An Art and a Science

Many of us will have seen the 7 steps of major donor fundraising outlined at conferences, in books and in the very sensible Institute of Fundraising Third Sector Major Donor Report. It promotes a chronology of working with major donors from start to finish, beginning with identifying donors and culminates with thanking and stewardship.

It would be churlish to say that these steps are flawed; it makes perfect sense that you must identify donor prospects first, research them (even in the ICO-era), plan and engage, before asking, thanking and remaining in communication. My concern, however, is that this is not how it works in reality and that sticking to this as a process is unlikely to be all that is required to create a successful major donor programme.

My main issue is that it assumes that all other factors are in place; a flexible database, a strong case for support, senior level engagement, finance information, internal communication, cultivation events, etc. In essence the 7 steps work in a vacuum, or perhaps a utopian version of a charitable organisation.

In our work with charities, setting up and aiding faltering major donor programmes, we find that it is not that the 7 steps are misunderstood or are not being followed, it is that the charity does not have all the ingredients of a strong programme in place to a sufficient degree.

My preference, therefore, is to spend time looking at three main elements required; vision, donors and resources, or what, who and how. For each category the charity must honestly ask itself the following questions:


  • Do you have clear strategic aims?
  • Who is responsible for setting strategic priorities?
  • Have you identified a list of projects underlying these priorities?
  • What are the costs of these projects?
  • What costs would a major donor be happy to pay for?
  • How have you assessed the need?
  • Who will benefit?
  • What’s the timeframe?
  • Is this core funding, a new/extended project or an aspiration?
  • What will happen if the major donor does not give?


  • Have you segmented your data?
  • Have you identified your largest, most recent donors?
  • Have you mapped out your networks for other major donor prospects?
  • Have you spoken to your current top donors about their contacts?
  • Do you flag new donations over a certain level?
  • Do you flag donations from private banks?
  • Do you flag cumulative givers over a calendar years over a certain level?


  • Does your database provide you with reports on single gifts and cumulative gifts?
  • Does your finance team give you all the project costs you need?
  • Do your service teams engage you in project development?
  • Do you have time to put projects to donors before they are paid for?
  • Do you have regular meetings to discuss major donors and prospects?
  • Do you track progress with multiple donors on a simple chart?
  • Do you have individual donor stewardship plans?
  • Have you allocated donors to relevant account managers?
  • Is one person responsible for coordinated the overall major donor programme?
  • Does the senior management team/Board understand the programme?
  • Are senior staff actively engaged in stewarding donors?

Sometimes I will ask charities to score themselves out of 5 or 10 for each area, or for each question. This exercise soon brings to light the strengths and weaknesses of the charity’s status and their readiness to build strong relationships with major donors. It is only then can we start working with them to either strengthen their case for support, train their staff, improve their processes, sort their donors, etc.

These factors are the nuts and bolts of major donor fundraising – I do not dispute that the 7 steps makes sense – it is just that they don’t give you anything to fix. If you work towards scoring 10/10 under each category then the 7 steps will become very small steps indeed.

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