How to Determine the Right Ask Amount for a Major Donor: A 5 Step Process

How to Determine the Right Ask Amount for a Major Donor: A 5 Step Process
Fall 2016 by Jennifer Weber, CFRE

As a major gift fundraising consultant, I often get asked the question, “How do you determine the right ask amount for a major donor?” Any good fundraiser wants to present a gift request that is both inspiring and in-line with what the donor can joyfully give. Before starting my consulting practice, I was a major gift fundraiser for 10 years. It was deeply meaningful for me to invite generous people to partner with organizations doing transformational work in the community. At times I had my own anxiety about how to arrive at a gift amount that I thought was right for a donor. The guidelines I’m offering today are based on my personal experience in soliciting major donors, as well as coaching over 60 clients in their major gift work.

As we know, major gift fundraising is about building authentic relationships and discovering how people want to use their resources to solve a problem, meet a need or bring about positive change in their communities. When major gift fundraising is done well, it feels supportive, inspiring, and aligned with a shared vision and values. I often ask board members to describe the best (and the worst) solicitation they’ve ever personally received. One memorable board member said that the best solicitation he ever received came from an organization that he knew well. He said, “I had been supporting this organization for almost 8 years. I loved their mission, and I knew they were using my gifts well. I had great respect for the leadership and their vision. They asked me to give a sizeable gift to a program that was very important to me. How could I say no? My only complaint was why they waited so long to ask me!”

It can be easy to avoid asking for a gift because you don’t know how much to ask for. I’ve seen many fundraisers procrastinate on asking for a major gift because they didn’t know what gift amount to present. And it is so important to ask for a specific amount. You need to give your donor something to respond to. People want to know how much money the organization needs to fulfill its mission. Donors appreciate hearing a suggested gift amount that will help to address the community need they care about. Asking donors to “give whatever you can” is too vague and doesn’t reflect the unique relationship you have with this person. So, how do you do it? In the rest of this article I describe a thoughtful process that will help you arrive an appropriate gift amount (or range) for your donors. It’s important to note that for the purpose of this article, I’m assuming that you are not asking simply for an increased annual gift. The context for these guidelines is for asking a donor for something significantly above and beyond their annual gift, like for a capital campaign, endowment initiative, or an expanded program to meet a growing need in the community.

There’s No Magic Formula, But There Are Key Things to Consider
My first piece of advice is to recognize that there is no magic formula for determining the right gift amount. Because effective major gift fundraising is intentional and personal, it’s truly a blend of art and science. There are some schools of thought that say you can multiply a donor’s annual gift by 2 to 10 times to arrive at a major gift amount. While this may work in some cases, this approach misses important nuance and personal context for the donor, relative to your organization. That kind of calculation may result in asking for a gift that is too big for one donor, or a gift that is far too small for another.

My second piece of advice is to customize a major gift amount for each donor individually. Looking at each donor on a case-by-case basis will help you to hone in a number that’s in the right ballpark. Your job is to present the most informed, respectful, inspiring and customized request you can for that particular donor. It’s a process. I have found that when determining the ask amount for a major donor, it’s important to take the following things into consideration:

  1. Assess the donor’s history of philanthropy and involvement with your organization
     
  2. Look at the donor’s history of philanthropy and involvement with other organizations
     
  3. Consider the donor’s philanthropic capacity, interest, and willingness to give more
     
  4. Determine what your organization needs to do its work in the community
     
  5. Have an open dialogue with your donor about what they want to accomplish with their philanthropy, exploring gift purpose and range.

Now, let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.

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A 5-Step Process for Determining the Gift Amount

  1. Assess The Donor’s Relationship With YOUR Organization
    The first step in determining the ask amount is to look at the donor’s giving history and degree of involvement with your organization. As involvement increases, so do gift amounts. The longer and deeper the relationship, the more likely you are to receive a major gift. People who are engaged with your mission have a clearer sense of the impact in the community and they trust the organization’s leadership. Even if a donor has the financial capacity to make a major gift, without some degree of involvement, the request may fall flat. A wealthy donor who is giving you $500 is unlikely to jump up to $100K if they are not involved with the organization in some meaningful way.

    An Example: At a recent donor panel, a well-known philanthropist in our community shared that one of her greatest pet peeves is when someone from an organization asks her for a major gift much too soon in the relationship. She told the audience that she has been asked for big gifts from organizations that she has very limited involvement with and sometimes she didn’t know the person who was asking for the gift. It didn’t feel good to her. In those cases, the relationship wasn’t developed enough to warrant that level of gift request. This example is in contrast to the one I shared in the introduction of the donor who was ready and eager to be asked to give a significant gift to a program he loved and was deeply involved with for years.
     
  2. Look At The Donor’s Giving History To OTHER Organizations
    Next, you’ll want to find out where else your donor gives. Gathering this information will help you understand the donor’s gift patterns and philanthropic capacity, as well as their inclination to give more to you. So ask yourself (and do research if needed) to learn:
    • What other causes does this donor support?
    • What size gifts is the donor making to other organizations?
    • What is the largest gift the donor has made that you are aware of?
    • Do the other organizations have similar or different missions from yours?
    • Does the donor hold leadership positions on non-profit boards?
    • Does the donor volunteer in other ways?

    An Example: Let’s say you work for an organization that provides school supplies for low-income children in your city. New backpacks, new shoes, new cloths and other supplies, so children can go to school feeling proud, well-prepared, and fitting in. You have seen a 25% increase in the number of children needing your services in the last 2 years. Your donor Simon has been giving $5K to your annual fund for the past 5 years and has met some of the kids and families your organization serves. He has expressed that he is deeply moved and inspired by your organization’s mission. Simon also gives $5K to the local food bank. You also know that he serves on the board of the Boys & Girls Club and recently gave a gift of $100K to renovate the teen center. This is the largest gift that Simon has given to any organization. You can feel confident asking Simon for a major gift, however it’s unlikely he would give $100K or more, since that was his largest gift on record and he is on the board of the Boys & Girls Club. With more exploratory conversation with Simon about where your organization falls among his priorities, it could be reasonable to invite him to consider a major gift to your organization in the range of $50K- $75K.

    Note that in the above example I suggest a gift range. I’ve found that sometimes offering a gift range works well. Now, I’m not talking about a range between $10K- $100K. That’s too broad and doesn’t feel meaningful. But a range of $50K-$75K could work well. Similarly, if you have a big capital project or endowment underway, and you know that your donor can stretch into higher gift ranges, you could ask for something between $1.5M-$2.0M. The spread of the range will increase as the gift size increases. The point is this: the ask amount is the beginning of a negotiation with your donor. The specific gift amount (or gift range) gives your donors something to respond to. Otherwise, they are working in the dark about what you need and what they will consider giving.

  3. Consider Your Donor’s Philanthropic Interests & Life Circumstances
    Your ask amount must take into consideration what is happening in your donor’s life. Income and assets don’t give the full picture. Consider what you’ve learned about this donor during the course of getting to know them. (If you’re asking for a major gift, you’ve ideally spent time developing a relationship with this donor and learning about their life and what matters to them). Any of the following can influence the gift amount.
    • How is their business doing?
    • Have they recently bought or sold property?
    • Do they have children in college? Or are they child-free?
    • Are they going through a divorce, retirement, or other big transition?
    • Are they providing for aging parents?
    • Do they have other major pledges underway in the community?

    Also, you’ll want to notice if your donor has expressed interest in any of the following:

    • A particular program? Or endowment?
    • Becoming a leadership donor?
    • A special naming opportunity?
    • Have they identified your organization as one of their highest philanthropic priorities?

  4. Determine What Your Organization NEEDS to Fulfill Its Mission
    Next, you will need to factor in what your organization needs to accomplish its mission in the community. Are you starting a capital campaign for a new building? If so, what will it cost? Is there an increasing need in the community that you are uniquely positioned to address? If so, what will it take to meet that need? Or, are you seeking unrestricted dollars for a capacity building initiative? If so, what will this mean for your impact in the community? As fundraising author Kay Sprinkel Grace says, “people don’t give to you because you have needs, they give because you are meeting needs.” These situations present special opportunities to ask your donors to step up in a significant way. Donors need to understand what’s happening in the community and what they can do to help.

  5. Consider a Pre-Solicitation Meeting to Explore Timing, Range, and Purpose.
    I don’t believe in surprising donors with a big ask. It feels disrespectful to “spring it” on them. Nobody likes to be caught off guard. I always let donors know in advance if I’m planning to present them with a gift proposal in a meeting. Sometimes I will conduct what I call a “pre-ask” or “pre-solicitation” meeting. The conversation goes something like this:

    John, as you know, I’m not asking you for a gift today, but I would like to present you with an inspiring proposal before the end of the year for your consideration. So today, what I’d like to do is explore the parts of our mission that matter most to you and discuss how you would like to partner with us to achieve our shared vision of X.

I have used this approach many times, and I’ve found it to be enormously valuable both for me and for the donor. The most successful gifts are those that come as a result of an open dialogue with the donor about what they want to achieve with their philanthropy. In the pre-solicitation meeting, you might actually float a range by the donor to get their feedback. This can be especially helpful if you’re seeking an unrestricted gift or capacity building funding. Always be sure your donor knows the purpose of the meeting in advance. If you choose to have a “pre-ask” meeting, use this time to explore key questions that will allow you to create a highly personalized, inspiring gift proposal for their consideration.

An Example: One of my clients was meeting with a loyal donor couple, who was very involved with the organization, and had given generously for over a decade. They made 3 previous gifts in the $100K-$150K range. We also knew that this couple made a $1 million gift to another organization in the community. When my client sat down with these donors to have a pre-solicitation meeting, the donors said, “We want to do something big. Whatever you present to us, we want to have a big and lasting impact.” With that important piece of information, my client felt comfortable preparing a proposal for a $1.5 million gift for a transformational capacity building gift. The donors said yes and expressed that it was the largest and most meaningful gift they had ever given. It was also the largest gift the organization had ever received.

Final Thoughts
By going through steps 1-5 above above, you will be well positioned to determine an ask amount for your donors. Keep in mind: it’s not an exact science. You’re doing the best you can with the information you have. Whether you are a staff leader or a board member soliciting gifts, it’s important to arrive at a gift amount that is informed by what you know about the donor, and not by your own comfort level with the number. The best way to know if you’re in the ballpark is to ask. If you take into consideration what I’ve outlined above, you will significantly improve your chances of getting an enthusiastic “yes!”

Remember, asking for a gift is really an invitation to that individual to be part of something meaningful and powerful. Each donor has their own set of unique circumstances that influence their capacity, inclination, and readiness to make a major gift. Your role is to engage in a process with that donor to reach an educated guess about what you think they may be able to give. If you present the gift amount in a thoughtful, respectful and donor-centered way, even if the amount is off the mark, the donor will likely respond with helpful feedback about what they can give. Go forth and ask with joy and confidence!

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