Creating and Driving Your Major Gift Pipeline – You’ve Got This!

Think back to when you moved to your current location. When you first moved in, maybe you met a few neighbors and then eventually began to meet more neighbors. And after a few years you know most of your neighbors (or at least what kind of car they drive, how many children they have, and who mows their lawn at 7 a.m.). You have now built a pipeline of neighbors that hopefully you can call on in an emergency, chat with as you arrive home or leave for the day and, if you are lucky, socialize with throughout the year. Creating a pipeline is simply building relationships.

For a nonprofit or university, creating and driving a funding pipeline is a year-round effort. Identifying prospective donors and/or moving current donors from a smaller annual fund gift into a major gift takes time, patience, and a lot of follow up. The more people you meet, the bigger your pipeline. It is much easier to focus our time on the loudest voice, an upcoming event, or putting out small fires that pop up. It is harder to train ourselves to take the time to create and cultivate prospective and current donors continuously.

What is a major gift?

A major gift is a donation of significance from an individual or couple. To some organizations $500 is a major gift; to other organizations, $50,000 is a major gift.  

Creating a pipeline

If you have an existing database, take the time to review donors over a certain dollar amount. If a major gift to your organization is $500, then start there.  Look for your high-level donors and cumulative donors. Donors that give every year are your loyal donors and make great prospects for a major gift. Creating a pipeline from scratch means taking the time to gather board members and staff to create a list of individuals that have financial capacity and might have an interest in your mission. Use resources such as honor rolls of donors from other nonprofits, wealthy homeowners in certain zip codes, media highlighting an individual who just sold her business, volunteers to your organization, etc. Everyone you meet through relationship building should be added to your prospect list. Continue to add new names every week.

Driving your pipeline

Once created, your list of prospective donors should all be entered into your database – whatever constituent management tool you have – and rated for wealth and propensity to give. Determine whether a prospect is a cold prospect, a warm prospect, or a hot prospect. Hot prospects should be met with at once and solicited. Warm prospects need some cultivation before being solicited and need to be invited to an event, sent a newsletter, met with one-on-one, or offered a tour of your facility or program. A cold prospect will need more cultivation but are lower in priority than the hot and warm prospects. Fundraising is all about relationship building. As you build the relationship a warm prospect will turn into a hot prospect. If you have tried to cultivate a cold prospect for some time and cannot move them to a warm prospect, it’s time for that prospect to be dropped out of your pipeline.

Moves management

Current donors all need to be evaluated to determine if they are ready to be asked for a larger donation, or maybe it’s a special gift to a campaign. Perhaps they are ready to make a planned gift as well. Your major donors should be communicated with often so that each remains engaged and feels “in the know.” A donor may want to become a volunteer, sit on a committee, or help with a special event. And ALL current donors should be asked for names of prospective donors to add to your pipeline.

Your goal is to move a cold prospect to warm or a warm prospect to hot. Using a rating system is sometimes helpful: for example, A1 = high capacity and ready to be solicited for an increased donation or C3 = low capacity to give and not ready to be solicited.  Below is a sample chart for rating prospects:

Wealth Indicator

Passion/Propensity to Give

A = High capacity                                          1 = Ready for solicitation

B = Moderate   capacity                                2 = Needs more cultivation/involvement

C = Low capacity                                           3 = Not aware of mission

Stewarding donors

It takes so much work to bring in a donation that you want to do everything you can to keep the donor. Stewardship becomes key and touchpoints throughout the year should be planned as part of a stewardship calendar. Show major donors how their gift is making an impact in the community and thank a donor continuously with personal notes, calls, and in-person visits. Building and driving your major gift pipeline takes getting to know more and more people, creating a network of prospective donors. You’ve got this!

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