Claire Axelrad discusses major gifts

Episode aired Nov. 18, 2021: Major Gifts

Fundraising authority Claire Axelrad of Clairification is an expert in major gift giving. She explains how your organization should be looking to identify potential donors, engage with and solicit gifts from them. In this episode Claire discusses 

  • What exactly defines a major gift
  • The difference between contributor, supporter, giver and investor
  • Who in your donor database is a potential major giver
  • How to prepare to make a major gift ask
  • The importance of who should make the ask and
  • The one thing you MUST do to retain donors.      

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit and fundraising authority, Claire Axelrad. Claire, how you doing today?

Claire: I’m doing great. Thank you for inviting me.  

Ephraim: My pleasure. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Having worked as an attorney and then in legal publishing, Claire started a 30-year career as a frontline leader, raising millions of dollars for social sector causes. After earning AFP’s outstanding fundraising professional of the year award in 2011, she left the trenches to found her fundraising training and coaching business. Clarification is her evergreen online fundraising school. Claire’s blog was named top fundraising blog by Fundraising Success. She contributes to Candid, Network for Good, Nonprofit Pro, SOFII, Top Nonprofits and more. Claire teaches CFRE certified courses and is chief fundraising coach and featured expert for Bloomerang. She is a member of the California State Bar, alumni of The Fundraising School, Conrad Teitell Intensive Planned Giving Program and Lily Family School of Philanthropy Executive Leadership Institute and a graduate with honors from Princeton University. Claire resides in San Francisco, California.

What Is A Major Gift

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss major gifts. Let’s dive right in. Claire, how do you define major gifts?

 Claire: Someone who makes a major gift I define as someone who has some real skin in the game. They don’t give casually, they don’t give just habitually. They give thoughtfully and passionately and they care a lot about their investment. They want to know about its impact and you know I guess that’s the key is that they’re really all in.  They’re investors and there’s a lot in the name and I like to think…

I talk to people a lot about let’s consider the power of language. When you think about your donor, do you think about them as a contributor? To me the word ‘contribute’ generally connotes helping achieve something, contributing towards a common fund. It’s not a big vision word and in major gifts, you really need to think and dream big. ‘Donor,’ that also connotes provision of a part, like an organ or like donating blood and it can be an important part but it’s still not perceived as major and that’s why I think so many organizations have levels of giving, where donor is at the bottom and then it’s followed by patron, benefactor, guardian angel and the like. 

Then there’s supporter which also is kind of a lower rung word. Supporters help but they don’t make it happen. They might not even give money. They might be an advocate, they might be a booster, a promoter. All great things but not a major gift investment. And then we talk about major giver and giver I say, now we’re beginning to talk. A gift also connotes a special ability, a special talent, a gift and giving is special. Everybody likes gifts, especially gifts where the giver puts a lot of thought into selection. Thoughtful gifts are gifts that keep on giving and that’s what a major gift is like. The giver and the recipient feel great joy that there was a match made between the givers intentions and the recipient’s needs and desires.

Then you come to invest, which I find to be a really powerful word and I think it’s important for us in our role as fundraiser to think of major donors as investors, which comes from Latin ‘investire’ which means to clothe or attire. In other words, to cover completely. You can’t get more major than that. So it’s not just semantics. It’s really how you frame your communications with people. If you think about it, for-profit ventures don’t seek donors. They seek investors, people with knowledge and interest in what they do, who will realize the value of their investment over time. So you don’t want, I guess… a major donor is not somebody that’s just casually contributing a small amount or making a quick purchase. That’s not going to get them where they need to go and it’s not ultimately going to get you there either.

Who Is A Major Gift Prospect

Ephraim: I like the way you built that up. So let’s now look at the who. Who in a nonprofit donor database could be considered as a major gift prospect or who or what should an organization be looking for?

Claire: Okay. It of course depends on you and your number of donors and what giving is like for your constituency. But I generally like to look at several different things. One is the simplest: They make an above average gift for your donors. Jay Love, who is my colleague at Bloomerang, likes to look at the people who give you 90 percent of your contribution income. That’s a very simple way. 

The more fuller way is to just look at the top 10, 15 or 20 percent of your database, depending on what yours look like, how many you have. The first step would be to just identify the top 10 percent of your annual individual donors, maybe over an 18-to-24-month period and include people who give from family foundations and donor advised funds, not private foundations where you have to submit a grant proposal. So you’re looking for people it makes sense to cultivate and you want to look at their cumulative giving over the period- not single gifts. A $100 monthly donor would be a 1,200 dollar donor and you want to kind of see what patterns you’re detecting. What is the range of top donor gifts and if you have like 10 of them and one of them is $25,000 and all the rest are $2,500 or below, then $25,000 wouldn’t be a good level to set your major donor amount. So kind of take a look at what’s the average gift. Does that feel like a good amount for your major donor amount or what is the median gift. Does that feel like a better amount and there’s some artistry to this but you’re going to have a gut feeling like yeah, if we make that our threshold, that’s going to be something that seems manageable. 

Now if you have more prospects than you can handle at that amount, you want to do some adjusting. Run a report. You’ve picked your amount by average or median. Run a report, see who’s given at that level or above in the last 12 to 18 months, maybe look at the preceding 12 to 18 months to see if you pick up some additional people and see how many you have and if the amount that you’ve selected is manageable for you, knowing that in general you’ve  probably heard a major gift officer who does nothing else can handle a portfolio of about 150 people- if you do anything else, research, events, mailings, you’re going to have to figure out how many hours in a day do I really have- and you want to kind of think: Can I imagine personally cultivating and making face-to-face asks with each of these people in the coming year. If you’ve got more than you can handle, your amount is too low. Readjust. If it’s less than 10 percent of your database, your amount is probably too high. So that’s how you look for them in your own database, which is the best place to start because these people already are linked to you. They’re interested in what you do and they’re philanthropic.

For non-donors, you want to look at three characteristics. I call this LIA, l-i-a. Linkage to your cause. Either they’ve given before, they’ve been a client, a patron, they’re a volunteer, they know one of your Board members, they’re linked. Interest in your cause. Just because a family member went to the hospital does not mean they are really interested in your mission. So linkage alone without interest doesn’t suffice. And then finally ability. It’s important that they have the capacity to make a major gift if you’re going to put them on your major gift cultivation track, because otherwise you’re really just wasting your time.

Prepping To Make A Major Gift Ask

Ephraim: Excellent. Thank you. Let’s build on that. Today’s actionable item: Please share with us three to four things an organization should prepare in advance before making a major gift ask.

Claire: Well you want to start with what you know about the donor and part of that just comes from noticing things that they tell you by how they give, areas of interest, ways that they earmark their gift, events they come to, whether they volunteer, if you have the ability to track social media shares or look at Google Analytics and see what pages they visit on your website or what articles they click on. The more you can track the better.

And then besides what you notice, there’s what you can ask them like sending people surveys, calling them, having meetings with people, doing some research to determine their capacity, their areas of interest. So you want to engage your donors in a conversation and the more you know them, then the more you’re going to be ready to make an ask. What you then want to do is develop a case for support that’s going to be something that you feel they’re passionate about. If you can engage people in their area of passion, you’re going to get a much larger gift than simply saying “will you make this large gift to our campaign?”  

Once you know what you want to talk to them about, you want to build an individual cultivation plan for each prospect on your list that has a number of we call them moves and touches. I don’t think of them as checklist items. I think of them as moving your donor emotionally and so you want to have that plan. You need someone in your organization that’s going to hold your feet to the fire and make sure you implement on that plan. Then you want to have someone that’s assigned not just to ask but to make sure that there’s somebody who’s planning for follow-up immediately with this donor and throughout the year. Because they’re investors, they want to  check in on how their investment is doing.  

How To Ask For A Major Gift

Ephraim: Excellent. All the answers and all the steps that an organization needs to do. So let’s get to the next step. Here’s something many fundraisers struggle with: How should they ask for a major gift?

Claire: I would say the number one thing is to ask joyfully, to ask passionately with your own skin in the game. We’re really trying to uplift donors. We don’t want to go to them and say what I hear so many volunteers say which is, “I’m here to hit you up for your gift this year” or they say to me “I’m gonna go twist his arm” and that’s painful. That brings people down. That is not uplifting.

The other thing is that I talk to a lot of Board members and they tell me that they don’t want to make the ask, that it feels like they’re imposing something and I say well, what do you do when you discover a great new restaurant or a new book or a new movie? What do you do and then they say, well I tell my friends and then I’d say like well, do you love this nonprofit? Yes. And why are you being so stingy about it? I guess the main thing is to before you ask kind of get in touch with your own passion and make sure that you have made a passionate gift for you too. You really have to get religion to preach religion. That’s the passion and then you have to walk the talk. There’s a reason we have all these adages. So you know if you’re not willing to do it, why should someone join you in doing it?

Then I guess the other thing before you make an ask, know what you’re going to ask for. Have a specific amount in mind and perhaps a specific project if you know what the donor is passionate about, because you don’t want to make the prospect guess how much would be the right amount to give. They don’t want to look like a chump and give you too much and they don’t want to look stingy and give you too little. So give them a ballpark so that they really have an idea. 

The one other thing that I think people don’t think about is who should be making this ask. Generally it should be the person who the donor will perceive as a VIP, the most important person, the most authoritative person but also the asker should be someone that the donor will perceive as friendly, likable. Maybe they already have a relationship with this person and sometimes a single asker embodies both those characteristics but not always. It’s very wonderful to have two people make the ask together, where one person is providing the role of I’m the authority, I can answer all your questions and the other is providing more of the I’m the testifier to my own passion, I  can tell you this is a great organization, provides the social proof that people need to feel comfortable like the Yelp seal of approval. Often that’s the Board member who does that and they don’t actually have to make the ask and that helps them feel a lot more comfortable.

Donor Retention Strategies

Ephraim: Excellent. On your website, you write a lot about donor retention. So we’ve made an ask, we’ve got a donor. What are some of the best strategies for keeping donors of all gift sizes, giving year after year?

Claire: That’s something I could kind of go on and on for days. It’s kind of a whole topic unto itself. But I guess one of the things that I would say is in all of your connecting with and conversations with donors, to really lead from an attitude of gratitude. We tend to unconsciously lead from an attitude of greed: How much can I get and then oh boy! I got that and then we send this perfunctory thank you and then we kind of warehouse them in our database and move on to the next person.

So I really like to think about each donor and even journal. We know there’s a lot of benefits from gratitude journaling. You can keep a donor gratitude journal and spend five minutes a day whoever you were last interacting with to just journal. What am I grateful to this person for and it’s usually more specific than they gave me money and then when you’ve done that, it’s easier to reflect that back in your thank you letter but also in staying in touch with them, like just something that you noticed about them or that you really care about them and just kind of keep that going. I mean of course…. 

I write a lot about your thank you has to be prompt, it has to be personal, it has to be powerfully indicative of the purpose of the gift and the impact that it’s going to make. But we also know that when people give, MRI studies show that they get this warm glow, they get this shot of dopamine. It makes them feel really good but other studies show that gratitude evaporates, that warm glow evaporates really quickly and there have been studies that show that if you repeat it, those people are much more likely to continue with you. So I like to build a whole donor love and loyalty plan with specific things that I’m going to do during the year just to show gratitude, because we tend to think giving is its own reward but it’s not always. I think it’s important to reward people for being good people and make them feel good. I had this whole 72 ways to thank your donors book, with all these ideas of different ways to say thank you that I’ve collected over the years. Things I’ve done, things other people have done and just to get kind of creative about not so random acts of kindness.

Let’s Learn More About Claire

Ephraim: I like it. All about the gratitude attitude. Lightning rounds. Let’s learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Claire: Well I was a lawyer and I was not enjoying it. I just found I’m not really helping people. It’s all about… it was civil procedure. It’s all who has the most money to file the most pleadings and interrogatories and all of that and so I was complaining to everybody I knew. Somebody said you know, you need to go to this career change workshop that I went to and I did and out of that, I ended up doing research interviews with people about what they did during their lives and honestly, I did like 200 of these and what I started to find as I got to the end is people were sort of saying, you might be interested in talking to these nonprofits, because I was talking to a lot of corporations who did the philanthropy, the philanthropic giving and they were like, you might like the flip side of what we do. I was like what’s that and they said development. I had never heard of development but once I started talking to nonprofits, it was yeah, that is what I want to do. So I worked for three decades in the trenches with different nonprofits as a director of development and marketing and learned everything. Then 10 years ago went out on my own and started doing my own practice of working with lots of different nonprofits and just sharing all the things that I’ve learned along the way and continue to learn.

Ephraim: Very cool. So given all your decades with nonprofits, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

 Claire: For me it would be to retire the donor pyramid. I know it had a good run but the world is not linear anymore, not since the digital revolution. We’re really not in control of how people learn… hang on…

People, some research shows, are about two-thirds along the pathway towards forming an opinion about what our nonprofits do before we even know they exist. So all of marketing used to be outbound, push marketing and I kind of think of that as pushing people up this donor pyramid or up this ladder.

We have to do a lot more inbound, a lot more pulling and I think of it as being like a magnetic force. So I’ve written about reframing the donor journey as more of a swirling energy vortex and people get swept into it and sometimes they get swept back out and they’re in and out and they come towards the center as the energy kind of pulls them there. So I really like to think about all of the ways that people engage with us and those might be social media, they might be volunteering, they might be as a client. There’s so many directions and paths that people can take to get to us and it’s not static. It’s not like they’re in the middle and get stuck there or they’re in the top and that’s the pinnacle and now we’re done or that they lapsed and now they’re gone. It’s really like you come in and out over your life cycle. Sometimes you’re in a giving mode, sometimes you’re in a receiving mode and so I think we get really rigid when we think about this pyramid, that we have to move people up and the people at the bottom are not as important as the people at the top.

They’re all important and the people at what you might have would have thought in the past were the bottom are the people who are actively sharing you on social media and bringing you lots of people and they might be a hundred-dollar donor themselves but they did a do-it-yourself birthday, peer to peer campaign online and they brought in 10 more hundred dollar donors. We just have to think of people I think a little more expansively.  

Ephraim: Okay. Favorite and least favorite part of coaching and training?

Claire: My favorite part is I really love listening to people to kind of discover what their real challenge is. They always know that better than me. They just hadn’t been able to articulate it or admit it and a lot of times, people come to me with something that their boss told them to, like why don’t you get a consultant or a coach to talk about that but that’s not really where they are. I like it when they kind of get to this aha, this moment where they go wow, that’s such common sense, I don’t know why I wasn’t doing that. Now I know what to do. 

And my least favorite is kind of the flip side of that, where somebody asked me to do a plan for them and we spend hours and tons of money and lots of people’s time and then because of whatever is going on at the organization, that gets put into a drawer and never really used. I recently had somebody call me and ask me to do a legacy giving plan for them and I said, I’ll go you one better. I’ll send you the legacy plan I did for you four years ago.

Ephraim: Oh boy. I’m sad but that’s fantastic. Thank you for that good laugh. Best advice you received from one of your mentors?

Claire: I think it’s “don’t ask for gifts. Ask for advice.” People love to be asked for advice and it just works every time. People love to talk about themselves.

Ephraim: Excellent and finally, you’re a prolific writer for your site, Bloomerang and many others. What topic outside of nonprofits or fundraising would you like to write about?

Claire: I don’t know that it’s a topic but it’s a type of writing, which might be poetry. Because I found at various times in my life when I was going through something that was really difficult, challenging, sad, I turned to poetry and it’s just a way of expressing my authentic self that just comes from the heart, the belly as opposed to from my brain. I do a lot of cerebral thinking and I think poetry is really helpful. I found myself writing a lot of poetry over the past five years, just in response to all the craziness going on in our world. So I think that would be it.

Ephraim: That’s an interesting answer. Lastly, we will turn the tables. You get to ask me one question that I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Claire: Okay Ephraim. What legacy would you like to leave the world?

Ephraim: My three kids. My three kids. That for me is a very simple answer. Whatever causes, whatever good I’m doing, they’re the best I can have and will do. So my legacy is them and hopefully that they’re doing good out there as well as  they grow older. They already are but as they grow older they continue to do good and be the best that they can be. That’s a good enough legacy for me.

Claire: And what values do you think you’ve instilled in them that will be their legacy?

Ephraim: Oh values. I think the idea of always helping others is the first thing. That’s one and two is the value of looking out for yourself. I know the two may not go together but other people aren’t necessarily going to be looking out for you and you’ve got… I don’t know if that’s a value or not but it’s kind of something I’ve instilled in them, that they need to look out for themselves and make sure they’re okay. But always make sure you’re looking at the other person and making sure they’re okay.

Claire: Sure.

Ephraim: I don’t want them to be selfish but I also want them to know they should look out for number one, because if they don’t who will.

Claire: Also, if you don’t look out for yourself, it’s very hard for you to look out for other people.

Ephraim: Correct. So that would be the legacies and values that I’m leaving behind.  

Claire: I would add that that’s a question that I’d really like to ask major donors, what would you like your legacy to be and not just if I’m asking for a legacy gift but any gift, because it does get us into a values conversation and that’s where you start to discover the things that they really value which makes it possible for you to then develop an offer for them that helps them to express those values.

Ephraim: Excellent. I hope everybody listening and watching heard that, because that’s a great point to end on. That was fantastic and that’s a good way to end this conversation but to start a conversation with major donors and legacy givers and all the others. 

Claire thanks very very much for appearing on the podcast. I encourage everyone to a connect with Claire on LinkedIn, connect with her on twitter @CharityClairity and learn more about her work on her website at Claire, it was a pleasure learning from you today. Thanks so much.

Claire: Thank you.

Ephraim: Have a good day.

Claire: You too.