Finding Your Major Gift Prospects in 4 Tried-and-True Steps

Thank you to Guest Blogger, Sarah Tedesco of Donorsearch, for pulling together these terrific ideas!

Finding Your Major Gift Prospects in 4 Tried-and-True Steps

Your current donors, volunteers, and advocates are amazing. They turn out for fundraising events, contribute to your annual fund, and share their stories about your organization to their friends and families. They’re all you could ask for!

But it’s time to take on your most ambitious project yet, and you aren’t sure your current donation levels can support it.

It’s time to bring some new donors on board — and major donors, at that.

We’re here to help you with four reliable strategies to find prospects that will turn into your most engaged major donors yet, from the highest potential ROI to the lowest:

  1. Look for patterns in your donor data.
  2. Leverage connections and referrals.
  3. Take advantage of corporate philanthropy.
  4. Explore public records.

These strategies take you within your current donor database as well as outside of your existing donor pool.

Ready to find awesome major gifts prospects? Let’s get started!

1. Look for patterns in your donor data.

The best place to look for new major donors is your own donor database. You already know that your existing supporters care about your nonprofit and its mission. That’s a lot more than you can say about prospects who might never have considered your organization before.

While you can get lucky with outside prospects, your chances of finding someone committed enough to your mission to contribute a major gift are much higher if you look for individuals who have already demonstrated that commitment in some way.

Just because an individual donor, volunteer, or stakeholder hasn’t made a major donation before doesn’t mean they can’t or wouldn’t.

To find major donor prospects among your current constituents, look within your donor database for these indications, curated by DonorSearch, that a donor has the ability and inclination to give more:

  • Past giving to your nonprofit: Donors who have regularly given medium-sized gifts might have the ability to up their gift amount, especially if they show dedication to your nonprofit in other meaningful ways (e.g., volunteering, advocating, serving on the board or a committee).


  • Involvement with other nonprofits: Has your donor given a major gift to another nonprofit? Is there a connection between that organization and yours that you could emphasize to interest the donor in making a similar gift to your next campaign? You can check public donor recognition records and annual reports for this information.


  • Employment information: Individuals who hold C-level positions or own their own business are most likely to have the means to contribute a major gift. Their company’s business connections could also open up corporate philanthropy options, which we’ll cover in more detail in section three!


  • Hobbies and interests: Wealth alone can’t tell you if a donor is willing to make a larger contribution to your nonprofit. Involvement in community organizations, including schools and religious organizations, can tell you a lot about an individual donor’s propensity for charitable giving.


  • Wealth markers: Factors such as real estate ownership, political contributions, and SEC transactions are available for public scrutiny. (To learn more about these wealth markers and how they help you build a profile of your donor’s capacity and willingness to give major gifts, read on to section four!)

It’s easy to slip into thinking that if your donors had more to give, they would already be contributing it. You might be thinking about how hard your current donors are already working to support your nonprofit. Why push them too hard and risk driving them away?

The trick to mitigating these concerns is to maintain as robust donor profiles as possible. The more you know about your donors, the better targeted your major gift solicitations can be. You greatly increase your chances of receiving a “yes” if you know who, how, and when to ask.

2. Leverage connections and referrals.

Sometimes, finding major gift prospects inside and outside your organization isn’t the hard part — reaching out to them is.

Your most viable prospects likely find themselves on plenty of prospect lists. They’re probably used to ignoring generic solicitations from organizations they don’t have a close connection with.

To ensure that you make the most of your prospect search by approaching the candidates most likely to answer, you need more than a generic email. You need a personal solicitation from someone known to the prospect.

Take your prospect list, whether the individuals on the list came from within or without your organization, and narrow it down to the prospects with an identifiable connection to one of your nonprofit board or staff members, volunteers, or current donors (especially major donors). LinkedIn is a great resource for this kind of research.

Here are some of the connections to look out for:


  • Familial: Do you know anyone related to your prospect?


  • Educational: Do you know anyone who went to school, either K-12 or university, with your prospect? Do you know anyone in the same Greek organization or honors society as your prospect?


  • Professional: Do you know anyone who worked with, worked for, or supervised your prospect? Do you know anyone in the same professional organizations or who attended the same conferences as your prospect?


  • Community: Do you know anyone who lives in the same community or is a member of the same community organizations as your prospect?


  • Hobbies: Do you know anyone in the same rec league, book club, or political action group as your prospect?


To know who to approach with your prospect list, your nonprofit needs to have a reliable way of mapping these relationships. The right nonprofit software solution, like those that made Double the Donation’s list of the best nonprofit software, can make this process much easier.

All you have to do is ensure that your donor and prospect profiles are as accurate and comprehensive as possible, and the best software solutions can pull any reports you need.

For example, you discover through prospect research the university that a potential major donor attended. You filter your constituent database for the name of that university, and voila! A list of donors, volunteers, and staff members who also attended.

You can now look for other connections between your prospect and other alma mater of that university to choose the best person to reach out.

Also open your prospect search up to referrals! Just because someone didn’t make it on your prospect list doesn’t mean they wouldn’t contribute a major gift. Make sure your current constituents, especially your board members and executive officers, know that they can recommend someone at any time.

3. Take advantage of corporate philanthropy.

Major gifts come in many shapes and sizes. One of the best ways to expand your search for your next major gifts is to consider corporate philanthropy!

Let’s say you’re looking for a major gift for a university fundraising initiative to fund a new scholarship for low-income students. A university’s main donor pool is alumni, who don’t always have the means on their own to contribute a major gift. But an alumnus with a connection to a charitable company has other means. Their employer could sponsor the scholarship or match their employees’ donations to your campaign!

Corporate philanthropy comes in many forms, all of which have the ability to turn a normal-sized gift into a more sizable one, especially for smaller nonprofits:

  • Matching gifts, for direct donations
  • Fundraising matches, for peer-to-peer fundraising initiatives
  • Community grants, for community-funded initiatives
  • Annual giving, for annual funds
  • Volunteer grants, for volunteer hours
  • Sponsorships, for fundraising events

You should look within your current donor list for employees of charitable companies, especially if those donors have taken advantage of their employer’s corporate philanthropy program in the past.

But you can also approach corporate philanthropy from the company’s side. Because partnering with charitable causes generates positive publicity, many companies post information about and pictures of their charitable activities on their websites and social media profiles.

Look for local businesses and larger corporations with a history of working with nonprofits similar to yours in size, mission, and geographic location. Then reach out to them, and encourage anyone you know who works there to also do so on your behalf!

Be sure to include in your letter or phone calls your mission, some statistics about your past campaigns, and a sense of urgency conveyed by a strong call to action.

4. Explore public records.

If you’ve exhausted leads from your existing donor list, it’s time to get a little more creative.

Searching for major gift prospects outside your organization can take a lot of your time for little return. But if you take the time to investigate the right information, you vastly increase your chances of finding not just wealthy individuals but also philanthropically inclined individuals.

Public databases can give you insight into these wealth markers and philanthropic indicators:

  • Real estate ownership: According to DonorSearch’s research, owners of more than $2 million in real estate are 17 times more likely to donate to charity than the average property owner. Plus, owning real estate in a specific community makes an individual more invested in philanthropic projects that benefit that community.


  • Political contributions: The same research indicates that individuals who contribute more than $2,500 to political causes are 14 times more likely to give philanthropically than the average person. You can also identify if an individual’s areas of interest intersect with your nonprofit’s.


  • Philanthropic contributions: Resources such as Guidestar and the Chronicle of Philanthropy maintain databases of major gift donors. By nature of landing in databases such as these, these donors have demonstrated their ability and propensity for sizeable charitable giving.


  • SEC transactions: Individuals who invest in publicly traded companies must, of course, have the means to do so. You can get a rough idea of a prospect’s wealth status from their public SEC transactions.


You can access these public databases from anywhere with an internet connection. You can also check out more specialized databases at your local library!

While these resources can point you to donors who have demonstrated their ability and propensity to give major gifts, you’re not the only nonprofit that knows it.

There’s a good chance your solicitation could get lost. Make sure you only reach out to the donors who have demonstrated interest in causes and organizations similar to yours to increase your chance of success.

Supporting your organization is hard work. Sometimes, you need to give your current donor pool a break by bringing in some new, high-impact major donors. With these strategies, you’ll be sure to find the perfect major donors for your nonprofit!



Sarah Tedesco is the Executive Vice President of DonorSearch, a prospect research and wealth screening company that focuses on proven philanthropy. Sarah is responsible for managing the production and customer support department concerning client contract fulfillment, increasing retention rate and customer satisfaction. She collaborates with other team members on a variety of issues including sales, marketing and product development ideas.


About The Author

Maria Semple is the Founder and CEO of The Prospect Finder LLC. Maria consults to small businesses and nonprofit organizations on email marketing, social media and prospecting strategies. Her book, "Magnify Your Business" was published in October 2015. She is also a Certified Solution Provider with Constant Contact.

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