How to Design a Major Gifts Program That Works

by Barbara Barron | Posted October 19th, 2022 | Subscribe to this newsletter

About 18 months ago, I published an article about how and why to start a major gifts program.

The reasons for doing so, as I stated there, are many: including capitalizing on the opportunity to seek significant support from families with means who may not be enrolled in your school the next time a large-scale fundraising moment, like a capital campaign, occurs. The logic here is that most schools mount capital campaigns once every 5-10 years, for dozens of good reasons.

But a well-thought-out major gift program can run concurrent to your other fundraising. Just like your Annual Fund and any special events where you seek gifts. It does not have to cannibalize them.

As I wrote, a good major gift program is well designed. It has a short list of needed projects that, generally, have the winning appeal of being tangible, immediate, and high impact. This is the magical trifecta in fundraising!

It is also highly selective. It is not participation-based. It is tailored to the handful of families who have the capacity to give significantly beyond annual giving. I wrote in my previous article about the importance of setting the bar high for this. Higher than you initially think is feasible.

But as I coached a client recently, you can always dial it back — but it is exceedingly difficult to raise the entry-level gift once you go live. So, take a deep breath, and go high!

In addition to those essentials, I have recently been recommending that we do a few more things to ensure the program is well-designed and well-run.

A Well-Documented Vision

First, is to create a vision for it. Make it a written document that the Board can digest and adopt. This helps keep it top of mind and prevents it from getting watered down.

Here’s a simple example:

The Major Gift Program at The Nirvana School will create compelling giving opportunities for selected donors who have the capacity and desire to give above the leadership annual giving level. They will be presented with projects that have an immediate and lasting impact on the school, its programs and people, as well as its ability to deliver on its mission more fully.

We envision a program that creates an evolving group of enthusiastic supporters who help transform the school by giving joyfully through their personal philanthropy.

Gifts to The Nirvana School Major Gifts Program range from $100,000 – $2,000,000.

Established Roles

Next, get clear about roles.

What are the responsibilities of the professionals? The Director and Head of School? What are the responsibilities of the volunteers – meaning the trustees?

A good model is to form an ad hoc committee of the Development or Advancement Committee to work on this. This small group can help shape the vision statement and set policies like acceptable giving levels and pledge payment periods. They can oversee the selection of projects generated by staff. They will be the advocates for it at the Board level. And, critically important, they will personally support it. That way, they can serve in the helpful role of solicitor (or minimally, cultivator) along with the Head and Director.

See what I did there? If they build it and support it, they can help ask others to join them.

The Director of Advancement is always going to be tasked with identifying prospective donors for the program, given their access to giving records, prospect research, and knowledge of the relationships. In many cases, they will also serve as air traffic control regarding the setting up of cultivation meetings to share the projects available for support and to learn what the families are most interested in. But for best results, the members of the Major Gift committee are ready to take those meetings with the Head or Director. And they are on call to participate in the solicitation meetings that follow.

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Great Marketing Materials

Finally, the marketing materials you develop for this project are very important.

My successful experience with this work involves creating highly customized proposals, be they printed brochures or a beautiful slide deck. You are not mass producing these. If you’re blessed to have fifteen or so opportunities in a year to present your program, good on ya!

But for most schools, the number is small. Take the time and spend the dollars to design and produce individualized appeals. The ROI is excellent here.

Get focused. Stay intentional. Be bold. The potential results of a good program are huge and far-reaching. And the experience and chops you will gain from building and running a major gift program are significant for your school and your career.

I’d love to help you put your program together. Regardless, I wish you good luck. You’re going to do great!

Stay well.

Barbara Barron

[email protected] // @BBAdvancement

About the Author

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful fundraising plans and programs for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal Springs, Presidio Knolls, Sage Ridge, and San Diego French American, and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.

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