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Cultivating Relationships with Major Donors: 4 Tips

Over the last couple of years, your nonprofit team has become more familiar with managing donors in unprecedented situations. You’ve learned how to adapt your donor relationship-building strategies to fit in a society processing COVID-19, dealing with political and social upheaval, and navigating economic uncertainty. You experienced firsthand the value of refreshing your approach from time to time to strengthen relationships with your donors.

Staying on top of your strategy—regardless of what is happening in the world—is a wise move, especially when it comes to major donors. While the definition of a "major" donor will differ for every organization, there is one universal truth about major donors: they are individuals who have an extraordinary impact on your organization. You must navigate your relationships with major donors carefully—their contributions can help you move your mission forward in ways you could not have achieved otherwise.

“Cultivation” is the process you embark on when you discover a potential major donor and work to build a genuine relationship with them. But it takes great care and strategy to get major donor cultivation right, which is where this guide comes in. We’ll discuss how you can find potential major donors through prospect research and then give you four actionable tips for cultivating relationships with them: 

  1. Get To Know Your Donor 
  2. Offer Multiple Ways To Get Involved 
  3. Hold Off On The Donation Appeal 
  4. Always Say Thank You 

Cultivating relationships with major donors is an art form that takes years for nonprofit professionals to master. Diligently applying each of these tips to your organization’s strategy can help strengthen your approach and increase the likelihood that you’ll secure and retain the support of your major donors for the long term. Let’s jump in! 

First Things First: Prospect Research

Prospect research is the process of identifying potential major donors by evaluating individuals’ capacity and affinity for giving to your organization. 

Specifically, capacity (or wealth) markers might include: 

  • Real estate ownership 
  • Business affiliations  
  • Stock holdings 

These can signal that the individual may be in a financial position to make a significant contribution to your cause. 

Affinity (or warmth) markers, on the other hand, might include: 

  • Political involvement 
  • Connections with your organization’s current donors
  • Past donations to or involvement with your organization or similar organizations 

These markers can demonstrate that a potential donor might be interested in or passionate about your cause. When you identify a prospect that displays both kinds of markers, you know you’ve found a potential major donor with whom you can begin cultivating a relationship. 

But where do you find the names of prospective major donors? And how do you learn about the capacity or affinity markers they might exhibit? This is where dedicated prospect research tools come in. From Google to your donor database and even prospect research databases, there are a wide variety of tools out there that you can use to do this research. 

Some nonprofit organizations don’t have the bandwidth to do their own prospect research or just prefer the help of a third-party expert. If that is the case for your organization, we suggest working with a prospect research consultant who has the necessary experience and tools to quickly find prospective major donors and set you up to cultivate lasting relationships with them. 

If you’re unsure how to begin finding a consultant that is a good fit for your organization, check out Donorly’s guide to choosing a prospect research consultant. Once you’ve worked with your chosen consultant to generate leads on multiple potential major donors, you’ll need to apply the following tips to cultivate a solid relationship with those potential donors. 


1. Get To Know Your Donor

In the beginning, cultivating genuine relationships with major donors looks a lot like getting to know a new friend. You simply need to get to know them as a person, as a professional (if applicable), and as someone who is interested in learning more about the work your nonprofit does. 

Laying the groundwork for future contributions starts with getting to know your new potential major donor. After all, it would be tacky to lead with a donation solicitation right out of the gate. Accept that the process will take some time and start at the beginning. 

Here are a few things you should learn about a new potential major donor at the beginning of your relationship: 

  • Shared values: What does your new major donor care about? They might value families, literacy, or access to clean water. Find out what they’re passionate about and connect with them over those things. Conversations about shared values can naturally lead to conversations about your mission, too. 
  • Professional experiences: Perhaps your major donor is a business owner or politician. No matter what professional experiences they’ve had in their life, they’re likely to talk about their education, career path, corporate giving, and other experiences that got them where they are today. If they have expertise that directly relates to your nonprofit’s work, you might note it and later ask them for advice once your relationship is stronger. 
  • Preferred communication methods: Everyone likes to use communication channels they are comfortable and familiar with. Just as your teenage nephew might prefer a birthday text or Snapchat over a phone call, your new major donor might have preferences about emails, social media messages, or phone calls and texts. Likewise, they might have a preference about the time of day you contact them. Ask your donor which regular channels of communication they would prefer to use.
  • Other get-to-know-you information: Some get-to-know-you information isn’t critical to cultivating a relationship with a major donor but is still good to know. For example, knowing small things like the names of your donor’s children or their favorite place to meet up for coffee can be the extra touch that helps you build a lasting relationship with them. 

You’ll need to spend time with your new donor to gather this information. At first, it might be natural to email or talk on the phone, but eventually, in-person meetings at a restaurant or the donor’s office or home can also be beneficial. During these meetings, focus on the donor, ask genuine questions, and listen with interest. 


2. Offer Multiple Ways To Get Involved 

While acquiring major donors can obviously help you acquire major donations, it’s a good idea to invite new major donors to get involved with your organization in other ways as well. This helps a new donor get acquainted with your work before asking them for a donation. By welcoming them to get involved in other ways besides giving money, you’re also encouraging them to deepen their engagement with your organization and find greater meaning in your mission. 

There are a number of ways a potential major donor might get involved with your organization. Let’s take a look at three examples: 

  • Example #1: They could lead a group of volunteers in preparing for an upcoming event. If you know your new donor would appreciate some on-the-ground experience with your organization's staff and volunteers, try putting them in charge of a group of volunteers ahead of your next event. Their team could be in charge of decorating the venue, selling tickets, or ushering. 
  • Example #2: Their child could participate in your product fundraiser. Some major donors like to get their families and friends involved in organizations they support. If your organization decides, for example, to sell coupon cards for your next fundraiser, you might reach out and see if your donor’s child would be interested in selling a box. 
  • Example #3: They could sponsor or emcee an event. Perhaps your donor is in a position to take a leading role in an upcoming event. Ask them to provide a venue or catering for an upcoming event or recruit them to serve as an emcee for the night. 

Each of these examples illustrates a way you can get new major donors involved in your organization and deepen their investment in your cause. Note that some opportunities, such as serving on your board, might need to wait for later. But for the most part, lower-stakes involvement opportunities like the ones we’ve walked through can help set you up for a long-lasting relationship and, eventually, significant monetary contributions. 

3. Hold Off On The Donation Appeal 

You may be thinking, “But when do I ask for a donation?” 

Asking a new major donor for a donation too early, like when you first find their name, can make your organization look like it’s all about the money instead of all about its mission. On the other hand, asking too late may leave your donor wondering, “Why don’t they want my donation?” 

The key is to find the sweet spot that works for your donor and your organization. And what is appropriate for one donor might not be for another. Whatever you do, make sure you’ve made a genuine effort to get to know the donor and have invited them to participate in your organization in some way before asking for a contribution. 

Once you determine it’s the right moment—whether that’s during the quiet phase of a capital campaign or ahead of your annual year-end campaign—you’ll need to ask the right way. Aly Sterling’s article on effective donation appeals offers some great tips for general donors that we can apply to major donors: 

  • Understand what your donors want. Use what you’ve learned about your major donors to figure out how they want to contribute. What your organization wants might not be right for them this time around. For example, they might want to funnel their contribution to your volunteer program, when you might be thinking about asking them to contribute to a facility expansion project. Knowing what specific initiatives they want to contribute to can guide the appeal process. 
  • Share a compelling story. Giving to a cause you care about is an emotional experience. Sometimes an engaging, moving story can be the cherry on top of a genuine donation appeal. Center your story on a compelling character and demonstrate a conflict that can be solved (at least in part) with your major donor’s contribution. 
  • Use your data to make the right ask. Everything you learned about your donor during the prospect research process can be applied to your donation solicitation. For example, if you know that your donor owns a restaurant, you might ask them to cater your upcoming volunteer breakfast. The information you have on your donors can also guide you in asking for monetary contributions of specific amounts.  

Knowing when to make a donation appeal is part of solid and strategic fundraising, where each task typically has to be done in a specific order for maximum effect. If you want to learn more about how major donors and soliciting their donations fit into an effective fundraising strategy, check out Donorly’s fundraising strategy guide. 

4. Always Say Thank You 

Showing gratitude to your major donors is critical. This is especially important after they’ve given an initial major contribution. But your thank-yous shouldn’t end there. 

While it isn’t necessary to build a donor wall every single time a major donor does something for your organization, like volunteering or sponsoring an event, you should always find genuine ways to thank them for their involvement. You might write a handwritten thank-you note after a great initial meeting at a coffee shop or send them a small gift basket during the holiday season to let them know you’re grateful for their assistance in finding a new bookkeeper. Whatever they do to help your organization move its mission forward, make sure you thank them, even if it’s just a “Thanks for speaking to me today!” after a phone call. 

Genuine gratitude is the key to building rapport with a donor that can help your relationship with them stand the test of time. You’ll be surprised at how much easier it gets to invite your donor to get involved with a new program or to ask them for a donation after you’ve worked to continually establish that your organization is grateful for all they do. 

Cultivating relationships with major donors isn’t something that happens overnight. Rather, it’s a long process that involves navigating the delicate balance between building a genuine relationship and asking for the contributions you need. Take the process slow as you get to know them, offer them different ways to get involved, effectively time your donation appeals, and focus on gratitude. 

About the Author

Founder and President Sandra Davis leads Donorly with 30 years of fundraising experience and leadership. Sandra has consulted on numerous capital campaigns, led strategic planning and feasibility study efforts, and managed board development and recruitment efforts, planned giving, special events, and annual giving programs. Under her leadership, Donorly has grown to support the fundraising efforts of over 75 clients to date.

Profile Photo of Sandra Davis