5 Essential Tips and Strategies for Improving How You Make Outreach to Major Donor Prospects

Making outreach to major donor prospects requires a set of skills that too often get shoved to the back burner. And yet, outreach is one of the most essential components of major gifts fundraising.

If you don’t successfully reach out to donors and prospects to schedule appointments, calls, and meetings, you don’t raise any money. It all hinges on making outreach that leads to meetings.

But, many fundraising ‘experts’ brush this hurdle aside, preferring to focus on how important it is to “get out there more,” escape the office, and just have coffee with more prospects so you can listen, understand, and build trust. Great. But HOW do you get the prospect to agree to that coffee? And what if they don’t like coffee?

Making outreach to major donors requires:

  1. Making cold calls, or first calls
  2. Understanding when it’s time to make outreach
  3. Following up
  4. Personalizing your outreach
  5. Using multiple means of communication

In this article, we’ll look at several tips and strategies for improving your skills in these five areas.

1. Making Cold Calls and First Calls

The term ‘cold call’ can mean different things to different people. For some, they see a cold call as calling someone who has never heard from your organization or company before. This is a total stranger, and you are essentially a telemarketer.

That’s not MarketSmart’s definition of cold call. We think of it more as a first call to a prospect who already knows your organization and has engaged with it in some manner, but who has never been called by a gift officer for the specific purpose of exploring the possibility of relating and considering giving a major gift.

So, this call is a cold call in the sense that you’re calling about something that will challenge this person. It might be their first time hearing from a gift officer. Their first time being approached about engaging more deeply to explore giving a transformational gift.

Your prospects already know something about your mission. They have probably engaged on social media, volunteered, or donated monthly or with one-time gifts, attended events, or participated in other ways. So, they already care about your mission to some degree and they probably trust your brand.

In other words, it’s highly likely that you will not be received as a total stranger when you make that first call. So the first tip for making outreach is simple: Make outreach!

Why? Because you’ve got to make outreach if you want to generate more major gifts.

And besides, most people accept cold calls when they already care about the caller’s employer and cause.

Outreach Tip #1: Don’t be afraid to make calls to new, preliminarily qualified prospects

2. Understanding When It’s Time To Make Outreach

There are plenty of studies that attempt to guide when you should call and when you shouldn’t. For instance, some say the worst times to call most people are on Mondays and on Friday afternoons.

They say, on Mondays, their week just started. They have a lot to do. They want to get going with work. They don’t want to be interrupted. And on Friday afternoon, they’re ready to be done with work and are focused on that. They don’t want to hear from you at that time.

I think you should ignore all that noise and just pick up the phone (see Outreach Tip #1 above).

However, the challenge related to the first tip is that you’re busy. So, at MarketSmart we recommend you begin by basing your decision to call on when that person has indicated they are ready to hear from you. Believe it or not, if you employ an Engagement Fundraising approach, they’ll tell you just that when they respond to a survey or other valuable offer.

When they do that, you’ll collect qualitative data your prospect research team probably can’t supply. Here are the five indicators of readiness for outreach qualitative data can provide to round out your traditional prospect research approach:

  • They said they a powerful emotional reason to give (a REASON)
  • They said the timing is right for you to reach out (TIMING)
  • They signaled they have the wealth capacity to give a major gift by letting you know they’d consider giving assets, not cash (CAPACITY)… this is much better than wealth screening!
  • They have past engagement with organization including on social media, event participation, subscribing, joining, giving and so on (ENGAGEMENT)
  • They signaled interest and granted permission for outreach by opting in or leaning in (PERMISSION)

If a person has signaled or explicitly granted permission for you to reach out, this was not done on a whim. They don’t give permission for this just one day after discovering your organization. So, you want to call people back within a relatively short amount of time.

If all five of those indicators are active for a prospect, you need to prioritize them for a first call. Get them on your calendar, ideally for that same week or even the same day. There’s no reason to wait.

If you don’t currently receive these data points from your research team, tell them to take a look at what we do for hundreds or organizations and institutions like yours here.

Outreach Tip #2: Let your donors and supporters help you understand their readiness for your outreach.

3. Following Up

There are two ways to look at following up:

  1. Following up with people who didn’t yet answer your calls
  2. Following up after you have had at least one successful call or meeting

Far too many fundraisers don’t make a single attempt to follow up when their first contact doesn’t generate a reply, or the phone doesn’t get answered. They give up too easily.

As someone who used to do cold calling (a LOT) for various companies, I can tell you that it takes persistence to make sales using cold calling. The same is true with major donor prospects – even when they already support your mission.

It is very common for successful outcomes to happen after the fundraiser has made five, eight, ten or even more follow-up calls. You simply cannot give up after just one or two non-replies.

Outreach Tip #3: Keep calling until you get an answer or they ask you to stop.

BONUS TIP: Make sure you show interest in THEM (not their money) by offering them something of VALUE. If you keep calling but offer nothing of value, you’ll become an annoyance. But, if you keep calling and you offer novel value every time, you’ll become that long lost pal who always visits bearing wonderful gifts that resonate.

4. Personalizing Your Outreach

This is a big topic, and we’re only going to briefly touch on it here. For starters, something as simple as including your prospect’s name in the subject line of your email to them will result in a higher open rate.

However, like anything in marketing and communications, you can’t use the same gimmick every single time, or it loses its effectiveness because it ceases to stand out as novel. You have to vary your approach. But there are a variety of simple ways to inject personalization in your outreach to donor prospects.

The more they feel like you are personally reaching out to them, the more receptive they will be. The more it feels like mass or bulk communication, the more easily they will ignore it.

Again, use the qualitative data you gather from your surveys and your monitoring of each individual’s ‘digital body language’ (their personal engagement on your web pages).

If your prospect research team or operation in general doesn’t supply you with this kind of information, we should talk.

Outreach Tip #4: Make the prospect feel known in your calls and voicemails

When you call, use their name and say at least one thing you know about them. Just make sure it has NOTHING to do with their past giving or their money/wealth. If they told you important information in their survey response, mention that. Stick to referencing how they prioritized yours among others they support (in their survey response) or what they said about the importance of your mission to them as it relates to future generations. Or, it could be related to an influential person they said inspired them to care about your cause or a life story experience they shared. Make it clear that they are known by your organization. They are not just another number. You care about them and their story, not just their money.

5. Using Multiple Means of Communication

Should you make outreach through multiple channels such as email, telephone, letters or some other channels such as LinkedIn InMails?

The answer is YES, although it depends on the donor. In general, you’ll probably do better when you know for sure which channel they prefer. But it’s unlikely you’ll have that information at first. Plus, remember that what people say isn’t always in line with what they do, or what works. A person might say they would rather you communicate by mail, but then they answer their phone or reply to your email.

I recommend you try multiple channels at first. Don’t worry! They won’t feel like you are bombarding them.

Rather, they’ll think to themselves: “Wow! This person really wants to get in touch with me. I ought to respond.”

Just make it easy for them to let you know what channel they prefer in each message. When you send an email, include a PS inviting them to let you know. Same with your letter or voicemail message.

Outreach Tip #5: Try multiple channels until you know for sure which one they prefer and which work best to draw engagement

Sometime next year (in 2024), we’ll be releasing an entire book on making outreach to donors and supporters.

Again, this is a vastly undervalued and overlooked skill that is critical to successful major gifts fundraising.

Subscribe to our blog and stick around so you can be notified when the book gets released.


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