major gift should be reviewed at least annually. If you start out defining “major” at $1,000 and become successful at it, you’ll want to look at potentially upping the minimum to $2,500 or $5,000 the following year.

Before we step away from your definition of a major gift, make sure you define how a gift is made as well. Let’s look at three possibilities that are not just one-time gifts of cash or its equivalent (like stocks or bonds):

  • Multi-year pledges: For example, let’s say $100,000 is a major gift for your organization. Is it okay for someone to make a five-year pledge to pay $20,000 each year and still be considered a major gift donor?
  • Planned gifts: Will you take an insurance policy? A bequest intention in a will? A life-income agreement such as a charitable gift annuity? Do these types of planned gifts count toward your major gifts program?
  • Gifts-in-kind: What if someone gives you a boat worth $100,000, a piece of land, or even a business? Would those non-cash donations be considered major gifts?

It’s a good idea to answer these questions now, before diving too deep into your major gifts strategy. This forethought will save you a lot of time and energy when the gifts are considered.

How do you identify a major gift prospect?

Most major gift programs define their target donors as individuals or family units making personal gifts. However, there’s no absolute reason to exclude foundations and businesses from your major gift definition. In fact, some people who you’ll target as prospects for a major, personal gift will own businesses or control assets in a foundation or donor-advised fund.

Make sure that you see the donor as they see themselves. While you may see a person and a business or foundation as separate, and legally they are, the person making the giving decision could well see all of these as one unit. That means you need to approach them as one giving unit and let them decide which pocket supplies the final gift amount.

Once you define a major gift and the nature of the prospects, how do you spot a major gift donor? Let’s start with the CIA method.

No, not the spy agency! When it comes to major gifts fundraising, CIA stands for Capacity, Interest, and Access. To get any gift, major or not, you need CIA. Without even one of the three, there’s likely no gift. For major donors, in particular, the “C” makes a world of difference. Let’s break down each element in greater detail:

  • Capacity: For major gifts, this is where it counts. The person you’re asking needs to have the means, or have control of the means to make the gift in the amount you’re asking. If your prospect does not have the capacity to make a major gift, you’re not going to get one—regardless of how much they care about your mission.
  • Interest: The stronger the interest in your mission, the bigger the gift. If a donor doesn’t care about the problem you’re trying to solve, you’re not likely to get a gift, whether they have the money to or not. No interest, no gift!
  • Access: Finally, you need to have a connection to your donor. If you’re talking about a letter, you need a postal address. If an email, then an email address. For a personal solicitation, you need to meet them face-to-face (via video or in-person). Simply put: if you can’t get to them, how can you make your ask?

It doesn’t occur to most people that it’s best to start with identifying people with interest, rather than capacity. That’s because by identifying enough people with high interest, the odds that some will have the capacity to make a major gift are high. If someone really loves your mission, they will find a way to support you in a way that is above your expectations.

Next, you have to consider what your ideal donor looks like. What are their personal characteristics? Are they well educated? Where do they live? Do they fall into categories based on ethnicity, religion, gender, type of home, or style of dress?

Don’t forget to include indicators of strong interest, as discussed above. Do they show up for your events? Have they supported your fundraisers in the past? Be as specific as you can. Some nonprofits will create an illustration to make a strong visual image.

When done well, it turns out that your profile will expand, not limit your pool of prospects. Why? Because you have given your brain a definition to find. For example, if you drive a certain car, you likely see a lot of that model on the road. You might check out the different colors, models, or modifications. But the reality is, no matter what car you drive, there are not as many on the road as you think. Your mind is just trained to spot them, and now you’re training your brain to do the same with major gift prospects.

Just remember, your profile is a guideline rather than an absolute. If you identify someone who is a major prospect who meets 75% of your definition, that’s certainly okay.

As you’re building your profile, consider who in your current database might fit your definition. You may have unidentified major prospects right under your nose! You’ll also want to consider that major wealth doesn’t always show. For more on this, check out The Millionaire Next Door book series by Thomas Stanley.

How do you secure a major gift?

Now, the big question… how do you get a major gift? The answer is remarkably simple: you ask.

Really, can it be that easy? It turns out it is. The biggest obstacle is the solicitor’s frame of mind.

The nature of asking anyone for anything is to put yourself in a less powerful position. Think about the last time you asked a parent or grandparent for money (even if it was forever ago). It probably wasn’t comfortable, and for some, it’s almost physically painful. You might even say it was like begging. No wonder people don’t like fundraising! Begging is no way to build a nonprofit that does great things and deserves the community’s support, especially when it comes to major gifts.

Luckily, there’s an alternative, and it comes with a handy formula: 1-2-1/4-1. One-to-one (your and your donor) for one (the person who is receiving the benefits of your mission).

This “formula” defines the nature of a successful relationship between a solicitor and donor and the purpose of the solicitation. As an added bonus, it’s also easy to remember.

The nature of any solicitation should be “one-to-one,” whether in person, by mail, or in another way. You and the donor are in partnership for a cause. It’s not begging. Why? (And this is important!) Because you are not asking for your own benefit. Instead, it is fundraising because you are asking for the benefit of someone else. You’re not even asking for your nonprofit. You’re asking for the person who receives the services of your nonprofit, the end constituent.

The 1-2-1 partnership to help someone else is the leveler between you and your prospect. The donor meets their goal by providing the resources, whether that’s because of their dedication to the cause, an interest in the community, a need for a tax deduction, or another reason. You meet your goal by driving your nonprofit’s mission forward. Together, you serve the person who ultimately benefits from your nonprofit.

How do you start a major gift program?

One person makes one solicitation for a major gift, and that’s a major gift ask. One person makes a lot of asks, and you’ve got a major gifts officer. More than one person making more than one ask, and you’ve got yourself a major gifts program.

So what exactly constitutes a major gifts program? A major gifts program has:

  • Goals. Financial goals, yes, but real financial goals are your mission’s program goals reduced to numbers.
  • Messaging: Messaging is your program goals described in a way that your donor can understand and put in light of the people who benefit from your mission.
  • A list: The better your list of major donors and prospects, the more successful your solicitations will be. What makes a good list? The people on it should follow the CIA method of prospect profiling!

The key to a successful major gifts program is the coordination of resources and consistency of messaging. This drives toward meeting your fundraising, programmatic, and mission-based goals—all from a list of people to ask.

Best Practices for Soliciting Major Gifts

The steps to getting any charitable gift are remarkably similar, regardless of the solicitation method. They are especially important to follow in major gift fundraising. Let’s walk through these four basic steps:

  1. Identifying your prospect – Know who your prospect is.
  2. Engaging your prospect – Make contact with the prospect and introduce them to your mission. Take steps to get to know them and let them get to know you, your nonprofit, and your mission.
  3. Soliciting your prospect – Make the ask.
  4. Stewarding your donor – Say thank you, and show your gratitude for their gift.

But how can you follow each of these stages effectively? Take these best practices into consideration at every step of the way.

Identify your donor through prospect research.

When was the last time you hired a plumber, electrician, or mechanic? You likely did an online search to find who was nearby. You read reviews. Maybe you asked some friends or neighbors—all before you made the call.

You identified who you needed through prospect research. Nonprofit prospect research isn’t too much different. You’re just looking in different places and using different data sets.

And in the end, prospect research is to find out who has the C, I, and A to be a donor at the dollar level you need to support your mission.

Start with you, your board, your development committee, your staff, or your fundraisers to make a list of everyone you know who might even have the slightest interest in your mission. Show everyone in that group the list, and mark it with columns each for C, I, and A. For example, for I, does the person on the list show no interest in your mission, have a mild interest, or show great interest?

Then conduct a brief online search to collect additional information such as where they work and in what capacity, any interest indicators, other organizations they belong to, and other nonprofits they serve.

Notice that we haven’t yet contacted a professional prospect researcher. That’s because you can do much of the process yourself. Only after you get to the point where you are certain that there is some potential, perhaps even after your first meeting with a prospect, should you do an in-depth study on whether they would be interested in a deeper relationship with your organization.

Through a variety of online tools like prospect research databases, you can determine who in your network has the capacity to make a gift of the size you need, or who might have an affinity toward your mission.

Finally, be broad. You don’t know people’s history or interests. For example, you may not know that the mother of a highly successful business person had an alcohol problem. That makes that individual a good potential prospect for your substance abuse clinic.

Build personal relationships with major donors and prospects.

Once identified, you move to the engagement and cultivation steps.

In major gifts work, engagement is all about connections. Who in your network, or the network of your volunteers, knows the person and can make an introduction? Perhaps it’s for lunch at a club, coffee before work, or drinks afterward? You could get an introduction at a chamber of commerce mixer or an event for another nonprofit. The point is that this should be planned, not random.

Then, it’s up to you to evaluate their interest in your mission and invite them to get to know your organization and any particular projects you have in mind. They could be with a tour, an introduction to a program manager, a meeting with a client or mission recipient, or any number of dozens of activities.
The point of all of this is to build their interest—or their “I“—so that they can see themselves being a major part of the solution you’re trying to achieve for your beneficiaries. You are making them an insider, or a partner, in your organization through deep, interpersonal relationships.

Determine the targeted ask.

Ah, but how much to ask? Too little and they may not take your cause seriously. Too much and they won’t see themselves as part of the solution.

Unfortunately, there’s no secret formula to determine the perfect ask. But here’s what to consider in creating a strategic plan:

  • Their enthusiasm for your mission and the specific project you are discussing with them. The more enthusiasm for your work, the more they will stretch to help you.
  • Their gifts to other nonprofits. This may be your best indicator for a baseline. Consider that you should ask at least what they gave to a similar organization.
  • Their position in your community. If they see themselves as a leader, they may be interested in showing that by appearing higher on your donor lists.
  • Their assets and salary. Can you get this? Sometimes, yes. They may even tell you. A prospect researcher might find out if they own a high interest in a company. You can easily evaluate their home value online, and see if they have other properties as well. Sometimes, hobby assets are a good indicator of wealth. Boats and small aircraft are notorious money pits, so you need a certain level of wealth to afford them.
  • Their life stage. Are they building a career? Have small children? Growing wealth? Retired? This is a major indicator of their relative assets and inclination to give. Someone with children may have school fees and other expenses that eat into their disposable income. Empty nesters, however, have shed much of their financial responsibilities and are ready to make major gifts to organizations like yours.

By considering a number (or all) of these elements when determining your exact ask, you set yourself up for an increased likelihood for success.

Show your appreciation and follow up with major gifts.

Stewardship is too often overlooked because once a gift is made, there’s pressure to find the next gift. This is short-term thinking. In long-term, sustainable fundraising, great stewardship will lead to the next great gift.

So what to do?

Number one, say thank you! Obvious, huh? Yes, but so often overlooked. And don’t stop at one. A handwritten note, a personal phone call, a visit (when you can do that), a small token gift, anything that recognizes that their gift was valued. Don’t forget to be prompt. If someone makes a gift that’s important to your mission, don’t wait to connect with them.

After that, keep them involved. This is probably the biggest mistake people make after receiving a gift. They gave because they cared, so show your donor the results of their caring.

Of course, depending on your mission, doing things like introducing them to your beneficiaries or whisking them off to the other side of the world may not be possible. Logistics and privacy concerns can get in the way. That’s where letters, photos, and videos from constituents can make a big difference. If you did your job to make them an insider, they’ll understand the issues in a real way.

In some cases, you’ll also want to create financial reports on how their gift was spent. You’ll likely know whether this would be appreciated by your earlier interactions with the donor. It’s also a great opportunity to engage your accounting staff in the fundraising process!

3 Things You Need For a Successful Major Gifts Program

Although there are certainly a ton of moving parts when it comes to managing an effective major gifts program for your organization (especially if you’re building it from the ground up!), these three things can really set your team up for success:

Effective Major Gifts Officers

In some organizations, being a major gift officer is akin to being a navy fighter pilot on the nonprofit aircraft carrier. It’s what many aspire to, and where most think the action is.

Fancy sunglasses, travel opportunities, and cool uniforms (err, nice suits) aside, an effective major gift officer has a difficult job. Contrary to mythology, they’re not all slap-their-back extroverts, either. They are able to interact with a variety of people and cultures and keep good records of their interactions.

Most of all, a great major gift officer is a great relationship builder. And not just one relationship. Dozens, each with its own nuances, and each at a different stage, all that lead to a gift to their nonprofit.

Some might think that this requires a measure of insincerity. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the major gift officer’s sincere commitment to their nonprofit’s mission that makes them the most successful. Their job isn’t about extracting as much as they can out of each prospect, or going for the easy “low-hanging fruit” gifts. A major gift officer works best when they discern the need of the donor and match it to the need of the mission.

A good major gift officer can pick up the signals and propose a gift that is a true win-win—for the donor and the nonprofit.

Powerful Nonprofit Software

Everyone is human, and to keep focused on relationships, it helps a major gift officer to have a solid donor database in hand. In fact, you could argue that a good database is the heart of every nonprofit’s fundraising program at every level—from direct mail and grant proposals to major gifts and planned giving.

Some business CRMs (or customer relationship management programs) can be adapted for nonprofit use. Yet a database tailored specifically for nonprofit fundraising (also known as a gift processing program or donor management system) enables the major gift officer to get a holistic view of the donor’s relationship with the nonprofit. The most important function of this class of programs is their ability to record and report on a variety of charitable contributions.

For example, few business CRMs can be modified to record multi-year pledges or the charitable gift amount from an event ticket purchase, properly report on gifts-in-kind, or provide present value calculations on planned gifts. Yet it would not be unusual for a major donor to engage in all of these kinds of giving over a short period of time.

Combine these features with the ability to record each step in a relationship, the traditional purview of a CRM, and the nonprofit gift processing program can be a very powerful tool for any major gifts officer.

Strategic Training Resources

Nobody is born a major gifts officer. Few people even imagined it as a career out of high school or college. So, while some people may have a natural inclination toward the best traits of a successful in-person fundraiser, education and training can make a significant difference in their success—and the success of their nonprofit’s mission.

It starts by knowing the basics of fundraising—CIA, donor profiles, the fundraising cycle, and more. It also helps to have a solid grasp of what your software can do so you can fully utilize its capacity to record and project relationships and identify new donors.

Keeping up with new methods of giving also helps. Every day new donors come into a major gift pool who are younger and more adapted to the technology of philanthropy—like peer-to-peer campaigns. A major gift officer can’t afford to say “that doesn’t apply to me, ignore these new methods.” Their donor will be disappointed that the expert they know can’t explain how their grandson’s school is raising money for their sports program.

Then, there are the changing tax laws. These aren’t just the concern of planned giving officers who work with retirement plans, gift annuities, bequests, and trusts. To be helpful to donors, you need to be up-to-date on deductibility rules, changes in how assets can be gifted, and more.

Perhaps the most important training someone can get is about how they make and maintain relationships. That’s all about knowing yourself. For example, there are studies on how one’s Myers Briggs profile impacts their fundraising approach. Knowing that about yourself and exploring similar ideas can make you a much more effective fundraiser altogether.


More than 70% of American philanthropy comes from individuals, and if you count what assets those individuals control among businesses, foundations, and bequests, that number may even reach the high eighties. Nonprofits who ignore major gifts from individuals are leaving a lot of philanthropy on the table.

And major gifts bring other rewards as well. The relationships built through major gifts bring community engagement, and with it, increased awareness for your mission. Major gifts are not just about big money. They’re about giving the people you serve the kind of services they deserve.

In other words, major gifts are about your mission at its best.

For more information on strategic fundraising and other nonprofit operations, be sure to check out these additional resources:

Learn more about major gifts and other fundraising strategies with Nonprofit Courses.

Building a Fundraising Strategy: Resources and Ideas

Building a Fundraising Strategy: Resources and Ideas

For a LOT of nonprofits (perhaps even most), their strategic plan for fundraising consists of two words: get money.

Someone comes up with an idea to run a gala, sell something, send out letters or emails—and that’s what they do. The method picked has a lot to do with who makes the suggestion and what that person has either done in the past or is comfortable with based on their personality. This isn’t to say that these are bad ideas. They certainly have the potential to raise money.

So, if you’re already getting revenue from what you do, is it even important to be strategic? And if you aren’t, will a fundraising strategy even help? The answer to both of these questions is yes.

While whatever tactic you came up with might meet your immediate needs, chances are you can raise even more money with some higher level, deliberate thinking—a lot of which you never consider as “fundraising.”

At Nonprofit Courses, we specialize in providing nonprofits like yours with powerful, on-demand training on a variety of subjects. Luckily, that includes strategic fundraising. We’ve put together this useful guide for professionals like yourself who are looking to up their fundraising efforts and create a more effective, innovative plan. Here, we’ll cover the following key steps and best practices for doing so:

Are you ready to learn more about building an effective fundraising strategy and raising the much-needed funds for your mission? Let’s jump in.

Craft a Detailed Fundraising Strategy Plan

The first step in building a fundraising strategy is to create a detailed fundraising plan that lays out your goals and how you plan to achieve them. And what’s a vital component of this fundraising plan? Your case for support.

Your case for support tells the world exactly why you deserve their money. It’s intimately tied to the most important part of your nonprofit: your mission. The case addresses key questions such as these:

  • Why is your mission important?
  • What happens if your mission is ignored?
  • What are the benefits to those who rely on your mission?
  • How does your mission impact the community at large?

Your “internal case” is a longer document that defines the need for funding your nonprofit–and nobody outside your organization may ever see it. What the public sees are the parts of the case that are relevant to how you are asking for money and who is getting asked–often called the “external case.”

But what all should be considered when crafting your overarching fundraising plan? Let’s look at the following elements:

People

No method of fundraising runs itself, so you need to start with your people–and specifically the willingness, availability, and skills they can offer. Willingness and availability often go hand in hand. The more enthusiastic about the mission of your organization, the more someone will be willing to help, and make their time available to you, regardless of their other commitments.

Skills are another story. The most enthusiastic person for your mission may not have the technical or soft skills required to handle a task. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that fundraising is only an extrovert’s game. Direct mail, online fundraising, grant-writing, and much of the behind-the-scenes work like properly recording gifts into your database and paying vendors are all made for introverts as well. The bottom line: everyone can play a meaningful role in your revenue generation program.

Infrastructure

Every fundraising method makes use of some sort of technology, whether in the act of raising money, in preparation for the activity, or after the gifts are made. Thus, it’s essential that you ask yourself whether your organization has sufficient tools in your toolbox to get the job done effectively, along with questions like these:

  • What does your technology look like?
  • Do you need to upgrade your software to handle more gifts?
  • Do you need new technology to automate or streamline operations?
  • And while you’re at it, how are your facilities?
  • Does anything need a facelift before you bring in visitors?

A lot of what you’ll need depends on the method of fundraising you select, but it’s a good idea to begin asking yourself these vital questions early on in the process.

Policies

Creating policies before they’re needed has saved headaches for thousands of nonprofits worldwide. But what kind of policies will you need?

  • Gift acceptance
  • Donor recognition/acknowledgment
  • Gift recording/entry
  • Confidentiality and ethics
  • Board giving

When you have specific documentation surrounding these instances created ahead of time you can ensure your processes are standardized and effective throughout your entire team.

Prospects

Who typically makes gifts to your organization? You have a choice here–dig deeper to find more of the same types of people or look for new prospects that are out of your traditional mold. Either way, you need to create a donor profile.

A donor profile is a specific description of the arch-typical donor you seek. For example, are they male or female? Where do they live? What is their income range? Be as detailed as you can. A profile doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t seek money from the real-world people outside your imaginary ideal. But it does give everyone a model so they can spot the elements of your ideal donor immediately–and that can help you save time and raise more money for your cause.

Whether your prospects are already in a database or you’re searching for new ones, every prospect needs three attributes to make a gift: capacity, interest, and access (also known as CIA):

  • They have to have the capacity to make the requested gift.
  • They have to have an interest in your mission.
  • You have to have access to them in whatever way you’re going to solicit the gift.

Without all three, you likely won’t get anything. If you do, it will be much less than what could have come to your organization. As you work with donors, your goal is to identify these attributes–and your database is where you store the information.

Goals

Fundraising goals typically come in two types: how many dollars you raise and how many donors you get. You might ask, “why should we care about how many donors we get as long as we get the money we need?” The answer comes in the form of another question: “Would you rather have one gift of $1,000,000, or a million gifts of $1.00?”

Getting one gift of $1,000,000 is great. The problem is that in most cases, it’s not going to be repeatable. That means you have to find another $1,000,000 gift next year, probably from somebody else. Million-dollar gifts don’t just come immediately–or easily. You have to work diligently to build these major donor relationships over time.

1,000,000 gifts of $1.00 might sound daunting too, but in other ways. To get that many, you probably need 4,000,000 prospects, and solicitations of that volume are going to cost a lot of money. The truth is that you need both–many small gifts supplemented by a few (or several) significant gifts. Big gifts give a huge boost to your program but take time. Small gifts don’t make as much impact but are more immediate. Both are required for a healthy fundraising strategy.

It’s important to keep in mind that fundraising is not a monolithic venture. It’s actually best made up of a number of fundraising programs to support your many mission needs. So, at this point, you need to determine exactly which programs within your organization require what kind of funding and where other funding might be available to support them.

For example, some of your programs may have a fee-for-service component, like tuition costs. In that case, charitable gifts will provide the funds required to make an excellent program where tuition might only fund a decent program.

Now, let’s say you come up with the final number for what you need. How are you going to get there? That’s where the scale of gifts comes in. A scale of gifts tells us how many gifts at each level are required to meet a particular fundraising goal–whether that’s your overall goal or a particular campaign.

Let’s go back to that $1,000,000 need. It’s not realistic to think that you’re going to get a single, $1,000,000 gift, nor is it probable that you’ll get a million $1.00 gifts. So what is realistic?

The scale of gifts, or gift range chart, sets up a pyramid of sorts that tells you that you’ll probably need at least one gift of $250,000, two or three at $100,000, a number of $50,000, $25,000, $10,000, and down the line. It’s also important to remember that for every gift you get, you’ll probably need four, maybe five prospects. Therefore, the scale of gifts will tell you how many people need to be on your list so you can meet your funding goals.

Now that you’ve compiled the various information that goes into your strategic fundraising plan, the next step is to match what you have in terms of mission, resources, intended prospects, and goals with be kind of fundraising method that will be most effective for your audience and organization. Let’s discuss a few best practices here:

Explore Available Grant Funding

Grant funding is one of the most well-known and effective ways of raising money for an organization. It all seems rather logical. Fill out an application; get money. Yet as you might expect, there’s a lot more to it than that.

For example, you have to be very specific about what you need and why you need it (remember the case for support, as discussed above). You need to carefully examine the requirements so that you are meeting the funder’s mission as much as your own. That said, you should be sure to vet potential grants carefully so you can choose to collect funding from like-minded institutions as yourself.

Probably most important, however, is that you have a relationship with the funder to the extent that the grant-giving institution allows.

Take Advantage of Corporate Giving

Even in today’s economy, businesses can be a good source of nonprofit funding. But you have to keep one thing in mind: what’s in it for them? It’s not that they don’t want to help or that they’re being greedy. It’s that every business, even of the “mom & pop” variety, is there to make money for their owners and employees. Thus, it’s important to look for opportunities to help them while simultaneously supporting your own organization.

For example, can your fundraising work drive customers to them? Can you increase their visibility within a targeted group, like the people who suffer from the disease your mission is determined to address? Do you supply their business with employees, or do their employees volunteer with or contribute to your nonprofit?

Just like with grants, corporate fundraising is built on relationships. Don’t expect that a business will give you money out of obligation or guilt. Longer-term support always stems because they want to support your cause and the constituents you serve.

Plan and Host Engaging Fundraising Events

Events are the stock and trade of a huge swath of the nonprofit sector. (Get a laugh from this clip from the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie classic, “Babes in Arms.” Does it remind you of a nonprofit committee meeting?)

The good news is that even when people can’t be in the same room, a lot of people want to be seen with each other, supporting a good cause. In their seminal book, The Seven Faces of Philanthropy, Karen Maru File and Russ Alan Prince came up with a name for them and their giving profile: the Socialites. They want to have fun while doing good.

For a nonprofit, a major attraction for special event fundraising is scalability. You can do an intimate dinner party around a dining room table, or a walk-a-thon for thousands. You can make it a black-tie event at a high-end art exhibit, or a beef ‘n beer at the local firehouse. Special events are great ways to deliver messages about your mission while also raising money for your cause–just don’t forget to collect the names of everyone attending so you can connect with them later.

Emphasize Strategic Donor Cultivation Efforts

In any fundraising method, relationships are key. And the fundraising-ese word for building relationships with donors? Cultivation. And effective fundraising requires strategic cultivation.

This means keeping the end goal in mind. Fundraising experts David Dunlop and Buck Smith developed a system known as Moves Management, which assigns roles to staff and volunteers who carry out specific cultivation steps that lead to a gift. These steps can be highly targeted to a donor for a single gift, or broadly applied to many donors simultaneously.

The whole idea is to be intentional and make every contact with your donor or prospect lead to a solicitation. This makes a lot of sense, yet most fundraising cultivation, even for the biggest gifts, is based on ad hoc activities that are made up as the process evolves. Being strategic with your cultivation efforts can save a lot of time, build confidence in your staff and volunteers, and lead to much more significant funding from whomever you ask.

Invest in Powerful Fundraising Software

“Make the list, work the list.” The better list you have, the better you’ll be able to match your prospective donor with your nonprofit’s need, estimate the appropriate gift amount, and make the ask. The idea is that every gift should be a win-win for both the donor and the nonprofit. Fundraising software is key in making that happen.

Donor management software like Bloomerang, CharityEngine, Lumaverse and so many more are available at a wide variety of price levels, with capabilities that will amaze. There is absolutely no reason to use manually updated spreadsheets to build your own donor database for tracking supporters, their gifts, and their attributes.

Further, online giving solutions like Snowball, Donately, and Salsa Labs can help you collect and process donations from any number of supporters with ease.

Train Your Team in Your Fundraising Strategy

Training your nonprofit team in your fundraising strategy is an important part of the fundraising process. In doing so, you’ll boost your staff and volunteers’ confidence in you by communicating your plan effectively. Then, each member will care about your mission, see their own role in your success, and work to see it succeed.

Sharing your strategy shows every member of your team–from the CEO and the board of directors to the marketing interns–that fundraising is a priority within your organization. A plan means that you’re on a mission on the move, but it’s not likely to be an effective and actionable plan if every player doesn’t understand their part.

Luckily, there are a ton of free and low-cost nonprofit fundraising resources available to organizations like yours. If a member of your team is unsure how to begin the prospect research process, encourage them to take an online course on the topic. If your volunteers are lacking the skills required for successful donor outreach, be sure to equip them with the powerful educational resources they need.


Ready? Now get started!

You can do this… you have to do this! Building a fundraising strategy isn’t optional if you want to be more effective in your fundraising and the pursuit of your overarching cause. Your mission is too important not to plan for, and your staff and volunteers deserve the guidance that a carefully laid out plan will bring. After all, a strategic fundraising plan is a cost-effective, time-efficient way to raise money for your organization. It’s like our mothers told us: well started is well done–so get it done!

For more information on strategic fundraising and overall nonprofit operations, be sure to check out our other educational resources:

Find out how effective nonprofit training can help with building a fundraising strategy.

How to Successfully Onboard Event Staff and Volunteers

Event staff and volunteers are integral team members for organizations all around the world; they can even be the main workforce behind large events or programs. With such a crucial role to fill, it’s important to invest in setting up your event staff and volunteers for success. 

Getting these individuals up to speed quickly allows them to develop crucial skills and start fulfilling expectations much sooner than they would otherwise. With a complete onboarding experience, they’ll spend less time learning through trial and error and more time carrying out their duties.

At InitLive, we’ve worked with thousands of organizations to train and manage their event staff and volunteers. We’ve seen which tactics tend to work well and which tend to fall short of expectations when onboarding newcomers. Based on this experience, we will look into what steps are required to successfully onboard and train your event staff and volunteers. Here is a quick outline of what will be covered in this article: 

  1. Provide Sufficient Training.
  2. Lay Out Expectations Upfront.
  3. Share Access to Event Materials.
  4. Create a Direct Line of Communication.

Ready to learn more about successful onboarding? Let's jump in.

1. Provide Sufficient Training.

Volunteers need to be given training just like any employee would require. It’s important to ensure that every volunteer is set up for success from their first day to their last. There is nothing more frustrating to a volunteer than the feeling that their time is being wasted. Investing in training for all your new volunteers and training for existing volunteers who are being tasked to perform new duties is essential to successfully onboard your staff. 

A simple and effective way to provide training during the onboarding process is through online training. Online training offers the most accessible and convenient training experience. Going digital allows your volunteers to do their required training on their own schedule, whenever it’s most convenient. Most online training tools also offer you the ability to incorporate online assessments to ensure that every volunteer has obtained the information they need to succeed from the training courses. 

Training should line up directly with the roles and responsibilities that fall under their duties as well as any health and safety training that is required. Your training program should be ready to go before you even begin recruiting your volunteers. That way, they start training right away. 

2. Lay Out Expectations Upfront.

Nobody likes being blindsided with responsibilities or tasks they didn’t sign up for. In order to find the right volunteers for the right roles, you need to communicate what the expectations are for each of your volunteer roles. This will ensure that every volunteer who signs up to work will understand what they are committing to.

A volunteer role description should be as detailed as possible to ensure that no expectations are left out of the role or shift listing. Here is a quick list of things to consider adding to your event volunteer role descriptions: 

  • A simple but descriptive role title - You want your role titles to describe the role’s main duty or responsibility. For example, go with distinct titles such as Clean-Up Crew Member, Athlete Registration Clerk, or Refreshment Stand Clerk.
  • A list of tasks - Here you want to quickly outline the tasks and duties that will be performed in this role. This where you really need to set expectations and provide the volunteers with an idea of what they will be doing during their shifts. 
  • Skill requirements - List the skills required to perform each task for the role. For example, this could include ‘money handling’ or ‘food preparation.’ 
  • Certification qualifications - If the roles require specific certifications, you should state what they are. For example, list out details such as the need for a driver’s license, background check, or CPR training. 
  • Physical requirements - Some roles will require physical abilities, and that should be defined in your role description to ensure people aren’t injured on the job. This includes things like the ability to lift 50 pounds, walk 5K, or stand for 5 hours. 

The time investment required to create full role descriptions is well worth it as it will ensure that every one of your volunteers understands what they are responsible for on the big day. This role description can be reused over and over again if you host similar events where the scope of work doesn’t change. 

3. Share Access to Event Materials.

Next up is ensuring your volunteers and event staff are equipped with all the tools and information they need to do their best work on the event day. There is nothing worse than a lost-and-late group of volunteers right when they are needed the most. 

To avoid any confusion and reduce shift no-shows it is important to ensure every volunteer has quick and convenient access to their personal volunteer schedule and any additional material they may require.

Here is a list of materials volunteers require access to when they are working:

  • Their personal schedule with detailed shift information like location, time, and who their supervisor is 
  • Access to a venue map that clearly outlines the various volunteer shift locations to ensure they are able to find and start their shift easily  
  • Emergency plan documents to reference if needed 
  • An event itinerary to keep track of activities and aid people when required
  • Any other vital information like health and safety protocol documents

Providing access to material through an event volunteer mobile app offers a great solution for event producers and their volunteers. Mobile access to all these documents ensures that everyone has access to what they need without the risk of losing paper documents. 

Regardless of how you choose to equip your volunteer with these materials, what is important is that they are given everything they need to perform their duties while ensuring the event runs safely and smoothly. 

4. Create a Direct Line of Communication.

Communication is an absolutely vital part of onboarding and managing a team of event staff and volunteers. It is important to establish an open line of communication with volunteers from the day of sign-up to the work itself to the day after your event is over. In order to accomplish this, determine who is responsible for communicating with volunteers.

Consider assigning volunteer team supervisors who are responsible for managing and communicating directly with your team of volunteers. This ensures that volunteers understand who to contact with questions and who to expect a response from. By assigning a supervisor to a team of volunteers, it is less likely that any question is forgotten. 

As for keeping volunteers in the loop on any schedule updates or shift changes, consider investing in a volunteer management software that automatically communicates updates to volunteers who are affected by any changes to the schedule. This communication automation ensures no updates are left uncommunicated and everyone is always kept in the loop. 

Mobile communication tools like a volunteer management app also allow for quick direct communications during the event. This tool will allow volunteers to send chat communication directly to their supervisor when needed, ensuring no volunteer is left in the dark. 


Now it’s time to start implementing your event staff and volunteer onboarding strategy. No matter how large or small your event or program is, taking the time to implement the above recommendations will ensure that your team is set up for success and that everything runs smoothly.

This was a guest post contributed by Cassandra Smallman of InitLive.This guest post was contributed by Cassandra Smallman of InitLive.

Cassandra is a passionate content creator dedicated to fostering positive impact through thought leadership in both the Nonprofit sector and live events industry. You can find her work at www.initlive.com or on Linkedin and Twitter.

Preparing Your Board Members for Action at Your Nonprofit

When it comes to joining a nonprofit board, there’s usually a pretty steep learning curve. Every organization has its own quirks and operational processes, so even if a new board member has previous experience serving other nonprofits, they’ve never served your nonprofit.

Without guidance and ample training, new board members may struggle through the adjustment period, or worse, they may never find their footing and wind up leaving before the conclusion of their terms.

A new year gives you the opportunity to re-evaluate your board experience and ensure you’re taking every step necessary to set members up for success from the start. Whether your training is formal or more relaxed, it should provide everything new board members need to know to effectively serve your organization.

Comprehensive training sets a positive tone for a member’s term and enables them to become engaged in their work right away. Not to mention, this contributes significantly to your board’s professional development as a whole. It ensures everyone is on the same page so that members can collaborate toward achieving goals and making strategic progress rather than slow down organizational growth.

To help you start their terms off on the right foot and encourage continuous development, we’ll review a handful of training best practices that your nonprofit can easily implement, including:

  1. Review board member responsibilities.
  2. Share helpful documentation.
  3. Offer insightful training courses.

Your board members are the true changemakers at your organization. Ready to set them up for successful terms with exceptional training? Let’s dive in!

1. Review board member responsibilities.

You can’t expect board members to live up to expectations if they don’t even know what those expectations are. Starting preparation off on the right foot means thoroughly reviewing responsibilities, both for general board members and for specific leadership roles. Typically, this is done as part of the onboarding process, but you should also review duties on an annual basis with returning members.

According to Boardable’s guide to board member responsibilities, there are several core responsibilities that any nonprofit board member should fulfill. A few common duties include coming prepared to meetings, offering their skills to advance the organization’s mission, and recruiting standout members. While there are countless others, all responsibilities are typically divided into three categories across many nonprofit boards:

The core duties of nonprofit board members are care, loyalty, and obedience.

  1. Duty of Care: Members should be committed to fulfilling their roles and assisting the organization to the best of their abilities. In other words, they should actively participate, practice open communication, follow through on assignments, and support program initiatives.
  2. Duty of Loyalty: This responsibility means that all activities and decisions should be completed in the best interest of the organization, not the individual board member. Those who exemplify this duty fully embrace your mission.
  3. Duty of Obedience: While board members should do everything in their power to drive the organization’s mission forward, they still must follow your organization’s guidelines. These guidelines are found in your governance documents, and a board that strays from these rules can steer your organization in the wrong direction.

While each board member is expected to adhere to these duties, leadership holds a higher level of responsibility. For instance, on top of the core expectations listed above, the chairperson oversees board meetings, helps appoint committee members, and makes high-level strategic decisions with the board that align with the nonprofit’s mission. As another example, the secretary schedules meetings, records and distributes meeting minutes, and assures that all documents are filed and accessible.

In addition to these duties, members will have individual roles that depend on your organization’s unique needs. By clearly stating who’s responsible for what, each of your board members can take the steps necessary to lead your organization toward a sustainable future.

2. Share helpful documentation.

As part of the onboarding process, board leadership should provide sufficient resources to catch everyone up on the organization’s history, processes, and mission. Not to mention, sharing the proper resources can help more experienced members fulfill their tasks as well. 

When bringing on new board members, consider putting together a welcome packet complete with helpful documents. Documents are always part of an effective training experience, and a welcome packet will ensure they receive these in an organized fashion that doesn’t overwhelm them.

According to this guide to welcoming new board members, there are several documents you should share during onboarding, including:

These are key elements to include in your welcome packets for nonprofit board members.

  • History one-pager: This covers your organization’s history and mission in-depth. It provides context and helps them fully understand your work.
  • Roles and responsibilities: This reviews what duties are assigned to which roles. Including this enables members to quickly revisit expectations at any point.
  • Organization bylaws: A copy of your bylaws helps members understand the decision-making hierarchy and what they can (and can’t) do.
  • Financial data: Include financial data such as your annual budget and any recent financial audit results. Knowing where your organization stands financially can inform members’ decisions and is a crucial responsibility of the board.
  • List of current leadership and board members: This page should include a brief bio, a photo, and contact information for leadership and current board members.
  • A calendar: This lists any upcoming board meetings and events. Sharing this upfront allows members to mark their calendars and adjust their schedules accordingly.
  • A list of committees and their charges: This names each committee and its correlated responsibilities. Be sure to also include committee members’ names.

Pro tip: A board portal with document sharing capabilities will allow you to consolidate all essential documents into one convenient location. That way, your team doesn’t have to deal with reams of paper that just take up space or keep track of multiple email attachments.

3. Offer insightful training courses.

One of the best parts of nonprofit boards is inclusivity. Anyone can volunteer to serve so long as they have a passion for the cause, but this doesn’t mean these individuals always have the skills to fulfill expectations. To be resilient and effective leaders, board members must invest time in improving their abilities and growing their knowledge of effective governance. That’s where training courses come in.

Training courses—particularly those that are online—are a convenient way for new members to get up and running and for veteran members to continue advancing their skills. 

As covered in DonorSearch’s virtual training resources guide, virtual training courses were popular long before the shift to working from home due to their many advantages. While in-person training is certainly engaging, it can be extremely inconvenient and inaccessible. Compared to face-to-face training, online courses tend to be low-cost or free, so you don’t have to worry about purchasing physical resources either.

Professionally-developed online courses tend to be high-quality and offer a high level of education and training, which is a vital part of any board’s development. Making use of these courses can help members become true assets to your mission. Not to mention, offering such opportunities can contribute tremendously to board engagement.

Whether board members need help mastering governance practices or your executive director wants to strengthen teamwork, there are plenty of training opportunities available.

For inspiration, check out this Nonprofit.Courses page that presents specific content aimed at training board members at any nonprofit, from grassroots organizations to international NGOs. These courses are created by professionals in the field, which means you can easily provide an enriching experience with specialized expertise.


Your nonprofit expects so much from its board members. In turn, you need to thoughtfully prepare them for the hard work ahead of them, and that starts the moment they walk into the boardroom for the first time. Investing time and resources into training your board members is a key component of growth.

Whether your board is full of returning members or brand new faces, you’re never past the need for training. By sufficiently preparing these individuals, you’ll empower board members to effectively complete their tasks and overcome any obstacles thrown their way. In turn, they’ll be well-equipped to serve as committed ambassadors and advocate for your mission for years to come.

This was a guest post contributed by Boardable.This was a guest post contributed by Jebb Banner of Boardable.

Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Donor Appreciation: 4 Effective Strategies for Nonprofits

When was the last time you received a really good “thank you” from someone? Did someone send you a note thanking you for a birthday gift? Did a family member thank you for a favor you did for them? Chances are, if the appreciation note came as a letter, you didn’t immediately throw it away. And if it came in person, you may have thought the words over during your next commute. 

The fact is that a note or token of genuine thank you sticks with us for a little while. You receive a warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach when you know that someone truly appreciates you. 

Nonprofits often don’t put enough stake and effort into their appreciation of supporters.  They frequently think a simple “thanks” will be enough. However, when you show real, genuine, heartfelt gratitude for your supporters, they remember it. 

Showing appreciation to your supporters is a crucial part of developing a sustainable system for your organization. That’s because it plays directly into your donor retention strategy. 

Retaining supporters is the best way to bring in consistent revenue, increase that revenue, and spend less on fundraising acquisition activities. On average, donor retention rates rest around 40% to 45%, but thousands of dollars more can be saved simply by increasing this by a few percentage points. Those percentage points become attainable when you work to build stronger relationships with your supporters, starting with (you guessed it) appreciation. 

In this guide, we’ll walk through a few of our favorite strategies that nonprofits can use to improve their appreciation programs and increase retention with supporters. Specifically, we’ll cover: 

  1. Calling your donors. 
  2. Creating a timeline specifically for first-time donors. 
  3. Focusing on the impact supporters have made. 
  4. Responding directly to supporters’ interests. 

Ready to jump into appreciation strategies? Let’s get started. 

1. Call Your Donors

When a donor gives online to a nonprofit, they expect a confirmation email. It’s become common practice for them to receive a combined confirmation and appreciation email in response to their contribution. If this constitutes the extent of your appreciation efforts, you’re likely leaving donors feeling cold. 

Ideally, your organization should be reaching for the stars to stand out from the crowd. That’s what helps build relationships and keeps them coming back. Therefore, it’s necessary to find a new and more personal way to communicate your appreciation. 

We recommend calling your donors. When nonprofits call their donors within at least 90 days of their contribution to say “thank you,” first-time donors are more likely to give again, to give sooner, and to contribute more to the organization. 

This graph displays the impact of phone calls on donor retention rates.

The graph above shows the immense impact that a phone call can make on the likelihood of a donor giving a second time. No phone calls lead to about 33% of donors giving a second time, one call results in 41% of donors giving again, and more than one call results in 58% retained supporters. 

When you make these calls, they shouldn’t be completely aimless or unscripted, although they also shouldn’t be unfriendly or rigid. We recommend taking the following steps to prepare for these calls, while also ensuring they’re as natural as possible: 

  • Check out the donor’s information in your donor database. Take note of how much they contributed, how long ago, what campaign it was for, and other important details that can help lead to a more personalized conversation. This is one reason why it’s so helpful to have access to your database as a part of a fundraising mobile app. You can do your research from the same device you call with!
  • Plan out what you’ll say ahead of time. Planning conversations beforehand can help them be more straightforward and minimize rambling. The main purpose of the call should be appreciation, but donors do frequently want a “next step” as well. However, make sure this “next step” isn’t to donate again. For example, if you send a welcome packet after a first donation, ask donors if they’ve received it or if they have any questions for you. If they haven’t read it, then ask them to take a look so they can learn more about your mission. 

As our world has become more and more digitally minded, we have inadvertently taken the personalization out of many of our communication strategies. How connected do you feel reading an email or a social media post versus actually talking to someone on the phone? Picking up the phone or scheduling a time to connect via Zoom is a way to add that personal touch back into interactions. 

These personal connections are what drive supporters and help you develop relationships with them. The next step you should add into your organization’s strategy is ensuring these relationships are cultivated early, as soon as you know someone has taken interest in your organization. 

2. Create a New Donor Timeline

Not all donors should be treated the exact same way. Everyone is unique and, therefore, different appreciation strategies will resonate more effectively with different groups of supporters. That’s why nonprofits group supporters into carefully selected segments for marketing and communications. 

One of the most important segments you can create for your donor appreciation strategy is new supporters. These are the people with whom you have an early opportunity to establish a relationship. More importantly, you may not know much about them, and they may not know much about you yet.

New supporters are also those who have the ability to give a “golden donation,” or the second gift that any individual gives to an organization. The majority of donors will only give a single donation to nonprofits. However, repeat donors (those who give the “golden donation”) are much more likely to continue contributing in the future. You can see the comparison of the new versus repeat donor retention rate below:

These graphs display the difference between first-time donor retention rates and repeat donor retention rates.

That’s why after you’ve acquired a new donor, it’s important to establish a relationship so that they’re more likely to contribute that second “golden donation” and continue giving into the future. 

After you’ve created a new donor segment in your system, you should create a plan that’s devised specifically for them. 

This timeline will give you ample opportunity to show your appreciation by email, phone, and mail. You can send information for the supporter to learn more about the mission, collect feedback, and invite them to get more involved. Then, you can ask for the second gift. Below is an example of a well-planned new donor timeline for nonprofits: 

Take a look at a well-planned donor cultivation timeline.

After you’ve acquired your second donation, that doesn’t mean your job is over. You’ll still need to put in the effort and work to continue stewarding your supporters and encouraging them to get more involved with your mission. However, having that strategy in place for the first few months of your new relationships ensures they’re off to a good start. 

3. Focus on Impact

Donors don’t give to organizations; they give to missions. They’re not contributing to your organization just to help you out, but because they want their funds to go toward a good cause and you can help get it there. 

Emphasizing the impact that donors have on your mission brings the note of appreciation back to the roots of the cause: your mission. 

Your mission is the common goal that aligns both you and your supporters, which is why it’s such a great emphasis for effective appreciation strategies. 

Bloomerang’s nonprofit CRM guide explains that all of the information you’ll need to put together an impact statement for your supporters lies in your donor database. This is where you can find detailed information about the amount that a donor gave and the campaign to which they gave it. From there, you can see the information about what the campaign achieved, and send that information to your donors. 

In the donor thank you templates found from this resource, you can see that almost every appreciation letter has some variation of an impact statement. For example, the major donor appreciation letter includes this paragraph: 

Your gift will provide [describe the actions you’ve taken and the impact the gift has made. Use specific details that correlate with the exact gift amount, like “Your gift has provided X amount of books for kids with low access to education.”] 

Get as specific as possible with these impact statements. Remember the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from a successful thank you that we talked about earlier? Generally, this statement is what accentuates this feeling. It also creates a level of transparency and trust between your organization and the donor, meaning they’re more likely to trust you with their money again in the future. 

4. Respond to Donors’ Interests

When you read up on various donor appreciation ideas, you’ll likely get a list of potential activities and actions that your organization can take in order to say “thank you.” However, you shouldn’t just pick the most creative idea you find (or worse, blindly point to pick one). Rather, you should make sure the idea is well-adept to suit your specific donors. 

Consider your audience. If it helps, create an average persona (or several for each campaign). These personas will likely look drastically between organizations. For one, it might be a 35-year-old woman with children attending the local school. For another, it might be an elderly man dedicated to preserving the history of the town. Either way, knowing these traits will help you choose and design the best appreciation ideas to suit their interests. 

For example, Eleven Fifty Seven’s list of appreciation ideas includes the following: 

  • Host a Tour (Or Virtual Tour). Giving donors the opportunity to see your mission in action will have an enormous impact on their likelihood to give again. Utilize live-streaming on social media or tools like Zoom to make it easy, accessible, and safe.
  • Texting your supporters to say thank you. Text messages have an average open rate of about 98%, much higher than that of email. However, not everyone will appreciate having messages sent in this manner. Generally, your younger, more technologically adept audience will be more accepting of this type of appreciation message than other segments. 
  • Spotlighting donors on social media. Carefully consider which social media platform you want to use to get the most attention from your audience. For example, if you’re trying to reach people ages 30 to 49, you might consider using Facebook because 77% of this age group is on that platform. However, if you want to use Instagram, you’ll want to tailor your message for those ages 18 to 29 as 67% of that age group uses that platform. 

Communicating appreciation for your donors is never a random process. It’s a very important part of your organization’s strategic plan and should be dealt with methodically. Carefully consider each element of the process from the platform, the message, the images, and the other elements you use to craft your note. 


Showing appreciation for your donors is more than simply saying a quick, “thank you.” Rather, it’s an opportunity to enhance relationships, build trust, and help supporters dive deeper into your mission. That’s why it’s so crucial to create a concrete strategy for handling donor appreciation at your organization. 

These four tips are by no means the only ways that you can show your appreciation. However, if you’re just getting started building your strategy, they are a great place to start. Good luck!

This was a guest post contributed by Jay Love of Bloomerang.

This was a guest post contributed by Jay Love of Bloomerang.He has served this sector for 33 years and is considered the most well-known senior statesman whose advice is sought constantly.

Prior to Bloomerang, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of eTapestry for 11 years, which at the time was the leading SaaS technology company serving the charity sector. Jay and his team grew the company to more than 10,000 nonprofit clients, charting a decade of record growth.

4 Tried-and-True Tips for Effective Direct Mail Solicitation

Marketing and solicitation for nonprofits can often seem irrelevant compared to the overall mission you’re pursuing, but it is actually an immensely important task for any charitable organization. Most nonprofits rely on donors’ contributions to bankroll the organization’s efforts, and the only way to get these donations is through effective marketing and donor outreach. One of the most successful methods for nonprofits being direct mail. 

Direct mail is a transformative method of fundraising for nonprofits who want to directly pursue their supporters. In addition, utilizing direct mail is a non-invasive way to call on donors and prospects to support your nonprofit. Direct mail appeals are the backbone of fundraising for most nonprofits in the U.S., and these efforts provide a solid structure of communication between donors and the organizations they support. 

Though these may sound simple, sending effective appeals can be a difficult task. That’s why we’re going to discuss a few tried and true tips that will help set your campaign apart from the others. Consider these best practices for effective direct mail fundraising appeals:

  1. Leverage strategic audience segmentation
  2. Keep your volunteers in the loop
  3. Personalize your direct mail appeals
  4. Work with a direct mail agency

Ready to learn how you can transform your direct mail campaign? Let’s get going!

1. Leverage strategic audience segmentation

One of the first ways to build an effective direct mail campaign is to maintain a strong relationship with your audience through one simple method: segmentation. Segmentation is a method of marketing that encapsulates categorizing your audience into groups of similar interests in order to further personalize your campaign. 

Now, if you’re wondering how to segment your own audience, here are four easy steps to get started:

  • Utilize donor management software. The first thing you can do to segment your direct mail audience is to utilize donor management software. A nonprofit CRM, or constituent relationship management system, allows you to increase the personalized aspects of your letters and organizes your donors based on their demographics, donation history, location, or other relevant characteristics. 
  • Categorize your audience. Now that you have a CRM, you can effectively segment your audience. When doing this, be sure that you are categorizing your audience into like-minded groups. Thus, begin finding commonalities between your audience members. For example, if you decide to segment mature donors, you could group together older generations in order to push a more targeted message to your audience.
  • Nail your fundraising asks. The most important component of a great question is the language you use to make the ask. When crafting your donation appeal, focus on the donor instead of the organization. While this may seem counterintuitive at first, this makes the donor feel as if they are the hero in your organization’s story. Your donor’s contributions count, so make sure they feel as though they are truly making a difference no matter how big or small their donation is. 
  • Collect response data. Though nailing a great ask may seem easy enough, you also have to make sure that your specific appeal aligns with your donor’s ideals and abilities to give. In order to do so, you must complete the final step: donor data collection. If you have categorized your donor’s correctly, they should respond well to your ask. However, it is also important to ensure that they actually resonated with your appeal and went through with the donation.

Then, after walking through each of these steps, you can continue to adjust and revise the process, ultimately leading to extremely targeted donation appeals. As you know, the more specific an appeal is to its recipient, the more likely they are to make a donation.

2. Keep your volunteers in the loop

Your volunteers are key supporters of your mission, and as such, you should include them in things like your mailing list or other outreach efforts. This way, you can keep them in the loop about how impactful their support is—whether they’re making financial contributions, in-kind gifts, or volunteering their precious time. 

Furthermore, including follow-ups after a particular event or volunteer task is a great way to keep these individuals in the loop and increase supporter retention. After all, you want these dedicated supporters to keep coming back to help pursue your mission time and time again.

Another way to increase retention is by diversifying your volunteering options. Volunteers are more likely to donate to your cause than non-volunteers since they already care about your cause. With this in mind, if you increase your volunteer outreach by incorporating direct mailings, you have a higher likelihood of the recipient volunteering, which ultimately leads to an increased chance of donation. 

3. Personalize your direct mail appeals

Personalization is another powerful fundraising strategy that can bring any direct mail appeal to the next level. Specifically, these efforts ensure that the appeal an individual receives is unique to that person and different than every other mailing you sent out.

Some simple ways to personalize your fundraising appeals include:

  • Addressing your recipients by their preferred name
  • Acknowledging previous donations they have made
  • Wishing them a happy birthday 

In doing this, you show the donor that you recognize their efforts to be a part of your cause and you care about them as an individual. 

One way to create an even more personal and engaging ask is by incorporating storytelling strategies into your fundraising campaign. There are many ways to tell a story that effectively appeals to your audience, but one way to do so is simply by sharing the path of your donor’s contributions. For example, if a supporter gave $100 to help fund an upcoming youth outreach initiative, you can follow up on that gift with specific details about the new program. Even better, you can tell the donor a real story about a child who was impacted by their gift! 

4. Work with a direct mail agency

Though these previous tips can help you have a successful campaign, you don’t have to jump into the deep end alone. There are many great direct mail platforms and agencies that have tons of experience with organizations big and small. These fundraising experts can help you tackle everything discussed in this article, and more! 

And while the benefits can be significant, it’s important to recognize that these agencies are not one size fits all. For example, some organizations may choose to conduct their direct mail campaigns in-house and find great success on their own. On the other hand, some organizations find that working with a dedicated direct mail platform is essential to the success of their campaign. 

When selecting an agency, make sure that they provide all the tools that your organization needs, and will merge well with your core values and principles. If you find an agency that suits your needs, don’t hesitate to leverage their resources and experience. It may very well take your organization (and its fundraising efforts) to new heights!


All in all, direct mail is a useful tool to implement within your marketing strategy that can transform your organization. When you integrate this powerful channel alongside the tips and tricks mentioned in this article, you get to reap benefits such as increased donations, powerful storytelling opportunities, and increased donor retention. Good luck!

This was a guest post contributed by Grant at GivingMail.

Grant Cobb is a fundraising specialist with over 6 years of experience in the nonprofit space. Currently the head of marketing and analytics at GivingMail, he is a huge proponent of data-driven decision making and the push to bring high-level analytics and fundraising to all.