Building Relationships With Major Donors: 5 Best Practices

Different nonprofits have all sorts of fundraising strategies that they use to earn the revenue necessary to operate the organization. Large nonprofits can invest in enterprise-level solutions, such as DRTV, while small nonprofits may get creative with their limited resources by hosting accessible crowdfunding campaigns. However, there are a few fundraising strategies that nearly every nonprofit can benefit from, especially when it comes to cultivating major donors.

Contributions from a few major donors often make up the bulk of a nonprofit’s fundraising revenue. While relying on a handful of individuals to keep your organization running might sound like a precarious situation, if you build strong relationships with your major donors, they can be one of your most reliable, sustainable revenue sources.

Forming relationships with major donors does have some degree of organic development based on personal connections. However, you can take targeted actions to cultivate these relationships, leading to improved fundraising. Here are five ways your nonprofit can build connections with major donors:

  1. Define your major gifts process.
  2. Send targeted messages.
  3. Offer multiple engagement opportunities.
  4. Keep in touch after your initial ask.
  5. Be open to multiple kinds of support.

Following best practices like these can help you systematically approach your major donors. However, be sure to always keep in mind that your major donors are people and not money dispensers. Strategies like these are meant to facilitate natural relationship building, so your nonprofit can develop meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships that will lead to long-lasting support. Let’s get started.

1. Define your major gifts process.

As with any fundraising initiative, your team will need to stay organized when cultivating major donor relationships. Keep track of each relationship’s progress as your nonprofit grows and attracts more donors. By tracking each interaction, you’ll be able to collect and document key information about your donors and avoid mistakes such as confusing donors’ names in conversation or making major solicitations too early in the relationship.

CharityEngine’s guide to nonprofit CRMs recommends looking for a platform that allows you to track each step of the major giving process, including:

This graphic outlines the four steps of the major giving process.

  1. Engagement begins. Few supporters will make a major donation at the very start of their engagement. During these initial interactions, major donors will likely start as moderate supporters.
  2. Prospect research. Use prospect research tools to learn more about your donors and discover if any of them have the potential to become major donors. Your CRM should either come with prospect research tools or integrate with third-party databases to help your nonprofit gain supplemental donor information.
  3. Stewardship. After you’ve identified your prospects, you’ll begin cultivating a relationship through a variety of interactions. Be sure to make note of these in each of your donor profiles to help inform your next course of action in the donor journey.
  4. The gift. Make note of each gift in your donor profiles. Thank them and use prior information to continue building the relationship and set your nonprofit up for receiving future gifts after additional stewardship.

These steps provide a general outline for the major gift process that can help you monitor how close each donor is to making a gift. By tracking individual interactions and your donors’ responses, you’ll be able to determine what actions your team should take to move them along to the next phase.

2. Send targeted messages.

Your nonprofit likely sends out automated messages to your donors, tailoring each one with personalized information like the supporters’ names and other specific details. While this approach can work for your average donors, you’ll want to avoid sending pre-written, generic messages to your major donors.

You should consistently stay in touch with your major donor prospects with personalized correspondences to keep up a personal relationship. As part of this communication, consider turning off your regular donor communication emails for them, ensuring you don’t inadvertently send them a routine request for a donation when you’re in the middle of courting a major gift.

Instead, write individualized messages sharing information about your nonprofit that is targeted to their interests. This can include impact reports, personal invitations to events, and especially stories about your nonprofit’s success. Getting Attention’s guide to nonprofit storytelling offers some key advice on how to construct an engaging story:

  • Know your story’s objective. You shouldn’t be telling a story just for the sake of doing so. Instead, each of your stories should be tied to a specific objective. Ask what you want your major donors to do or think after reading your stories. For example, you may want to inspire them to think more deeply about the impact of making a donation in the days leading up to your major gift request, or, when the relationship is in the beginning stages, you may want to focus on cultivating initial interest.

 

  • Inspire empathy. Donors give because they feel a personal connection to your nonprofit. Stories that emotionally move your supporters can lay the foundation for this deeper connection, which you can then build on through additional interactions. Plus, as you continue to communicate with your major donors, you’ll want to share new information with them, and your nonprofit is likely to always have new stories based on your beneficiaries, volunteers, staff, and other members of your organization.

 

  • Use visuals. Visual elements draw your supporters’ attention, help them better envision your nonprofit’s impact, and can evoke an emotional response to your mission. Choose visuals that help support your story, such as photographs of the people your story is about or graphics that help supporters visualize key statistics related to your cause.

As you gather more information about your major donors, you’ll be better able to tailor your stories and messages to their specific interests. For example, in your first interactions with these supporters, you may base messages and conversations on the initiatives they’ve supported in the past. But as you learn more about their motivations, you can provide more detailed messages targeted for their goals and personal investment in your nonprofit.

3. Offer multiple engagement opportunities.

Your relationships with major donors need to be built on more than just repeated asks for donations. In fact, only asking potential major donors for gifts is likely to result in your nonprofit losing prospective donors. Instead, your stewardship process should include extending invitations to your donors for a variety of engagement opportunities, such as:

  • Events. Nonprofit events can vary widely, so consider your major donors’ interests when inviting them to attend. For example, your more athletic donors may be interested in participating in a community 5K, while other donors may prefer an exclusive gala. Then, take note of which events your major donor prospects do attend in their donor profiles, so you can be sure to invite them to similar events in the future.

 

  • Advocacy campaigns. Advocacy campaigns allow your nonprofit to advance your mission and give all of your supporters a new way to get involved with your cause. For your major donors, advocacy campaigns provide an opportunity to get involved in supporting your nonprofit’s mission and impact in a new way.

 

  • Office tours. Giving your major donors a behind-the-scenes look at your nonprofit can help them feel a little more like VIPs. Get in touch with them to schedule an office tour and ask high-level staff members to meet with them on your set date.

 

  • Volunteer opportunities. Your major donors are invested in your nonprofit, and many of them might want to get involved with a more hands-on method of supporting your cause. Share volunteer opportunities with major donors, and work with them to find roles that suit their skills and interests.

Make note of each engagement opportunity your major donors participate in so you can continue presenting them with activities that will deepen their connection with your mission.

4. Keep in touch after your initial ask.

Developing meaningful relationships with donors takes time, and your nonprofit should continue to steward these relationships after your initial ask. If your donors say yes, you should continue building your relationship and restart their donor journey to lead them towards making another contribution.

After a donor’s first major gift, be sure to thank them profusely for their generosity. This can be conducted a number of ways, but at minimum, it should at least include several one-on-one conversations where you thank them directly for their contribution.

Ensure you never miss a follow-up appointment or message by using major gift tracking and donor management tools to schedule your continued interactions after your ask. Note if the ask was successful and reasons for why it was or was not. This will help your team create a unique strategy for approaching each major donor and will lead to future successful asks.

5. Be open to multiple kinds of support.

Over the course of your nonprofit’s relationship with your major donors, they may not always be able to make a major gift or offer the same level of support they had previously. In these situations, your nonprofit should be flexible and work with your donors to find a solution that works for their current financial situation.

Major donors can support your cause in a variety of ways outside of monetary donations. For example, during a capital campaign, a major donor may only be able to make a relatively modest contribution themselves, but they can still help your campaign by facilitating introductions to other donors who might be interested in your cause.

Support like this from major donors can help your nonprofit increase and diversify your revenue sources. Donors with business connections can put your nonprofit in conversation with corporations that have philanthropic missions that align with yours, potentially leading to a sponsorship or even establishing a corporate giving program for their employees.


Major donations keep your nonprofit running. Ensure that you are investing in these relationships to build mutually beneficial, fulfilling connections that will lead to continued support. Leverage your nonprofit’s software platforms to monitor your interactions and make data-driven decisions to continually move these relationships forward. Good luck!

This guest post was contributed by Philip Schmitz of CharityEngine.

Philip Schmitz is the CEO and founder of cloud-services leader BIS Global, creators of the CharityEngine fundraising & communications technology platform. Founded in 1999, Phil has managed the vision and strategy for BIS’s suite of integrated business applications & hosting tools used by more than 400 businesses & non-profits.