Major gifts are the largest gifts your nonprofit receives. And no matter what a major gift looks like for your organization—whether that is $10,000 or $100,000—these large donations can do wonders for your nonprofit. 

Specifically, major gifts make up a large part of your revenue and allow you to both strengthen your existing programs and services and increase your capacity to serve your beneficiaries, potentially through increasing your nonprofit’s endowment

But before you can tap into these benefits, you have to identify your major donors and prepare to cultivate strong relationships with them. This is done through comprehensive prospect research, which is the process of examining data about individuals connected to your cause to determine whether they exhibit key markers of a major gift prospect. 

In this short guide, we’ll walk through three categories of major gift prospect markers, so you’ll know what to look for in your research. We’ll also cover some tips for putting your prospect research data to good use, with a focus on building genuine and lasting relationships.

Let’s begin!

Wealth (Capacity) Markers

The first thing that likely comes to mind when you think about the characteristics of a major gift giver is financial capacity. After all, in order to give a substantial gift (or even better, multiple substantial gifts!), an individual has to be in the right financial position to do so. 

This is where wealth markers, which are also known as capacity markers, come in. Here are some common examples: 

  • Real estate ownership
  • Stock holdings
  • Career and education information 
  • Business ownership or connections 

Another important capacity marker to consider will be information about the individual’s employer. This can help you learn whether your prospect is eligible for a corporate matching gift program. 

According to Double the Donation, through these programs, employers financially match their employees’ charitable contributions at a certain ratio. This means that if a major donor gets part or all of their gift matched, the impact of their donation will be boosted without them spending another cent—a true win-win for your nonprofit and your donors.

Propensity (Habit) Markers

Of course, just because someone can give a large gift to your nonprofit doesn’t mean they will. There are two more pieces to the major donor fundraising puzzle—propensity and affinity markers. 

Let’s begin with propensity markers, also known as habit markers. These markers indicate that the prospect in question has a habit of or inclination for charitable giving. 

Here are some examples of propensity markers: 

  • Donations to other charitable organizations 
  • History of board or advisory committee service
  • History of fundraising event attendance 

As you look over this list of markers, you may be wondering, “If a prospect is already involved in other philanthropic causes, how do I know they’ll be interested in giving to ours?” 

Just because a prospect is involved in or interested in other causes besides yours doesn’t mean they won’t be passionate about yours. After all, a desire to give and do good isn’t finite—prospects can be deeply invested in more than one charitable mission. In fact, knowing they have broad experience with nonprofit giving should give you confidence that they understand the big-picture importance of charitable work and will be excited to consider your nonprofit as another cause they can give to. 

However, it will be important to further qualify your prospects based on interest in your specific cause—that’s where affinity markers enter the picture. 

Affinity (Warmth) Markers

Affinity markers, also known as warmth markers, indicate that a prospect has a personal interest in supporting your specific organization’s cause because it resonates with them in some way. 

Here are some common examples of affinity markers: 

  • Political affiliations or donations
  • Past involvement or donations to your organization or similar organizations
  • A professional or personal connection to someone in your organization or donor pool
  • Values and interests 

What does it look like to find a prospect with one of these affinity markers? Say your nonprofit is focused on championing mental health and wellness among local high schoolers. You learn that one of your prospects has advocated for mental health-related legislation in the past and discover from their personal blog or social media profile that they’ve had their own experiences with mental health challenges. These affinity markers let you know that the individual would likely be excited to hear about your mission

Using Prospect Research Markers to Cultivate & Steward Donors 

Once you’ve found a major donor prospect that exhibits all three types of markers—capacity, propensity, and affinity—what do you do next?

The information you’ve found in the research process will propel you forward as you cultivate new prospects and steward donors who have given to your nonprofit before (but may now be able to level up their contributions). 

Here are some ways to put your prospect research findings into action.

Personalize your interactions and communications. 

You’ll likely already have some sort of connection with the prospects you find in your research, whether they know a member of your board or they’re a prominent community member who has attended a few of your fundraising events in the past. 

However, going the extra mile to personalize your interactions and communications with them can help your nonprofit stand out and begin building a strong foundation for a lasting relationship. 

Customize written communications with the prospect’s name and use their preferred communication channels. When you interact with them face-to-face, whether in-person, via Zoom, or over the phone, spend some time getting to know them as a person. What book are they reading? What TV show are they watching? How is their child’s school year going? Questions like these will help you build a genuine human connection with each potential supporter. 

Invite prospects to engage with your organization in other ways besides donating. 

Securing a major donation is certainly a win, but what is more important than a one-time major donation is a long-lasting relationship with each major donor. 

An invitation to participate in some aspect of your nonprofit work that isn’t donating, such as volunteering or attending a fundraising event, can make all the difference as you strive to build strong relationships with prospects and donors. 

Use what you’ve learned during the prospect research process to invite prospects to engage in opportunities you know they’ll likely be interested in. For example, you may know that one of your prospects had a long and successful career as an educator. You could then invite them to volunteer in your mentorship program. Or, you might know a prospect loves a good game of golf, prompting you to invite them to your annual summer golf tournament. 

Recognize your prospects’ contributions in meaningful ways. 

Recognizing your major donors is an important step in cultivating strong relationships with them. Use what you’ve learned through prospecting to thank them in ways that are meaningful to them. 

For instance, you might know that your donor has a collection of ball caps they enjoy adding to. You could send them a thank-you letter for their donation accompanied by a ball cap branded to your organization. Or, if your donor contributed to your capital campaign to build your new facility and you know that they’re passionate about building a legacy for their family to be proud of, you could show your thanks by including their name on your new donor wall

Even before a prospect has committed to contributing a monetary gift, make sure to thank them for their time and interest in your work. Send them an email or eCard letting them know you’re grateful for them and that you’re excited to connect with them again soon.  

Major gifts can be a major boost to your nonprofit’s work. As you launch into the prospect research process to identify more major gift prospects, remember to watch for capacity, propensity, and affinity markers, and to prepare to use the information you find to help build relationships with your prospects and donors. 

And, if you find that you need the help of an outside expert, follow Donorly’s advice and partner with a fundraising consultant that can assist you with prospect research and fine-tuning your fundraising strategy. An experienced consultant can make all the difference in your efforts to pull in more major gifts!