See how 152+ nonprofits are responding to the COVID-19 crisis Explore the Data & See Examples »

4 Effective Ways to Uncover (and Engage!) More Major Donors

Published by Jeff Giannotto

Your donors know as well as you do that donations—major donations in particular—are essential to help your organization expand and continue its good work. Regardless of what constitutes a major gift at your organization, your major donors allow your organization to thrive. Even though they make up less than 1% of all donations, major donors account for more than 70% of all donation revenue. Impressive, right? 

Attracting and maintaining the attention of these high-value donors isn’t easy, though. Instead of using single shot strategies (like hosting an event or sending an email blast), you need to take a more sustainable approach, one that prioritizes the donor experience and drives long-term results. This is something we call engagement fundraising, and it can open the door to more authentic, meaningful, and trusting relationships.

What an effective major donor strategy boils down to is instilling a culture of philanthropy throughout your organization. Take the time to make sure your prospects become your nonprofit’s partners, not targets. Remember that your major donor prospects are real human beings with real feelings and connections to your cause. Go into it with a donor-first mindset, and you’ll find that donors are much more engaged and committed to your organization.

To help you get started, the MarketSmart team has compiled its top actionable tips for locating and fully engaging major donors:

  1. Create insightful donor surveys.
  2. Look into actionable intelligence data.
  3. Maintain an open line of communication.
  4. Focus on stewarding donors.

Major donors aren’t something your organization should ever overlook. They can boost your funds and help you reach your full potential, but only if you make those major donors feel like a valued and respected part of your organization.

Ready to create valuable relationships with your major donors? Let’s dive deeper into these engagement tips.

1. Create insightful donor surveys.

Most organizations are still using traditional, expensive, and time-consuming strategies to capture information about major donors and prospects. In an effort to form relationships, a lot of organizations rely on cold calling and emailing. This might work with some prospects, but it doesn’t produce the sustainable results and relationships organizations need

To create value for donors, you’ll first need to create well-designed donor surveys, capturing valuable information on each prospect. After all, the best way to learn about donors is to simply ask.

Well-designed surveys enable organizations to better understand the ‘why’ behind their donors’ support. They invite prospects to reach out and share their needs, wants, interests, and desires, so organizations can focus on creating the best possible major donor experience. Above all else, surveys give prospects a way to engage with your nonprofit on their own terms. Collect this valuable data by asking prospects questions centered around the following:

  • What they’re passionate about;
  • Why they care about your cause;
  • What other organizations they support;
  • Which programs they care about;
  • How they prefer giving to your organization; and
  • How they spend their free time

This self-reported data (known as verbatims) enables nonprofits to drive value for their donors. However, to drive this value, you can’t just collect data and store it away; you have to actually do something with it. The information you gather through surveys should be used to better understand who your donors are. Then, determine if these individuals are ready to be contacted and personalize your outreach using their unique verbatims.

Even though surveys consistently gather high-value data, they are severely underused. In fact, only 21% of organizations reported using surveys to capture valuable information from donors. Instead, they’re sticking to pre-existing staff knowledge, limiting their major donor identification capabilities. If you haven’t surveyed your donors yet, now might be the time! In no time, you’ll boost engagement and may uncover passionate major donors who were right there all along.

2. Look into actionable intelligence data.

Verbatims can be incredibly helpful, but there’s a slight problem with them: what donors say isn’t always true. For instance, a prospect may say they would never make a major gift. Then, several years down the line, they actually do end up making a major donation. Either they chose to keep that information to themself or they simply didn’t predict that they’d be able to make such a substantial contribution. That’s where intelligence data can help.

A donor’s digital body language can help you capture the rest of the story. Tracking digital engagement is a powerful form of donor discovery, making it a vital part of your online fundraising strategy. It helps nonprofits of all sizes locate major gift prospects by analyzing what information they’re most interested in on your website. Here are just a handful of online engagement points you should be tracking:

  • What pages prospects visit;
  • Which emails they’ve opened;
  • What resources they’ve downloaded;
  • Which videos they’ve watched;
  • How long they stay on your website; and
  • How frequently they visit your website.

Monitoring this data allows you to create instant value for donors and can help you make the right appeal to the right prospect at the right time. However, this method is overlooked and underused just like surveys, with only 28% of organizations having reported tracking digital engagement. 

Identify qualified leads by putting a plan in place for tracking this information. You’ll be able to develop specific donor personas and create highly engaging messages that appeal to your passionate and wealthy donors. You can use this data to create valuable content for donors, too. Use your donors’ clicks to help serve up highly relevant online content that appeals to their unique interests. They’ll relate more to your cause and will feel much more compelled to get involved.

3. Maintain an open line of communication.

Organizations—nonprofits especially—underestimate the importance of listening to their supporters. They get into the habit of talking at them instead of to them, but listening to their responses is a vital part of any dialogue. You can’t build long-term, trusting relationships without authentic communication, and you can’t raise funds (and fulfill your mission) without those long-term, mutually beneficial, and trusting relationships.

For donors to want to interact with you, they first have to trust you. As a start, you should make sure any and all interactions are wanted. Then, to initiate an authentic conversation, combine that individual’s verbatims with their online behavioral data to create powerful, individualized outreach. When crafting a message, keep these two important pieces of information in mind:

  • Communication preferences. If you don’t consider how donors want to be contacted, they’ll assume you’re doing what’s most convenient for you. Then, they won’t put in any more effort than they think you did.
  • What motivates them to give. Each major donor has a different connection to your cause. Whether it’s a personal relationship or an emotional link to your mission, make sure to leverage their connection to evoke emotion and trigger a response.

Remember, the easiest and most effective means of collecting donors’ preferences and motivations are surveys! They’re an effective means of prospect research (explore more ideas for this here), and using this information enables you to craft the most effective communication possible.

Automate your communication.

Imagine having to individually craft hundreds (maybe even thousands) of these ultra-personalized emails to each of your major donor prospects. Seems impossible, right? Well, when you’re creating those messages by hand, it certainly is daunting. However, when you automate your outreach, you can streamline your communications, save your staff a lot of time, and cut back on costs.

Automated communications don’t have to be impersonal. In fact, today’s technology can create highly-relevant messages based on the verbatims and the digital body language you’ve gathered. The right messages keep your leads warm while you engage with those who want to meet right now.

In any case, communication should be respectful, authentic, and (most importantly!) wanted—no exceptions. Forcing conversation doesn’t do your nonprofit any favors. In fact, it actually works against you by driving major donor prospects away. 

4. Focus on stewarding donors.

It’s not enough to create subpar appeals and call it a day. You need to get to know donors on a deeper level if you truly want to cultivate loyal relationships with them. Otherwise, if they feel unappreciated, they may choose to make a major impact through a different organization. 

There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution for stewardship, but there are a few common best practices to motivate major donors to give. While it differs from organization to organization, the stewardship process typically looks a little something like this:

  1. The donor gives to your organization.
  2. Immediately thank the donor for their generous contribution.
  3. Take the time to learn their motivations and expectations for their gift.
  4. Report back to the donor on the impact of their gift.
  5. Begin the cultivation process to retain their support.

While the above process is boiled down to the essentials, it should give you a good starting point for developing your own stewardship strategy. Go into it with a donor-first mindset, and you’re sure to capture prospects’ attention.

Cultivate Relationships

So you’ve successfully stewarded a new donor. Great! Now it’s time to focus on retaining their support. After all, generating leads can all be for naught if you don’t plan on cultivating them. With nearly 70% of new donors only giving once and then never giving again, a dedicated focus on cultivation in your retention strategy is more important than ever, according to Bloomerang’s donor retention guide.

To help, here are a few of our tips for engaging donors and encouraging them to stick around:

  • Spend time with them one-on-one. At the very least, line up phone calls, but for the best results, you’ll want this meeting to be face-to-face. No amount of email communication can replace the authenticity of a face-to-face relationship. 
  • Ask them for feedback. Give donors an outlet for sharing their voice with engaging surveys. Surveys invite donors to reach out and give constructive feedback on your programs and future plans. Implement their suggestions to show them you’re listening and care about their opinions. After all, they are the ones funding your critical projects and programs. 
  • Invite them to share their stories. Express your appreciation for donors by showcasing highly-involved major donors on your organization’s site and social media. Not only is this recognition rewarding for your existing major donors, but it might incentivize others to step up their involvement and take that next step to become major donors themselves.

As always, make sure to send surveys to gather this information! Surveys play a huge part in developing relationships with major donors. They allow you to pinpoint their expectations, learn their motivations for giving, and much more. By interacting with donors and getting to know them on a more personal level, you’ll know exactly when to reach out, how to tailor your messages, and how to fully engage them. 

Cultivating relationships may seem difficult, but all donors truly want is to feel appreciated and part of an important cause. Maintaining relationships with donors may be time-consuming, but it’s certainly worth it.


Major gift fundraising doesn’t have to be difficult. Start by creating a donor-centric mindset where you focus on building deeper relationships with major donors. Take the time to get to know them, and they’ll be much more committed to supporting your cause.

About the author:

Jeff Giannotto

Jeff Giannotto