Major Donor Cultivation Explained: How to Build Partnerships

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Every nonprofit understands how important major donors are—they provide the largest contributions to your annual fund, invest in your growth through donations to capital campaigns, and serve as long-term ambassadors for your cause. Their commitment to your organization warrants plenty of individualized attention from your staff members, especially when you’re trying to solicit a prospect’s first major gift.

However, cultivating major donor relationships is an intricate process that involves careful planning and personalized engagement strategies. In this guide, we’ll demystify the process for you by breaking down:

  • What is Major Donor Cultivation?
  • Understanding Prospective Donors with Data
  • Personalizing Outreach & Engagement Opportunities
  • Building Trust Before the Ask

Once you know the ropes of major donor cultivation, you can empower the rest of your team to build and sustain relationships with major donors long-term. Let’s get started by covering the basics.

What is Major Donor Cultivation?

Major donor cultivation refers to the process of reaching out to prospective major donors and building positive relationships with them before you make an ask.

Cultivation is just one stage of the major donor fundraising cycle, which involves four key phases:

  1. Identification: The identification phase involves scouring your donor database and using prospect research strategies to identify supporters with the capacity, affinity, and propensity to give a major gift to your organization.
  2. Cultivation: After identifying a likely prospect, you need to conduct carefully planned outreach to get to know them better and build a relationship that inspires giving to your organization.
  3. Solicitation: Once your relationship is strong enough, you can make a fundraising appeal and communicate the details of what giving a major gift to your nonprofit looks like. Emphasize the donor’s impact and explain exactly how their gift will be used to further your mission.
  4. Stewardship: Major donors need to be recognized, appreciated, and updated on their gift’s impact in a variety of ways to aid donor retention. Use multiple, personalized donor stewardship strategies to maintain your relationship with major donors and keep them involved.

While every stage of the major donor fundraising cycle is important, cultivation plays a particularly vital role in the process. For a prospect to consider giving your nonprofit a major donation, they first need to feel confident in your organization’s alignment with their values, transparency, and ability to make a genuine impact. They also want to know that the people involved in your organization are trustworthy individuals they’ll enjoy interacting with.

Building strong relationships with prospects can take months or even years, but the effort will be worthwhile when you end up with a major donor who’s committed to your nonprofit long-term.

Understanding Prospective Donors with Data

The data you collected during the identification phase isn’t just useful for selecting the prospects you’ll prioritize—it also helps you refine your major donor cultivation strategy. Data insights allow you to start getting to know your major donor prospects even before you reach out to them, helping you tailor your approach to the interests of each individual.

Especially if you worked with a fundraising consultant or leveraged professional prospect research tools, your major donor research findings should include valuable information about each prospect’s:

  • Giving and engagement history
  • Philanthropic interests
  • Career
  • Personal, business, and political affiliations
  • Relationships with other nonprofits

You can use all of these data points to better understand major donor prospects and guide your cultivation strategies. 

For example, say that you’re building a cultivation plan for a prospect named Kendra. Through prospect research, you learned that Kendra is heavily involved in local politics and has a special interest in community housing initiatives. This information leads your team to emphasize your organization’s housing programs in conversation with Kendra and invite her to take a personal tour of the transitional housing facility your organization is in the process of building.

Personalizing Outreach & Engagement Opportunities

Just like our example nonprofit did for Kendra, the next step in the cultivation process is to use the insights you gleaned from donor data and initial conversations to create individualized plans for each of your major donor prospects. These cultivation plans should aim to spark prospects’ interests by providing individualized opportunities to learn more about your nonprofit’s work.

At a minimum, these plans should include:

  • Personalized communications across channels. Use a variety of marketing channels like email, direct mail, social media, and text messages to reach out to prospects and invite them to engage with your organization. Address each prospect by name and include personal details in your messages such as the most recent campaign they donated to.
  • Engagement opportunities tailored to their interests. Based on their engagement history and interests, choose opportunities like fundraising events, site tours, and volunteer opportunities to invite each prospect to join. Interact with them personally when they attend and use the opportunity to give them a firsthand look at your organization’s impact.
  • One-on-one conversations with your major gifts officer, board members, and/or nonprofit leadership. Let prospects connect with your organization’s leaders in person, over the phone, and at events. Ask questions about their personal lives, and remember details to bring up in future conversations as a testament to the genuine relationships you’re building.

Take note of everything you learn from these interactions and adjust your strategies based on how prospects respond to different types of outreach.

Building Trust Before the Ask

In all of your conversations with major donor prospects, work to build trust with them based on transparency. Prove to them that your nonprofit uses donations effectively and honestly to make a measurable impact on your cause.

You might do this by sharing your organization’s annual reports, directing them to beneficiary testimonials on your website, or even putting them in touch with other major donors to discuss their personal experiences with your nonprofit. Come to meetings prepared with concrete examples of your impact, and answer any questions they have about your organization’s work.

Additionally, show your prospects how much you value your major donors after they give. Explain the benefits major donors receive, and show them your donor recognition wall and the other ways you publicly recognize major donors’ contributions.

Cultivating major donors takes time and strategic effort, but it’s also an exciting process that allows your team to get to know the people who will support your nonprofit’s work for years to come. Take the time to build and strengthen relationships, and these genuine connections will sustain your organization and help you further your mission in the long run.