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searching for the diamond in your data 

You can’t have a major giving program without major gift prospects. It’s true whether you’re just starting out or managing a large team of gift officers.  Wherever you fall on the spectrum, there are plenty of ways to enhance your prospecting and bring new donors to the table. Machine learning is changing the game when it comes to predicting those in your pool who are most likely to give, but even that still comes back to what you should already have in your database. Below are some ways to draw the most insight from the information you already have available – and some ways to supplement that data to take an even more targeted approach to prospecting.


One organization’s largest major gift may not even be classified as a major gift at another.  Before you can identify prospects, you need to know the types of gifts you are seeking.  There is no right or wrong answer here – below are some things to consider:

  • As a rule of thumb, about 10-15% of your organization’s constituents will have the ability to make a major gift. Consider the giving of this cohort when defining your major gift level.
  • Decide whether a major gift amount should be given in one fiscal year, or can be paid over a five-year period. There’s a big difference in being able to write a check for $2,000 each year versus $10,000.

You’re looking for individuals interested in supporting your mission, the financial capacity to make a major gift, and can be reached through organizational relationships.

We call this Affinity, Ability, and Access. 

Start with a list of donors to your organization – they clearly have an affinity to financially support your mission!
Review lists of event attendees.
Research donor lists for other similar organizations.  Consider your geographic reach when choosing other organizations to research.

Pull a report of your donors’ largest gifts to your organization.  Are there donors already giving at the major gift level?  Who are the prospects giving near the threshold?
What do you know about their career?  All other things being equal, more weight would be placed on a partner of a law firm 10 years into their career than a gift officer at a small nonprofit.
Research the value of your donors’ homes or identify people living in a wealthy zip code.
Factor in life considerations such as the number and age of children, income before/after retirement and liquidity events.

The rich and famous who care about your cause are only as useful as your ability to connect with them.  If you can’t readily gain access to someone, they’re likely not a prospect.
Research other boards your trustees sit on to determine if they have access to potential prospects.
Review prospect lists with your Board to determine personal and business relationships.


By now you have begun to analyze your donors and their giving patterns. In addition to largest gift, these other areas can be valuable indicators of ability and affinity:

Lifetime Giving – oftentimes, the larger the number, the deeper the commitment to your cause.

Giving History – when was the donor’s last gift to your organization? When did they make their largest gift? All other things being equal, would you rather contact someone who gave $5,000 in 2002 and hasn’t given since or someone who has given $1,000 each of the last five years?

Giving Frequency – look for donors that give year after year, or even five out of the last seven years. They may be more likely to take your call and more open to a larger giving opportunity.

Gift Type – is your donor giving by check or credit card?  Or are they giving through a Donor Advised Fund or a family foundation? DAFs and foundations indicate sophistication and a commitment to philanthropy.


You’ve heard the phrase fundraising is an art and a science.  The science of fundraising has come a long way, especially in recent years.  There are a variety of ways to supplement your existing data to further target your major gift efforts, increasing your chances of success and the return on your programmatic investment.

Constituent Surveys – It’s amazing what people will share when you just ask. Surveys are an important opportunity for you to ask your constituents for their feedback and opinion. Consider questions surrounding their level of connectedness to your organization, satisfaction with your communications, and if your organization is one of their “top three” philanthropic priorities. Use logic to dive deeper. If the answer to that last question is no, ask what might inspire their increased support. If the answer is yes, ask them if they’re satisfied with reporting, understand the impact of their support and would recommend your organization to others passionate about your work.

Wealth and Philanthropic Screening – It’s tried and true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important and improving. While capacity is only one piece of the puzzle, it’s an important factor in prioritizing your prospects, guiding solicitation strategy and learning more about a prospect’s giving to other organizations.

Machine Learning and Predictive Modeling – Have you ever wished it was easier to predict who was most likely to become a donor, make a major gift or include your organization in their estate plans?  The ability to build models to answer these, and other questions, are becoming more prevalent and precise. Predictive modeling looks to past behavior to predict future behavior. These models are a snapshot in time and will never be more precise than the moment they’re run. By contrast, machine learning can accommodate far more variables than predictive modeling and is constantly improving the model as new data is added. The more data you add, the stronger the results.

Written By:
Michael Hutchinson, Managing Director
[email protected]
Michael has worked in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors for 20 years. He is dedicated to supporting organizations in realizing their vision and has a track record of partnering with clients to align operations and talent to maximize impact, sync strategies with market trends to realize growth, and generate revenue and resources through effective relationships, programs and campaigns. 

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