Ondine Upton

Aug 30, 2019, 9:30 AM

Whose eyes are we looking through? Top tips for developing organisational success with major donors

One of the most powerful game-changers for an organisation serious about major donor fundraising is to look at everything through their donors’ eyes. Are the messages they pick up from your web-site and printed documents going to enhance their belief that their money will make a significant difference? Are they going to believe that you are well run? Or might there be a statement that reduces their trust?

Checking for this requires more than a cursory glance at how they might respond to your website or your CEO’s quarterly reports; it takes a thorough review of everything from the donor’s perspective. 

Think of three or four very different donors you are working with (or would like to work with) and scrutinise everything they are likely to have seen or heard since you were first in touch (or over the last two years). That’s everything from the small print in the Annual Report to conversations they might have had with senior staff, or their experience of attending one of your events. Hopefully you won’t find the nasty surprise of an Annual Report that states “we want to raise money from major donors to build our reserves”, but it is an unusual organisation that doesn’t find a few things worth changing. 

Replacing reticence with boldness

The organisations that are most successful with major donors understand that it is the whole team working together that leads to success, rather than it being “the job” of the major donor or philanthropy team. Yes, they will make some asks and carefully research and craft approaches that work for your donors, but this works best if you have senior management and trustees working collaboratively towards success.

Major donors need to trust the whole organisation before parting with significant money.  Their confidence increases as they speak to your leadership and those on the front line.  

CEOs, patrons and trustees who are great at asking are invaluable but it is far more common for them to exhibit reticence and nervousness. Enabling them to understand that donors – like they themselves – want to change the world, and might view your organisation as a great way of doing so, is a huge step forward for any organisation. 

Donors benefit from the relationship of giving as much as the charity does from receiving and the larger the gift, the greater the potential satisfaction and impact for the donor. Understanding this simple fact will make a palpable difference to the effectiveness of your major donor fundraising.

Developing asking skills across the organisation

One of the most effective ways a charity can spend its training budget is on training Boards and senior management in the skill of asking for gifts. To get the most out of major donors you need to take away the fear of asking and replace it with confidence and curiosity. Training enables your leadership to see that asking for a major gift is a very natural conversation; they can let go of their fears around coercion and “arm-twisting”.

We have a couple of very effective training exercises to help trustees, fundraisers and senior management teams to start seeing the task in a new light. These exercises can be quite revelatory. You will see people’s perspective change before your eyes as they begin to understand the pitfalls that can get in the way of securing major gifts from people who otherwise feel very positively towards your mission.

It is also important to identify who will be good at which of the four key roles in taking forward major donor relationships: introducing, inspiring, reassuring and asking. It is often not who you expect. Every organisation benefits from a Chief Executive and Chair who are good at building relationships and asking, but many can be successful using different approaches.

The objectivity provided by training helps with this identification of specific strengths and the assignment of roles, which in turn helps to create a powerful cross-organisation team that learns and reflects together on how you are developing your major donors. With this in place, you’ll be ready to clinch some easy early wins and start growing your capacity for major donor fundraising.


Is your charity hoping to raise funds from major donors but lacking the confidence to ask? Action Planning has nearly 30 years’ experience of major donor fundraising and training teams in the way to approach the challenge of asking. In fact, it’s a challenge we relish.

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