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The strategic purpose of major gifts is to activate generosity through personal, high-touch donor relationships. 

When to consider major gifts as a priority strategy: 

  • There is evidence of current donors with untapped major gift capacity and propensity
  • You have access to significant connectors
  • Specific program goals inspire transformational gifts
  • You are prepared to clearly demonstrate impact
  • You are prepared for a 6-8 month investment cycle

The major gift strategy is an excellent option for ESEs. Workforce development for individuals with barriers to employment is a highly compelling invitation to individuals who are looking for transformational impact from their gifts. It is also a strategy that can be done with a lean fundraising team. There is a high return on investment for a few hours of time per week as you will see below.

The best major gift fundraisers do three things really well. First, fundraisers authentically connect with donors through sharing and evoking stories. Second, great fundraisers submit to the process – they commit to the daily activities that, when executed over time, produce missional, generous relationships. The third strength of great fundraisers is that they spend time gaining clarity on their plan and direction forward through a portfolio. Each of these elements are covered in this overview.


Major gifts are generally classified as $10,000 and above (though the definition of a major gift varies based on the organization) and capable of moving forward projects, initiatives, and campaigns in transformational ways. 

Major gift threshold is the minimum gift amount you assign to your “major gift” category. This threshold should be set considering how many donors you have at different gift amount levels. Choose the category for major gifts that allows you to have personal relationships and execute moves management with each person giving at that level. 

Major Gift Officers are donor-facing fundraisers focused on the work of a major gift portfolio.

Major gift prospects are individuals with the respective wealth capacity and the demonstrated propensity to make a gift of $10,000+, or whatever amount is uniquely determined by the organization.

Capacity refers to an individual’s ability to make a major gift.

Propensity refers to an individual’s previously demonstrated giving. We’re looking for evidence that this individual has given a major gift in the past to some other organization, if not our own.

Moves management refers to activity related to moving donors forward through the stages of the giving cycle.

Portfolio management is the process through which a fundraiser moves an individual from prospect to donor. The process includes four primary stages of progression: qualification, cultivation, invitation, and stewardship. Each stage represents a series of actions with a specific and unique purpose. 

Donor invitations 

So often, major gift fundraising relies on a worthy mission statement to attract and retain donors. The mission statement alone only communicates what your organization exists to do. This statement can potentially activate a $50 gift, but will not activate a $50,000 gift. Instead, we must be clear with donors about what the bold and transformational impact of their gift will be. 

It will be essential to have strong invitations to generosity in your major gift work. Some call this a case for support. Critical components include: 

  • Problem Statement
  • Solution Statement
  • Impact Statement
  • Missional Goals

Please see the Overview Guide on Fundraising Messaging to support your work on this front.

Three postures

There are three possible postures between a major gift fundraiser and donor – and it’s important to accurately self-identify our natural tendencies.


The first posture is where the fundraiser is subservient to the donor. This is the Oliver Twist posture – “Please sir, may I have some more?” This is common, with about 65 percent of fundraisers naturally operating from this posture. In our culture, money equates to value, power, status, etc. It’s so easy, therefore, to treat the giving of money as an undeserved act. It feels like the donor is the powerful benefactor, and we’re the lowly beneficiaries. 

The subservient posture is generally rooted in one’s own relationship with money. For many of us, it’s easy to mistake money as a currency for worth. Those that have money are worthy and more valuable, while we are not. In the end, when we sit across the dinner table with a wealthy person, there is a dynamic occuring rooted in our own insecurities. 

For those of us that struggle with feeling subservient to our donors, we value ourselves too little and use money as a false currency.


The second posture is one where the fundraiser controls the donor. In this posture, the fundraiser’s revenue goals are most important, and donors are treated as assets to help exceed the goal. In this posture, the fundraiser is laser-focused on efficiency, persuasion, and closing the deal.

This posture too, can be very effective. Universities are well known for hiring fundraisers with this posture. And it works – many ambitious college campaigns have been achieved by fundraisers who control their donors. 

But like the first, the control posture has its limits. Hurried asks occur. More shallow, shorter-term relationships are formed. Donor fatigue can happen. And ultimately, less connection is made between the donor and the bigger story to which they are participating. 


The third posture we want to discuss is where a missional relationship is formed between the fundraiser and donor. This posture is both deeply rewarding personally and presents the opportunity for the greatest level of generosity.

In this posture, the fundraiser and donor develop a mutual relationship, formed by sharing and listening to one another’s stories. But it doesn’t end there – together, once personal connection and trust is formed, the fundraiser and donor go shoulder to shoulder and set their sights on making a missional impact on the world.

It is in this posture that the fundraiser becomes an agent of generosity, and not just a recipient or administrator of a charitable gift. The fundraiser and donor are on mission together, working to express their story in a generous, creative, and restorative way.

Our view of money, with this posture, is redemptive. Money is a currency, not of self worth, but of personal and cultural values. If we value the restoration of others, our money generously flows to restorative projects with joy.

It’s important to know that many donors do not want this type of missional relationship. And that’s okay – not everyone has the desire to partner with someone in this way. But it is important that we as fundraisers engage every donor relationship with the hope that a missional relationship is on the horizon.

Planning the strategy

Successful major gift fundraisers create clear, goal-oriented plans. A major gift plan consists of a prospecting schedule, gift table, ask schedule, prospect portfolio, and donor engagement plans for the top 25 donor prospects. Click here for a major gift portfolio template that includes these metrics.

A gift table is a simple way of planning for achieving a certain revenue goal. In the far left column, we have the needed number of gifts at a certain gift amount to achieve our revenue goal, which is in the column on the far right. 

In between, we see the number of prospects expected to achieve our gift goal and likewise, we see the number of asks we expect to make to secure our goal.


This gift table displays the number of gifts needed, the number of prospects we need to identify, the number of asks we anticipate making, and the expected gift revenue.

In this example, the number of prospects is set at a 4 to 1 ratio. For every gift, we have to identify 4 prospects. This ratio could go up or down depending on a variety of factors, but 4:1 isn’t too out of the ordinary assuming that our identified prospects are not cold.

The number of asks is based on a 66% success rate, or 2/3. Therefore if we need 10 gifts, we need to make 15 asks.  If you’re doing good relational work, you are not going to have that many rejected proposals. Still, it is better if we manage our expectations.

Prospect research

There are three primary strategies in major donor prospecting: Donor/customer base screenings, leveraging committed connectors, and lastly, hosting connector events to turn strangers into warm prospects. 

Current donor/customer base

Our current donor or customer base is an obvious starting place in our search for new major gift prospects. It’s important to note that 5-10 percent of an organization’s donor base will pass through the propensity/capacity lens. Many organizations pay to batch screen their donor base through a prospect research tool such as DonorSearch. Screening your donor base should be an ongoing effort. After an initial screening of your donor base, we recommend screening all first-time donors on a quarterly basis so as to not let anyone fall through the cracks. 


Cultivating relationships with a few select connectors is another source of prospects. For the purpose of prospecting, we’ll define a connector as an individual capable and willing to personally introduce to us 5 or more major gift prospects.

Current donors and board members make the best connectors. They trust you, they’re giving, and they want to help. 

Major gift fundraisers should maintain a close relationship with 2-3 connectors. Your ask should be explicit: will you introduce 3-5 prospective donors to me in the next 12 months? We’re looking for a specific commitment from our connectors. Their commitment to us equals that of a major donor and should be cultivated with the same level of priority.

Connector events

Lastly, connector events are a powerful prospecting tool in the back pocket of the major gift fundraiser. These are not fundraising events. The primary goal is to be introduced to 5 or more major gift prospects. Click here to view the connector event field guide.

Managing a major gift portfolio

A major gift portfolio is a list of donors that we’ve decided to intentionally qualify, cultivate, invite to give, and steward in a high-touch, personalized manner. The size of this list is going to vary depending on the organization, but our recommendation is 125 or fewer donors and prospects combined per full-time fundraiser. You can then use that as a point of reference for those of you whose major gift work is allocated at part-time.

But how do we plan our portfolio? How do we set realistic, achievable goals and expectations for what this list of donors and portfolio process will produce? We start by understanding the elements of a portfolio, who the major gift prospects are, where we find them, and the actions involved in moving donors through the stages.

A major gift prospect is an individual with the wealth capacity and the demonstrated propensity to make a gift of $10,000+, or whatever amount is uniquely determined by the organization. Capacity refers to an individual’s ability to make a major gift. Propensity refers to an individual’s previously demonstrated giving. And we’re looking for evidence that this individual has given a major gift in the past to some other organization if not our own.

Portfolio management is the process through which a fundraiser moves an individual from prospect to donor. The process includes four primary stages of progression: qualification, cultivation, invitation, and stewardship. Each stage represents a series of actions with a specific and unique purpose. 


First, we start with qualification. The prospect has been added to our portfolio and our first step is to qualify them as a major donor:

GOAL: To determine if a prospect is willing to engage in a philanthropic relationship with the organization. 

The ACTIONS for this stage include: 

  • Phone calls, emails, mailings, etc.
  • Maximum of 3 actions

WHEN TO MOVE: When the prospect agrees to a further conversation.

WHEN TO DROP: When the prospect says “no” to further conversation or unresponsive after 3 follow-up actions.

Once the prospect says “yeah, I’d love to meet and chat more,” we move them to the cultivation stage.


Cultivation is by far the longest stage, and it should be – donor relationships take time. In this stage, the goal is:

GOAL: To execute actions that build a missional relationship with a prospect. 

The ACTIONS for this stage include: 

  • Personal correspondence, in-person meetings
  • Minimum of 5 actions


  • Relational comfort with you
  • Credibility with the organization
  • Discovery of the donor’s unique story and passions
  • Permission to submit proposal is granted

WHEN TO DROP: When the prospect communicates a desire to stop OR unresponsive after 3 follow-up actions.


In the invitation stage, our goal:

GOAL: To invite the donor into a major gift opportunity. 

The ACTIONS for this stage include: 

  • Gift proposal submission
  • Proposal follow-up
  • Negotiation if needed
  • Maximum of 3 actions


  • When a gift has been pledged

WHEN TO DROP: When a gift opportunity has been rejected OR unresponsive after 3 follow-up actions.

Click here to view a major gift proposal template.


We move the donor into the final stage – stewardship. 

GOAL: To thank the donor, demonstrate the impact of the gift and strengthen the relationship.


  • In-person visits (two per year)
  • Handwritten notes
  • Quarterly impact reports and/or check-in calls
  • Minimum of 6 actions per year

WHEN TO MOVE: Move to cultivation upon the start of a fiscal year in which a renewal pledge has NOT been made.

WHEN TO DROP: When the gift pledge is less than the defined major gift level AND there is evidence a future major gift will never be made.

All future gifts will rely upon the quality of stewardship you provide over the next 12 months.

Donor visits

In-person donor visits are the highest-impact opportunity to develop a relationship with a donor. The key factor in having a meaningful donor visit is intentionality. Being intentional includes meeting preparation, storytelling, and story-listening. A good donor visit should end with the donor feeling connected and challenged.

Asking Questions

Humble inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out; of asking questions to which you don’t already have answers; of building a relationship built on curiosity and interest in the other person.

Humble inquiry is all about asking genuine, open-ended questions for the purpose of discovering another person. So often, we ask questions for the purpose of finding out data about someone – their wealth, who they give to, what projects they fund, etc. Those questions are not humble inquiry. Important, perhaps, but not central.

We ask personal questions that help us know the donor. We ask for input into our program decisions – what are they seeing? What do they hope for? We ask for advice and feedback – it may be in how we communicate or how the organization is doing at large, or perhaps most importantly, we ask for advice for something in our personal life, demonstrating that we honestly seek to learn from the other person.

Asking genuine, open-ended questions communicates to the donor that you are listening beyond the purpose of a gift or the organization but that you seek an authentic relationship. 


Vulnerably telling our own stories gives donors permission to tell their own. It’s a simple truth, but when donors share their stories with us, they are emotionally investing in us. And this is the greatest form of investment we can ask for – financial gifts come later.

But we as fundraisers need to take the first step and be prepared to share a story first. This gives permission to the donor to do the same. For the fundraiser, stories are told for the purpose of connection, not persuasion or selling.

When stories are shared between fundraiser and donor, we build a foundation for heightened generosity. When donors share their stories with us, they are emotionally investing in us – all of which precedes increasing acts of generosity.

Meeting flow

One of the most difficult practices a fundraiser will learn is how to be present with a donor and also help drive the flow of the meeting. Here’s a formula for an effective meeting:

WHERE: Outside of an office

WHEN: Preferably over dinner, but any meal will do

The FLOW of the meeting can go something like this: 

  1. Thank the donor for the time and compliment for something non-material
  2. Ask an introductory question
  3. Continue to ask questions until a personal question is returned, then…
  4. Share a personal story and how it relates to the organization
  5. Ask another donor-centric question
  6. End with a thank you and a non-monetary challenge. Each donor visit should include an ask – not financial but an ask all the same. We ask them to read something relevant and encouraging. We ask them to give intangibly – show kindness to someone, give time, or think differently about an issue. We may ask them to make an introduction or even make a financial gift to another organization. Whatever the ask is, it continues to affirm that the relationship is a missional relationship – together we make good things happen.

Making an ask

The ask itself is a combination of your written gift proposal, which you submit before a scheduled meeting, and the meeting itself. During the meeting, you will have a conversation about the gift you are asking for. Key principles of an ask include:

  • In the written proposal and in our following conversation, we remind the donor that we’ve heard their story and passion to make an impact in a certain area.
  • It’s important that the ask is driven by the donor’s heart and story.
  • We cast a vision for how their story can have an impact on the world. 
  • We explicitly encourage that they express their hopes and passions through an act of generosity. In the context of a genuine relationship, encouraging someone to give a gift of money or time can be natural and expected. Ask for a specific amount of money over a specific time frame for a specific purpose. 
  • Lastly, reflect with the donor about the gift. How’d they feel when making the gift? How could the organization do better? This also sets a tone that conversations about giving are normal and expected.

Operationalizing major gifts

The following milestones are necessary to fully operationalize a major gift strategy:

Develop/document weekly portfolio management routines for major gift effortsPortfolio specialist hosts weekly moves management meeting with bird’s-eye view on portfolios and team metrics; major gift officers are updating portfolio actions in CRM and following actions set by portfolio specialist
Establish clear metrics for major gift efforts by quarterMetrics are derived from a gift table which is set at the beginning of the fiscal year to clarify daily rhythms and habits. Metrics are then divided into quarterly goals and divided by gift officer. Each major gift officer has clear metrics for: # new prospects, # total prospects managed, # substantive touchpoints, # donor visits, # proposals submitted, # gifts secured
Develop a prospecting calendar that aligns with prospecting goalsProspecting routines include screening annual donor base, event attendees, and volunteers quarterly, plus requesting 3 connectors to make 3 introductions monthly. Prospecting calendar has goals associated with each action that add up to our total number of prospects identified by the major gift table (insert number)
Build strong board engagement in introducing you to major donorsBoard members are clear on the major gift strategy, the number of major donors needed, and their role in introductions
Clarify the use of events for major gift workA calendar of events is scheduled that supports major gift work; cultivation events and stewardship events are defined in our event planning worksheet
Establish a custom list of touchpoints used at each stage of the giving cycleActivities per stage of the giving cycle are outlined in our major gift workflow document; program team provides feedback on stewardship activity options (thank you videos from the field); checklist is created for moving a donor out of each stage
Maintain a quarterly goal on major gift metricsIdentify 83 prospects, conduct 875 substantive touchpoints, conduct 124 donor visits, submit 50 proposals, secure 30 gifts
Establish a process for converting event or annual donors to major donorsWe have established an automated process to screen annual donor base quarterly for major gift capacity/propensity
Establish/document routines for using CRM for major gift workA protocol document is drafted, which includes guidelines for tracking donor touchpoints and all major gift actions
Build progress on upcoming fiscal year’s major gift metricsEstablish a prospecting goal that supports prospects needed for the next fiscal year

Staffing considerations

The most important roles in operating a major gift strategy are a donor-facing individual and an operations-facing individual. 

Major Gift Officer: The donor-facing fundraiser focused on the work of a major gift portfolio. This person can be the organization’s Executive Director or a member of the development team. It is not recommended that this person is a member of the program or business operations team, as this will require balancing two very different priorities. A full-time major gift officer can manage a portfolio of approximately 100 donors.

Portfolio Quarterback: The project manager and strategizer for the major gift portfolio. This person assists the front-line fundraiser with strategizing next steps with each donor, tracks activity in the portfolio, and assists with back-of-the-house donor engagement activities. They can draft proposals, schedule meetings, send thank you notes, and more. The role of Portfolio Quarterback is necessary when the major gift officer is also the Executive Director or when the team has more than one full-time Major Gift Officers. 

Click Here for Seed’s Job Description repository.

Additional Resources: Do you want to spend more time on this?

5 min: Review Seed’s Major Gift Portfolio

5 min: Review Seed’s Major Gift Proposal Template

35 min: View Seed’s online microcourse on Transformational Donor Relationships

About Seed

Seed is a community of professional fundraisers and nonprofit leaders who strengthen and scale culture-building institutions in the social sector. Seed’s consulting team has supported REDF’s portfolio since 2019.