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Major donors

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About the process of finding and building relationships with people who will give large donations.

This section is about finding and building relationships with people who might give large donations.

Major donor fundraising is an art. It is all about relationships and looking after your donors. It involves building relationships with high-net-worth individuals, to the point where they naturally want to make a difference by increasing the level of their donation.

Organisations will have different views about what constitutes a major donor. For some it may be an individual donation of £1,000 or more. For others it might mean a gift of over £100,000. There is no right or wrong level, but it is about the donor’s ability to give, ideally at a level that challenges them.

Is your organisation ready for a major donor?

Major donors should be a valuable and ongoing source of income. The time spent cultivating a potential major donor is crucial and also cost effective: one donor can seriously change your organisation’s income. It is also easier to build a long term, meaningful relationship with a substantial donor than to use direct mail. However, it is important to check if your organisation is ready to launch a major donor campaign and that the right culture exists to enable this. Serious donors need to feel some ownership of the organisation’s mission and will expect an inside track to your future plans, goals, achievements and challenges. They may also expect to have regular contact with your chief executive and chair. At times they can be challenging and demanding, but this is often because they are passionate about the cause. 

Why do donors give?

Major donors have a wide variety of reasons for identifying with and giving to a cause.

  • Philanthropy – they believe in giving. They may have a religious motivation, be purely altruistic, and have a social conscience
  • Affinity – they personally identify with the cause (they might be motivated to give to a cancer charity if they or someone they know has suffered with cancer)
  • Social recognition – they may enjoy seeing their name on your headed paper or on a building, or a glitzy dinner with celebrities or royalty
  • Mutual benefit – it might be good for business or enhance their social circle. They might be giving for reasons that are not obvious to you
  • Financial – making donations to charity can attract tax relief for high-net-worth individuals, which may be a significant driver.

It is useful to work out their motivations and then to match these with what your organisation can offer. At all times they have to feel good about giving and that they are making a difference to the people and communities your organisation supports. Make sure they know how their gift is changing people’s lives, or securing the future of the environment, or restoring built or natural heritage.

Influencing donors

Influence is crucial in all that a fundraiser does – the five P’s are a useful way to think about this.

  • Passion – emotional engagement – donors need you to be passionate about the cause you are representing; tell them how you help change lives
  • Proposal – define the problem and suggest a solution (this is your case for support)
  • Preparation – what do you want the outcomes to be? Consider a range of outcomes in order of priority. Eliminate negatives
  • Persuasion - rapport (tone), language, donor point of view – understand what motivates them
  • Persistence – Intelligent flexibility. Change, go for your goal.

The seven steps

Traditionally there is a seven step approach to engaging with major donors. This is a useful tool but as with all relationships should not be rigidly adhered to. Take the donor on a journey, at their own pace.

1. Identify potential donors

Who are your potential donors? It’s always good to start with your existing customers. Are there any hidden gems in your database?  These could be donors currently giving small sums but who have the potential to give a significant gift with the right approach. 

2. Research potential donors

Research the people you’ve identified – are they good prospects? What can you find out about them? Public information about high-net-worth individuals is increasingly available, through search engines, rich lists, Who’s Who etc, but it is often soft information that is most valuable. So find out who may know your prospects. Ask your trustees, existing donors who are close to you, and even your friends and relatives. Importantly, also identify any potential risks that may arise from accepting a large donation.

3. Plan for potential donors

A plan should be tailored to their motivations. It can take three years to successfully engage a key prospect.

You generally need four prospects at ‘ask’ to get one donation. For example, the NSPCC’s average was just over three ‘asks’ to every gift. 

4. Involve the donor

Engage the donor and build a relationship with them. Are there briefings they can attend or small dinners or breakfast meetings where they can ask questions?

Some people will give a donation at the first meeting. Other people will take years to donate.

5. Ask the donor

  • If you can get away with it, never mention money at the ‘ask’, instead ask them to get involved and pledge their support.
  • Tell them about what their gift could achieve.
  • Know when to keep quiet! You’ll be far more nervous than they are and could be tempted to start babbling.
  • They will probably ask you a lot of questions. So make sure you’re in a position to answer them.
  • It will be a big decision for them and they may well want to go away and talk to their family or accountant.
  • You don’t have the close the deal – the challenge is to not get a ‘no’.
  • Rehearse your pitch! 

6. Close

You might need a final meeting for them to talk with a trustee, finance director or chief executive. This might need to be done in stages so that they are comfortable that their donation will be well spent.

7. Thank the donor

  • Do it quickly - as soon as you receive the donation.
  • If you don’t have an internal system that alerts you the day a donation comes in, then you need to create one. Thanking without delay is crucial if you want the donor to donate again in the future.
  • The ‘close’ might have taken a while and it can be a tedious process. The ‘thank you’ needs to bring them back to the reason why they gave.
  • Should they be thanked by the chief executive, chair of trustees, or by one of the people on the frontline (a scientist, a street worker etc)? Think about why they donated and tailor your response accordingly. 

8. A final and crucial step – stewardship

This is used extensively in the States and has been adapted by UK charities.

  • How can you keep them engaged?
  • These are your best prospects for future donations and you need to treat them accordingly.
  • What creative approaches can you use to ensure they feel valued and part of your future plans?
  • And as trust is such a central issue don't forget to read our page on data protection and fundraising

Other ways for major donors to give

Allia is a charitable investment service supporting causes that give people a better future. Its charitable bonds provide a way for supporters to make a secure, fixed-return social investment and release an up-front, tax-free gift for their chosen cause.

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Page last edited May 29, 2019

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