As the economy continues to rebound from the recession, foundations, the government, and corporate funders are still dealing with uncertainty regarding how much they can invest philanthropically. However, wealthy individuals have the resources and freedom to give more. According to Giving USA 2014, individual giving represents 73% of the growth in total giving from 2011 to 2013.

These “major donors” are different for every nonprofit—at a small service organization, it could be anyone who gives more than $500. At a large national group, it might be folks who can give more than $10,000. However you define it, any good development strategy will include major donor cultivation.

Whether you are new to the nonprofit game or just haven’t worked with a major donor before, here are a few tips for what to do in your first dealings with a new prospect.


1. Get a Good Introduction

If you work in nonprofits, someone in your life has surely suggested that you meet with Bill Gates or Oprah to ask for a donation. That would be great—if you had a way to get an introduction to them.

In reality, your best prospects already have a connection to your organization in some way. They might be personal or professional contacts of your board members, former volunteers, or in some way connected to a business that has supported you in the past. Such a connection to your organization will make it easier to get in front of these donors—and ensure they’re in a more receptive mood when you do.


2. Know Your Prospect

Once you get the introduction, make sure you get on Google and do your research. If your prospect doesn’t have a big footprint on the internet, go back to the person who introduced you and ask him or her about the donor.

You’ll definitely want to learn more about the donor’s previous philanthropic giving and net worth, but anything that could help you in a conversation is worth filing away. That could be information about the donor’s kids, if he or she has any hobbies, or what’s happening in his or her company or industry.

Then, think of the ways that you can use these possible conversation topics into a way to hook the donor on your mission.

For instance, I once had a donor who was really into racing cars (a thing I know absolutely nothing about). I asked him how he got into it, and it turns out that his favorite uncle was a mechanic. He spent his summers with his uncle tinkering with cars. At the time, I was working for an organization that offered job skills training and summer programs to at-risk kids—so I was able to connect his experience with learning a vocational skill and having an enriching environment out of school to the experience of our clients, who otherwise seemed very different. He was able to see our mission in a new light and became a long-term donor.


3. Know What You Want

Before any meeting, realize this: No first meeting with a donor will result in a significant donation. Major donor cultivation is a long-term strategy.

Knowing that, what do you want to happen in this first meeting? If it’s a brand new prospect, you might simply want to end the conversation confident that you’ll be granted a second meeting. If it’s a former volunteer, you may want to get him or her on an event committee or arrange an agreement that he or she will introduce you to another prospect.

But before you go into your meeting, you should also know what your long-term goal is. Figure out if you think this is going to result in a $10,000 donation or $100,000 donation. This will help you determine how you want to approach the donor and establishes some reasonable expectations with your boss or board of directors.


4. Bring a Buddy

Unless the donor specifically says that he or she only wants to meet with one person, always come with to the first meeting at least two people (but no more than three).

For example, if a board member introduced you to this prospect, ask the board member to join you. That will help everyone feel a bit more comfortable and allow you to start with a casual conversation. Or, if the donor is interested in a particular initiative, bring the manager of that project along to explain it in more detail.

As you get to know donors, you want to figure out what they are interested in and what kind of personality they have. If you go into meetings solo, you risk turning the donor off if the two of you aren’t suited to connect on a personal level. If you bring a colleague along, there’s a better chance that the donor will have a personal connection with one of you. It’s also good to have multiple perspectives in the meeting to create the best strategy for the donor.


5. Follow Up

The only hard-and-fast rule I have for major donors is that they get a thank you email from you within 24 hours of your meeting with them.

Start by thanking them for their time, of course. Then, if they had lingering questions for you after the meeting, provide the answer or a timeline for you to get those answers in the note. Make specific references to the conversation you had during the meeting; let them know that you were paying attention and that you cared about what they had to say. Finally, set yourself up for a second meeting.


Unlike with foundations, the government, or corporations, major donors offer infinite possibilities for funding—but they take a lot of time and effort to cultivate effectively. Make sure that you start off the relationship right using the tips above. You’ll see that working with major donors will help your organization—and can even be kind of fun.


Photo of people meeting courtesy of Shutterstock.