Meeting your Match: the Practical Philosophy of Major Gifts

Meeting your Match: the Practical Philosophy of Major Gifts

Margaret Clift McNulty | 30 June 2016

When people ask me what it’s like being a Major Gifts fundraiser I describe it as match-making. It's about finding the people who care about the same things your organisation cares about – and giving them the chance to make a difference.

Meeting your Match: the Practical Philosophy of Major Gifts

When people ask me what it’s like being a Major Gifts fundraiser, I describe it as match-making. It's about finding the people who care about the same things your organisation cares about – and giving them the chance to make a difference. 

The principle applies in any charity or fundraising organisation. Whether you’re working in human rights or hospitals, in the arts or in education, you’re match-making. You’re getting to know people, nurturing relationships, understanding what someone cares about and helping them find a way to do something about it in a really significant way. 

I expect that we have all, at some point in our lives, experienced the feeling of wellbeing which comes from making a difference to someone or something we care about. Whether it's helping a friend with their CV and interview skills, then seeing them get the job they longed for; whether it's giving a hug to a grieving relative; whether it's volunteering at a donation drive, collecting warm socks and clothes for people who have nothing and knowing you're helping your community to make the world a better place. Think back to that feeling. It feels good doesn't it? 

Hold that thought.

I once worked with fundraising colleague who had been asked to take on Major Gifts work as part of her role. She was decidedly not up for it. The words "making the ask" struck fear into her heart: she viewed the whole thing as a complex sales job, thinking she would be expected to talk people out of their hard earned cash. I was absolutely horrified. That's not what Major Gifts is about at all. 

So what does match-making mean in Major Gifts?

Most of us are familiar with the stages of fundraising whether you consider it to be 5, 7 or 9 stages. These are usually called things like: 

  • Identify
  • Research
  • Discover
  • Cultivate 
  • Ask
  • Close
  • Steward 


When we’re building relationships with potential major donors we progress through all these stages at some point. It takes time.

When we're moving from Identify to Discover we're effectively trying to sift through all the people we could connect with to find the few people that really want to make a difference to the same cause as us - the people who have the capacity and the motivation to be game changers.

That's a consultative process. We might use analysis and research to work out our shortlist but we will also consult with other people (trustees, Development Board members) and with the potential donors themselves to find out if this really could be for them. The best research is face to face.

Here's what we don't want to do:

  • Annoy people: we don't want to spend lots of time and energy trying to nurture a relationship with someone who really isn't interested and will never be interested. That's annoying for them and fruitless for us. But equally, we don’t want to…


  • Reject people: we don't want to disregard a relationship with someone who might really care about what we're doing but is simply too busy, too stressed or too overcommitted to speak to us right now, or who isn't especially excited by what we're doing right now but might be excited by future projects.


We get a “no” we need to listen so we can fully understand it. Give someone the space they need. Revisit when the time or the project is right - but stay in touch in between times. The path to a true match never did run smooth.

The research and consultation we've undertaken should help us to shape our approaches in such a way that we can find that important information. Because this isn't about selling a product to a cold audience, it's about entering a dialogue, building trust and helping people to find out if you are the organisation who can help them to make a difference.

That's what's commonly known as cultivation, though I’m sure if we thought hard we could come up with a better word for it.

Cultivation isn’t about inviting people to fancy dinners – though dinners and events can absolutely be part of cultivation. It’s about getting to know someone in the way that suits them best. For some people events are wonderful because they make people feel part of a peer group to which they want to belong. For others it’s a coffee and a chance to peak behind the scenes. Some don’t want too much in terms of face time. They just want to know what your organisation can do and have the satisfaction of making it happen.

So let’s skip forward to “making the ask”, a misnomer if there ever was one.

What does “making the ask” suggest to you?

To me it sounds like having to sit, sweaty palmed, heart thumping and having to slap down a number on a table. It sounds like standing and doing a pitch. It sounds like you will need to know everything right there and then.

It’s not. You don’t.

Because by the time you get to this point, your prospective donor is invested. You’ve found your potential match. They and your organisation have dated. You’re ready to take it to the next level.

That involves asking if they would be interested in helping to make a project or a project happen, or if they might want to become a patron or join your giving circle. You’re not throwing a number on the table. You’re showing them the thing to which they want to make a difference, and telling them how much it costs to make that difference.

You’re waiting for an indication of that person’s person. Then you’re waiting a bit more.

You’re offering to put the detail down in a proposal. You’re following up to ask for feedback and a decision.

You’re celebrating – with them – all that they are achieving with their gift. That’s what stewardship is, really. It’s a massive, mutual, long term celebration of everything you are achieving together.

Now go back to that thought you were holding. Remember how good it feels making a difference?  That’s what you are giving people who donate a Major Gift to a cause they really care about: a chance to feel like that.

It’s important not to forget that and to give someone the chance to really feel good about what they’ve done. That’s what acknowledgement and recognition really mean. If you hold that thought, it will help you to personalise your acknowledgement and recognition to be really meaningful to your donor.

Sometimes it doesn’t quite work out.  Sometimes you’re told… not this, not now, too soon, not you… and in that scenario, your next step is to work out a way to make it work for everyone involved – the donor and the beneficiaries. Getting a “no” of this type isn’t a closed door – it’s a sign post to a more convoluted path.

And that’s fine. You can work it out, because that’s what match-makers* do.

(*and Major Gifts fundraisers).

Margaret Clift McNulty, Head of Development at National Museums Scotland


Madison , | 30 June 2016

Great blog, it's nice to see someone break down major gift fundraising and show that it is not as difficult or as daunting as it can appear at first glance. Just like any other fundraising its about breaking down into steps, doing your research and engaging with people in a purposeful, meaningful way. The more human and personal the engagement is, the better. This doesn't necessarily mean face to face, but simply that you care about their involvement and are trying to build a genuine relationship with the donor.

Lynda Kraar, Lynda Kraar and Associates | 2 March 2018

Beautifully said. Just seeing this now but I think every major gifts professional needs to get in touch with these sentiments. We are either on the lifelong journey, or we are somewhere else. I'm printing and framing this entry. Carry on being fabulous.

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