Start building a powerful major gift pipeline – no matter what your organization size

Back at the beginning of my fundraising career, a well-meaning board member and mentor introduced me to the notion of the pipeline.

I remember her producing a sales training graphic meant to help me visualize the pipeline process – it was a menacing mechanical contraption with knobs and nozzles that looked like it was intended to juice the donor, instead of build a relationship with them.

Despite feeling a lingering dissatisfaction with the term, I still use it, as it’s the most commonly understood way to refer to a process that’s important to the health of organizations of all sizes.

(I know I’m not alone in feeling that fundraising has a language problem that dehumanizes donors, turning them into suspects, HNWIs and low hanging fruit – but perhaps that’s best saved for another post!).

These days, I like to visualize pipelines as friendlier places: they’re simply an organized approach to connect with generous folks who share a passion for your cause, deepen your relationship in a way that feels right for you and the donor, and ideally, move them to make a greater investment in the change you both want to see in the world.

If you are ready to build a powerful, purposeful pipeline for your organization, here’s how to get started.

Prioritize your dedicated donors

I was recently working with a client on a major gift project, when we discovered that their most dedicated donors had the capacity to give 8 times more than they were currently being asked for.

If you’re an organization with even a small established donor base, chances are there are donors already giving to you who are interested in making a greater investment in your organization.

Start with those closest to you. You already have donors who are ready to be meaningfully engaged and introduced to more aspirational opportunities to create change.

When you’re planning your major gift pipeline, don’t overlook those donors already giving generous mid-level level gifts.

Look closely at those supporters who are giving larger than average donations – depending on the size of your shop, it could be $1,000, $500 or even $250.

Another important clue can be found in a donor’s cumulative lifetime giving history, and the date of their first gift – many very generous supporters are long-time donors giving smaller monthly or annual gifts that add up significantly over time.

Set your sights externally next

Only once you’ve made good headway with your committed donors, is it time to set your sights on external prospects.

We’ve all got our dream donors – those generous philanthropists who are making a big difference in our communities. But how to reach them?

I once worked with a small nonprofit that set their sights on a high-profile activist and major donor with a passion for our cause.

Though there were no immediately obvious ties to her, through the sheer determination of their grassroots board, they were able to identify a series of connections that could help them open the door to meeting this donor.

It was quite literally a case of six degrees of separation. Through the board’s modest connections, they were able to identify a series of relationships in their networks that enabled them to get an introduction and a brief meeting – and that was the start of a long-standing relationship that’s now nearing 25 years. 

We all have networks, no matter who you are - and networks often work in surprising ways.

So even if you don’t have a traditional fundraising board, your board members, donors and other volunteers likely have connections that can help you find your way to building a meaningful relationship with a leader you’d like to reach in your community.

Leverage your existing assets

What are you already doing that brings you into the orbit of potential new supporters?

Chances are, if you’re like most nonprofits, you already have an event of some sort – be it a traditional gala, a house party at a board member’s home, or an open house

I rarely recommend adding a traditional fundraising event to your roster if you don’t already have one – however, if you’re already putting the hard work and time into organizing one, why not leverage it to build your major gift pipeline?

If you do stage one or more events, it’s time to develop a plan to methodically build a relationship with guests before, during and after your event.

Develop a qualification process

Now that you have a few ways to identify those folks you’d like to become part of the warm, friendly flow of your pipeline, we’ll move on to the next phase.

In my upcoming article, I’ll be talking about the qualification process (another terrible fundraising term for an important activity!) – we’ll look at how it can help you better understand the interests of your donor or potential supporter, and how to tailor a mutually fulfilling relationship that works well for both your organization, and the donor.

Hope you’ll stay tuned – and thanks for reading!

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