If your college or university needs to fundraise (and they all do), then it relies on finding a steady stream of new donors. Your fundraising funnel requires your school to put sufficient new prospects into the system in order to produce enough donations to fund your school’s activities.

Strong, systematic prospecting is doubly important for major donor fundraising. While many of your donors may give small amounts to your school simply because of their fond memories of attending or because their children currently attend, major donors will need to be approached and cultivated as part of a well-rounded donor cultivation plan.

Your Core Major Donor Prospect Groups

It is important to remember that for the average higher education institution, you have three core major donor prospect groups that you are working with:

  • Your alumni
  • Parents and family members of current students
  • Philanthropists who are interested in your programs or methodology

In order to find new major donors, your team will need to pay close attention to these three groups of people to intentionally determine whether or not individuals are good major donor prospects for your school.

To be considered a strong major donor prospect for your institution, a person must (a) be part of one of those three groups or otherwise have indicated a willingness to give to your school, (b) have the financial capacity to give a major gift, and (c) be “reachable” by your school, meaning that someone from your college/university can make contact with the donor.  (E.g. Bill Gates may be fond of your school’s educational methodology but unless someone from your college can pick up the phone and call him, he’s not a good prospect for your institution).

How to Approach Major Donor Prospects

Finding suitable major donor prospects for your school is only half of the battle. In order to reap large gifts for your college or university, your fundraising team will need to approach and cultivate each prospect individually before making an ask.

Remember that donors give to non-profits based on relationships. Many of your major donor prospects will already have some sort of relationship with your university (as an alumni, parent, etc.) but that’s not enough for them to make a transformative gift to your institution. You will need to invest time and resources into building strong, ongoing relationships with your major prospects in order for them to give.

The best way to reach out to a new major donor prospect is to be direct. If someone at your school, on your board, or in your donor universe knows the prospect, ask them to make an introduction.  If no one can make an introduction, then your fundraising lead or someone relatively high in the school administration should pick up the phone and invite the prospect out for breakfast, lunch or coffee. Spend some time getting to know the prospect. Let them do the talking. Ask for their advice. Determine their interests. Then thank them for their time

Your goal after the first meeting is to spend anywhere from 2-6 months cultivating the donor prior to making an ask. (This may differ if you are making a major, life-changing sized ask, though that type of ask should generally not be the first major ask you make of a prospect). Stay in touch with the prospect through e-mails, letters, visits, calls, etc. Slowly build your case for a major gift and slowly get the person involved with other, non-financial activities. Lay the foundation now, and you’ll soon be ready to make a major ask.

Join us for Webinar #2: How to Find Major Donor Prospects for Your Higher Education Institution (March 16th at 1 PM Eastern Time)


Joe Garecht is a nonprofit fundraising consultant, an author and speaker, and the founder of The Fundraising Authority. Joe has been a professional fundraiser for over a decade and during that time, has served as a development director, executive director, and fundraising consultant to numerous nonprofits and political campaigns. As the executive director of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), Joe led the effort to raise $50 million in endowments for individual schools, raise $4 million yearly in scholarship funds, and modernize and professionalize the fundraising capabilities of over 175 parochial schools in the Philadelphia region. Joe is the author of How to Raise More Money for Any Non-Profit, The Silent Auction Handbook, The Non-Profit Fundraising Formula, and Raising Money Without Going Crazy. All four books are available on Amazon. For more great information on how to raise more money for your school, church, or other nonprofit organization, visit Joe on the web at www.thefundraisingauthority.com.

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