Cultivating Major Gifts in Challenging Times


The highest priority for any development officer, of course, is nurturing relationships with an organization’s most significant donors and prospects. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create economic and social challenges, gift officers are taking a fresh look at these relationships. They want to be sure they are connecting in a meaningful way while also being sensitive to donors’ changing circumstances. CFA’s Jake Muszynski and Tony Grundhauser are working with leading nonprofits to help them offset the impact of the pandemic by staying active in the major gifts cycle, with a sustained focus on impact. 

These days, more than ever, that impact can be financial, but it can also be in the form of feedback, insight, and wisdom. “So much of this work is about mindset,” Muszynski explains.  “As you connect donors with the mission and vision of the organization, there should always be an ask – but rarely is that for financial commitment. Ask for feedback and guidance, to better understand  their interests and passions, or for another meeting – that’s how you build relationships.”

Should we ask for major gifts during a pandemic?

There’s no question that the pandemic has disrupted plans, changed pipelines, and created massive retrenching for most organizations – nonprofit or not. The level of disruption varies by community and organization; in fact, for some, the challenging year has brought donors closer. “Our clients are now seeing leadership donors giving more, rather than less,” Muszynski says. “That’s partially  because they are less affected by the downturn, but it is also because they know how impacted the organizations are.”

“We’re definitely seeing organizations turn to their major donors during this time,” says Grundhauser. “As they should. The stock market continues to do well, and people want to help. We all see the arts and cultural institutions closing to the public, and higher education students struggling to pay tuition or stay on campus. All of that has an impact on an organization’s ability to realize  its mission. We need to create urgency but not desperation. This is such a fitting time to line up passion with opportunity.” 

Client Spotlight

Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) is committed to permanently closing the achievement gap and end generational poverty in North Minneapolis.

After the murder of George Floyd, a New York Times oped article highlighted NAZ’s work. As a result of that attention, the organization began receiving new first-time gifts from donors across the country. NAZ called on CFA to help them create a system to build meaningful relationships with these new donors and to show the impact of these and future gifts.

The new system includes setting a threshold for a “major gift,” choosing tools to identify and qualify prospects, while building ways to show the impact of contributions and connect with donors. This led to such initiatives as invitation-only virtual events with leaders in the antiracism movement as well as a structure of benefits for recognizing, stewarding and engaging individuals once their gifts have been made.

How do we approach the major gifts cycle in a pandemic?

After they have  addressed the question of whether to ask for gifts and cultivate major donors, many gift officers are finding new ways to connect with donors and supporters. We’ve provided a full guide to the major gifts cycle here. It contains foundational information that can help you optimize your major gifts program no matter the social or economic environment.

When old tactics and methods for cultivating major gifts are no longer available, fundraisers continue to adjust their programs and their approach. Here are some effective ways to identify and engage your biggest supporters:

  • Identification and Qualification: These stages are research based, and the pandemic has had little effect on their implementation. The most important thing to remember is to keep working these stages, even as other activities may have slowed down. The pandemic will likely affect the middle tier of donors most; major donors seem to be maintaining, and smaller-dollar donors are keeping their giving steady. The ones that were stretching to give $500 to $5,000 and were on your way to being the next major donors may be rebalancing their financial priorities and have to  pull back if the economic downturn is hitting them.
  • Cultivation: Always the lengthiest and most important stage, this is when you help the donor see how they can have the greatest impact and help them feel connected to your organization. It  has traditionally been a face-to-face effort, with many lunches and events. Organizations are continuing to cultivate relationships during the pandemic, despite the logistical challenges.One client creates video updates to let donors and prospective donors know how its new campaign is going. It is an easy, yet human way to keep people excited and motivate them to participate. The team plans to host virtual programs for campaign prospects over the winter and hosted trail walks in the spring to help people connect in person while maintaining  physical distance. Another client has developed a series of invitation-only virtual events with civic leaders, authors, and activists discussing critical issues in the community. These sessions are a way for staff and volunteer fundraisers to connect campaign prospects with the organization on issues they care deeply about, keeping them engaged in the campaign.
  • Solicitation:  “Major gifts officers know that if they’ve performed the initial work correctly, the monetary ask basically makes itself when the time is right,” Muszynski explains. That organic progression might be harder to judge when you’re not with people in person, and it may feel uncomfortable at first to make a formal request for funds from a distance. However, as the pandemic has progressed, people have become much more accustomed to doing business remotely. As Grundhauser says, “We are working with clients to solicit  six- and seven-figure gifts not face-to-face, but remotely through Zoom or similar platforms.
  • Closing: Be sure to follow up in a timely manner after the solicitation conversation. The donor may need clarity about recognition or the structure of a matching program. If the donor is still considering the amount, it may be helpful for them to speak with your executive director, campaign chair, or board chair. Timely follow-up is critical and your goal is to secure a signed pledge form. “You’ve just asked someone for a significant show of support for your organization,” Grundhauser says. “If a week goes by before they hear from you, that’s a problem.”
  • Stewardship: According to Grundhauser, “Our firm’s president, Paul Johnson, likes to say that your best stewarded gift is your next major gift. If someone makes a major gift to your organization, it’s probably not their last. So as you think of ways to thank and recognize them, make sure you are also planning to continue the conversation well after the gift is made.” 

Looking ahead

Building a major gifts program is not  a short-term goal. So while the best time to start a program may have been two years ago, the next-best time is now. If your organization is planning for a new campaign, think about how you are connecting with your donors now and see what you can do to start the major gifts cycle.

“This is a great time for assessment,” Grundhauser points out. “Step back and look at the resources you’re putting into your program and how you’re aligned behind major gifts, if you are aligned behind major gifts, at all. Make sure you can articulate your strategy and vision, and make sure you are talking often with your closest friends.”

“Relationships are important,” Muszynski says. “The very specific strategy of building relationships and engagement between your organization and its donors is more important than asking now for a gift. Get clear on your strategy and vision, and start talking to people. Distance and safety measures do not  have to slow you down.”

Read more about CFA’s services or contact us to discuss your initiative.

Stop doing routine events.
If you could create more meaningful relationships and ultimately drive more revenue putting your events dollars and energies toward cultivating major gifts;

Stop forcing your donors into your needs/buckets:
They want to know their gift will make an impact, so be flexible and creative about their opportunities to give.
Start asking donors for advice.
This is a great time to connect and see how different businesses are responding to the pandemic and other challenges;

Start learning more about your donors’ passions:
This enables you to work with donors to decide how they want to spend their money.
Continue to ask:
for help
for feedback
for advice;

Ask supporters to engage with events, programs and content, and eventually continue to ask them for gifts.

Jake Muszynski Creative Fundraising Advisors

Jake is a Principal at Creative Fundraising Advisors based in the Twin Cities.