The Secret Sauce of Major Gifts Success

Much has been written about successful major gift fundraising. Screening and research, gift pyramids and moves management, cultivation and donor relations…these are all important topics. There are articles, website, books, and conferences galore that focus on these issues.

As well they should.

But two recent conversations reinforced for me the real “secret sauce” to true major gifts (and corporate engagement, for that matter) success.

Meet Karen

One of my longest-term clients is an arts organization. Recently, the Vice President of Development and I were discussing her senior fundraising team, when I asked her how Karen was doing.

Karen joined the organization a little more a year ago to secure corporate partnerships. In that short period of time, she’s brought in more than a million dollars. In a year! (And P.S. she doesn’t even work there full-time.)

I asked the Vice President what made Karen so successful.

Without hesitation, she replied, “She’s a hunter.”

I had never heard that term applied to a development officer before, but it makes sense. Coming from her sales background, Karen knows that in order for her to be successful, she’s got to be out there all the time, creatively pursuing new relationships and stewarding existing ones.

I wasn’t really surprised at the Vice President’s assessment. I’ve spent enough time with Karen to know how good she is. And whenever I’m in the office, she’s almost never there.

Take a moment to think about this. One million dollars in one year – and in her first year with the organization.

Meet Linda

Linda is the executive director of a foundation affiliated with a healthcare organization, and manages eight people. Her foundation is bringing in about $2 million a year, more if you count capital gifts, realized bequests, and confirmed bequest intentions.

I started working with Linda when the CEO of her organization engaged me to conduct an assessment of their development program.

Looking back over five years, I found very healthy major gift revenue, and surprisingly high results in realized bequests and new bequest intentions, particularly for an organization of her size.

I called Linda to understand how many front-line fundraisers she’s had per year, over the past five years.

“Oh, It’s just been me,” she replied.

Wait, what?

“How many prospects and donors are you seeing a month,” I queried.

“I try to see two to three people a day,” she responded, as if to say, “Doesn’t everyone?”

Now, Linda has the benefit of being with the organization for 14 years, growing up in the community, and knowing a lot of people. And to her credit, she does her administrative work in the evening.

But still…

(If ever there was a case study for why you should treat your development directors well, this is it. But I digress.)

So let’s do the math here. Linda is seeing two to three people a day. That’s 10 to 12 people a week. That’s 40 to 48 people a month. A MONTH!

Let’s put this in context, shall we? The generally accepted metric for major gift officers, those without any real administrative responsibilities, is 15 to 20 a month. (And, for sure, I’ve met a lot of fundraisers who don’t even do that.)

And Linda is seeing almost that many in a week.

No wonder she’s brought in more than $5 million in realized bequests and bequest intention in the past five years, to say nothing of the $10 million capital project she’s working on.

(Aside: maybe it’s time to reevaluate our metrics for major gifts officers.)

What’s Your Time Worth?

There are more Karens and Lindas out there, to be sure. People who know that they have to be out of the office in order to be successful.

What about all the internal meetings you have to attend, you ask? Those on important topics like the color of the linens at the next gala, or some other such life altering decision.

I know you get stuck in meeting hell. Believe me, I’ve been there too. It’s hard to break away. But you must.

To inspire you, here’s a little exercise I highly recommend.

My friend and colleague Ellen Bristol wrote a book a couple of years ago called Fundraising the SMART Way: Predictable, Consistent Income Growth for Your Charity. You really should pick it up, especially if you’re working in the major gifts area. She’s got a lot of really smart ideas.

One of the exercises she recommends is to understand your “opportunity risk” of one hour of fundraising time. (If you buy the book, you get a link to easy-to-use calculator. I’d post a link, but it’s copyrighted. So go get the book.)

The point of the exercise is to identify exactly how many fundraising hours you have in a year (when you factor out vacations, sick time, nonsensical meetings, and the like), compare that to the amount that you, personally, are responsible for bringing in, and determining how much you have to raise an hour.

Ellen uses this exercise as part of a methodology of determining who your best prospects are, but it works for my point about spending your time wisely.

In Conclusion

So to wrap this up, it’s pretty simple. If you want to raise more money, spend as much time as possible out of the office and visiting with prospects and donors.

To quote what my mentor in this business, some 30+ years ago when I was just a baby fundraiser, instilled in me: just do it (with all due respect to Nike’s trademark rights.

Glenn is a fundraising strategist who loves working with small- to mid-size organizations that want to innovate and grow. Check out his website at, and to find out how he can help you, email him at You can follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter

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