For major gifts success: rely on proven systems. Not luck, hope, or willpower

Published by K. Michael Johnson on

We’ve all worked with gift officers who “wing it.” We’ve probably even caught ourselves “winging it” at one time or another.

What do I mean?

You’re winging it if you sit down at your desk in the morning without priorities for the day and just start with whatever email in your inbox feels most urgent.

You’re winging it if you don’t have articulated strategies and next steps for at least the top 25 donors/prospects in your portfolio.

You’re winging it if you have visit goals, proposal goals, and dollar goals that you hope to hit, but you haven’t mapped out a path to attain them.

It’s not only gift officers. There are entire organizations just winging it.

keep-calm-and-be-systematicIf your organization is relying on anything other than proven systems to achieve major gift fundraising success, it’s definitely wining it.

Fundraising doesn’t just happen. In particular, major gifts don’t just happen. You must strategize, execute systematically, commit to the process, and you must constantly reevaluate.

This, by and large, is the difference between organizations that attract major gifts and those that don’t.

Fellow gift officers, even if your entire organization is winging it, there are things you can do to maximize your chances of success. Namely, set up some systems. Don’t be ad hoc. Don’t rely luck, hope, chance, or even your own willpower.

This is particularly true for small shop fundraisers who have to do everything. Systems are the only way to stay on track with major gifts.

Because let’s face it, major gift fundraising is hard. It feels risky. The way forward is often nebulous. It can be messy. It requires tons of emotional energy. And you need an incredibly thick skin. The other stuff is far easier!

Anytime you’re expecting a fundraiser to raise major gifts AND do something else, be prepared for him to focus on the “something else.” It’s is human nature – pure and simple.

So, what do I mean by “systems?”

I mean breaking down an objective until you have a roadmap for getting there. And once you have actionable next steps, scheduling them on your calendar.

There are plenty of systems that can benefit your major gifts operation. We can only focus on one here, so I’m going to outline a proven outreach and qualification system.

A system for feeding your major gifts pipeline

Major gifts success requires a robust pipeline. Ideally, you have prospects you’re currently soliciting and others you’re planning to solicit, perhaps six, 12, even 24 months down the road.

For sustained success, you need an outreach system that will feed this pipeline in an ongoing way. And for gift officers with other responsibilities, you need one that will keep you on task, while also leaving you with enough time for your other duties.

I dedicate two hours nearly every day for outreach to new prospects, including planning time. The process below worked for me when major gift fundraising was about 50% of my job. And it works for me now that it’s 100%.

Who will you reach out to?

I’m going to assume you have a “portfolio” or “case load” of donors and prospects, some of whom you don’t know yet – they’re in “qualification” mode. And you likely can’t reach out to all of them at once!

I recommend identifying four groups of 12 prospects each that you’ll focus on over the course of a month.

Why twelve? That’s roughly what it will take if you want to schedule three qualification visits a week. Some prospects will be unresponsive, some out of town – assume you’ll get in front of one out every four.

If three per week is more than you need, organize smaller groups.

I try to create groups of prospects who have something in common. Perhaps they’re all existing annual fund supporters, or they all live in the same part of town. Other possible groupings could be community leaders, past volunteers, grateful patients, alumni, parents, etc.

When will you reach out?

I like to have my outreach planned out four weeks in advance. Here’s a grid I use:









Remember, it’s only a framework. Your actual activity (and results) won’t fall neatly inside a grid. Use it to keep birds-eye view on the process.

You’ll notice that in each week (other than the first) you’re reaching out to two groups. If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry. By the time you’re into your second week of outreach with each group, you’ll have already heard some responses. You won’t be reaching out to a full 24 people.

If it’s still more than you can handle in a given week, reduce your initial group sizes.

Calendar your outreach

As you’re preparing to contact your Group A prospects in week one, here’s a quick thought on how you could split up your outreach activity over the course of the week:










The phone calls on Wednesday are to some of the same prospects (nos. 1-4) you emailed the previous Monday. Assuming, of course, they didn’t reply to your initial email. If they did, great! You have less follow-up work to do.

Plan on leaving a message if you don’t reach your prospects. The email follow-up afterward is exactly what it sounds like – a quick “hey I just called you” note. Obviously, neither is necessary if you catch your prospect on the phone.

Over the long haul, this approach is enough outreach to keep your prospect pipeline full. And – with some planning time thrown in – it only requires about two hours per day!

Could this system or something similar work for you at your organization? I’d love to hear what you think!

K. Michael Johnson

A self-proclaimed fundraising geek, K. Michael loves the nitty-gritty of major gifts work. By day, he raises money for a large research university. In his spare time, he blogs about things he’s learned the hard way at www.fearless-fundraising.com.


Andrew Littlefield · March 12, 2015 at 15:19

I love how consistent and persistent you are with follow-ups. I think a lot of people in today’s environment are afraid of “pestering” someone and turning them off to your organization, but often times the only reason someone hasn’t responded is because they’re busy and need a reminder. After all, if they’re really not interested, all it takes is a quick “No thanks” email and that’s that.

Great article! I’ll be sharing it on our social accounts.

    K. Michael Johnson · March 17, 2015 at 13:27

    So true, Andrew! We’re quick to assume the worst. The reality is, people are busy. It often takes persistence to get someone’s attention.

Paul Saunders · April 14, 2015 at 07:13

Before starting any work we should first predict or estimate the success rate of that work; this policy will definitely help to boost our confidence. There are several ways to get success from any work but we need to maintain a strong attitude like hard work, confidence, loyalty, dedication and determination. With the help of this blog post we can measure the success rate of any work or person; I hope while following all the above ingredients we are able to get better success.

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