Secrets for Turning Small Donors into Major Donors

You know they’re in there, somewhere in your donor database. You just need to find them – those small donors who could turn into major donors. But assuming you can identify new major donors among the thousands of supporters, prospects, and prior low-level donors, how do you connect with them on a personal enough level to nurture them into becoming major donors?

The answer is easy to say, but hard to do: Qualification and cultivation are about personal connection.

For this article, we’re going to unpack how to do this with prospective major donor prospects who may have been hiding in your database for years, or may be relatively new. Also, it’s worth noting that much of what you’re going to read here could also apply to stewardship with your existing major donors.

The lower-level donors you’re looking for are people who may have given once or a handful of times. Perhaps they’ve made year-end gifts, or given on Giving Tuesday or to specific campaigns now and then. Maybe they are giving monthly.

Some of these people have the capacity to give much more. Or, they will have that capacity at some point in the future. Either way, the sooner you begin engaging with them on a personal level, the deeper the bond they will form with your organization, which can lead to transformational gifts.

Here are five practical strategies you can begin using to move these smaller existing donors into your major giving pipeline, qualify them, and cultivate them until they are ready to meet with a gift officer.

1. Be Personal and Sincere in Gratitude

For smaller donors, you can do this in a number of ways beyond sending the usual giving receipt, which may come in an email or by mail. At the bare minimum, you should send a thank you email. This should go out immediately after a gift is given, if the gift arrives online. That email will be less personal since you have probably automated it for all online gifts.

However, if you are raising money for particular needs or campaigns, or this donor has marked their gift for a particular purpose in a dropdown menu, you can tailor this email to speak to those personal details. Share an update about how that project or campaign is going. Have a story ready showing the impact these funds will have.

Beyond that, you can send handwritten thank you cards that mention their gift. If you have the volunteers or have built this into your organization’s culture, you can even make personal phone calls to new donors, and occasionally to your monthly supporters.

The more personal the gratitude, the better. And the bigger and more specific the gift, the more personal you should attempt to be.

Example of Personalized Gratitude

Pamela Perkins-Dwyer, who serves on the Association for Fundraising Professionals’ board, shared a powerful example of personalized gratitude in an October 2022 article in Advancing Philanthropy.

She had a major donor giving a $20,000 gift every year to a particular performing arts performance. At some point in the past, that donor had somehow gotten the impression that this gift covered the entire performance.

Pamela didn’t know that yet, but in her thank you letter, she included copies of bills and expenses for the performance, so the donor would know how much their gift had helped. But the donor reacted quite differently – expressing great surprise to learn the performance actually cost $150,000 to produce.

The response? The donor recruited two friends, and the three of them began giving $50,000 each to cover the entire cost of the performance.

Perkins-Dwyer makes the point that if she had just sent a standard thank you note without all these personal details, the donor would have kept believing their $20,000 covered the performance.

Personalized gratitude resulted in a far bigger gift.

The other thing Pamela’s approach achieved was to reveal how much this donor cared about this organization. And even for smaller donors, sincere and personal gratitude can have the same effect. The donors who deeply care about your mission will give again, and perhaps soon, after being thanked in a personal way. This is an indication of a strong commitment, something to look for in potential major donors.

2. Utilize Donor-Driven Human-Centric Automation

Automation done poorly is impersonal and mechanical. But the best automation feels like a real person actually sent the communication.

MarketSmart’s major donor qualification and cultivation software aims for this outcome. Our system sends out emails that are personalized to each supporter and donor as they go through the qualification process. We regularly receive email replies that make it clear the supporter believes a real person sent an email to them.

That’s a big win.

That means donors are feeling heard, appreciated, and valued – enough to write back and believe they are writing to a person – even though your team isn’t having to devote time and resources to so much ongoing communication.

Human-centric automation such as MarketSmart nurtures donors without overburdening your organization’s finite human resources. Over time, your major donor prospects rise to the top, and you hardly had to do anything to discover them.

3. Invest in Micro-Moments after a Gift

One thing automated emails can accomplish is to make a smaller donor feel valued and appreciated. You achieve this through consistent and ongoing communication, which the donor engages with and opts to receive and continue receiving.

This communication can include:

  • Thank you emails
  • Updates about the impact of a prior gift or campaign they may have supported
  • Invitations to participate and engage with your organization such as surveys, live events, webinars, and live broadcasts
  • A look behind the curtain at what’s happening at your organization
  • Offers to engage in more personal ways such as hearing from a gift officer
  • Offers to receive personalized and meaningful gifts, such as college yearbooks

The idea is simply to stay in touch. And while automated emails are not the only way to do this for one donor, they are the most practical way for doing it at scale, for thousands of donors all at once who are at different stages in the process of qualification and cultivation.

Smaller donors who have capacity for major gifts won’t likely just raise their giving on a whim. But by consistently showing up and helping them increase their affinity for your mission and their desire to play a greater role in what you’re doing, you can turn these donors into major donors.

4. Connect with Donors’ Life Experiences

What role did your organization play in the life of each donor and supporter? Many times, there is a very personal connection already present. But you can use that to deepen the donor’s feelings about your mission and how you are affecting other people, just like you did for them.

You want to look for ways to get the donor to open up about how your organization affected their lives. Examples of this include:

  • Helping the donor through a crisis earlier in their life
  • Helping a friend or family member of the donor
  • Equipping the donor with tools and abilities they have used to achieve great things
  • Facilitating volunteer experiences that changed the course of their life
  • Advocating for something the donor cares about deeply – fighting for them

These and other experiences play a profound role in the lives of even your smallest donors.

By connecting over these, you deepen the bond, and can set the stage to bring up the prospect of giving much larger gifts later on. Some donors may be giving all they can right now, and it’s just $20 a month, or an occasional gift. But what if, ten years later, their career or financial situation changes and they now have the capacity to make a major gift?

If you have stayed with them that whole time, and forged a strong bond with them over the role you have played in their lives, moving them into your major gifts program will be a natural fit.

This is how MarketSmart’s software works – it engages with each donor where they are at present. A smaller donor might indicate in a survey that they don’t have capacity to give major gifts, but that they want to keep hearing from you.

Our system will then continue engaging with them at that level, not asking them to meet with gift officers or consider major gifts, but to remain a meaningful part of their lives. This can go on for years. And someday, that person may turn into a major donor.

5. Wait Until Timing Is Right

Too often we label smaller donors with terms like ‘lapsed,’ or ‘low-value’, and we neglect them.

But sometimes, such donors are simply going through something in their lives. In their minds, they haven’t lapsed. They’re just pausing their giving. Or considering changes in their life. And they haven’t neglected your organization. They just can’t deal with it right now, but they fully intend to remain connected and want to keep hearing from you.

When the timing is right in their lives, they will want you to reach out.

But if you stopped communicating because they got moved into the ‘lapsed’ segment of your database, the bond weakens, and you miss out on their revived wealth capacity and desire to support you.

Find a way to continue communicating with donors and supporters, even if they stopped giving. With email automation like MarketSmart, you can also occasionally ask them if they want to keep hearing from you. As long as they keep saying ‘yes,’ you can keep engaging with them, and you won’t need to use human resources to do it.

How to Start Improving Donor Engagement

If everything you’ve read here sounds great, but you want to hear more, what you’re reading is at the heart of what we call Engagement Fundraising.

It’s about engaging with donors and supporters wherever they are in the process.

My book Engagement Fundraising explores the mind-shifts that take you away from how things have always been done, and into a new way of thinking about and conducting major gifts fundraising. You can get it for free here in a variety of formats including digital and audio: Learn more about Engagement Fundraising book

Related Resources:


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Get smarter with the SmartIdeas blog

Subscribe to our blog today and get actionable fundraising ideas delivered straight to your inbox!