How to upgrade major gift fundraising? I often use a house analogy.  It works because both require long-term investment and both bring years of joy, but only if you do it right and have the commitment.

So, if you’re familiar with This Old House or other HGTV-inspired home renovation shows, you’ll know trials and tribulations are inherent and provide the drama!  When organizations upgrade their major gift programs, there are plenty of joys and sorrows — similar to a home renovation or expansion. Grab your hammer and donor files. Let’s get to work!

Not Impossible or Easy, Here’s How

The story starts with your goal, a beautiful and functional house.  For your nonprofit, it’s an attractive cause that appeals to someone considering a gift) and an organization that is highly functional (efficient with funds and effective in impact). You know what professionals can do, but you also see the homeowners who tackle parts of the project themselves. Similarly, professional fundraisers and consultants (yes, call Make Philanthropy Work) know their stuff and perform most of the heavy work, but a committed volunteer or donor telling their story can help raise millions.

Still, for a major gift program, there are technical elements you probably need professional help with, such as marketing or accepting donor-advised funds or stock gifts. But there is also plenty you, even if you’re a weekend warrior, can do to become better at fundraising (join us at our major gift workshop, March 7th) and ultimately “build” on your knowledge as someone new to major gift fundraising.

For building your major gifts program, visualize what you’ll need when doing a major a house remodel or expansion:

  • Preparation: budget, plans, training, access to professionals/p>

  • Decisions: what trade-offs are you willing to make

  • Initial Work: Breaking Down Walls and Executing

  • Assessing and Adjusting

#1 Preparation

Who’s in charge? Who’s building this house and for what purpose?  Similar, why are you looking to develop your major gifts program, and what is it going to look like when you do - a second floor or maybe a SheShed?  Which then begs the question, what’s your budget? Who’s building it, and do they have the skills? All good questions that need to be discussed.

And, just like the homeowners who disagreed about the countertops, you and your board need to agree on what a major gift program will look like and what “features it will include like:

Time: How much time it will take to ramp-up

Metrics: how our progress be measured (visits, proposals, dollars committed)?

Skills to Acquire: Do you need to go to Home Depot to learn how to grout? Or maybe go to a workshop on making a six-figure ask.

Sweat Equity: How much are leadership, volunteers and fundraising professionals involved each week?

How Advanced (or fancy?): Do you accept stock gifts or market to those with donor advised funds?

And what’s available and what are your resources? Meaning, just like your existing house structure, what does your major gift prospect base look like? How many donors are currently giving at a level to be considered a major gift donor?  If you’ve never developed relationships with donors and are only a few years old, you’re going to have to build engagement. But if you're established and doing good work with an engaged base of donors, your major gift program may be ready to flourish.

So is it a fixer-upper? Hopefully not a tear-down!

#2 Decisions: What are the Trade-offs?

Trendy vs. Timeless

Another similarity to building major gifts and renovation: how innovative are you?  With social media, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, as well as new funding methods (ex. Impact philanthropy), it’s tempting to either pursue or ignore. But what about testing while executing the tried and true?  When a contractor tells you about a new product for your home that’s more efficient, maybe it’s time to consider a change.  In your nonprofit world this is part of your case statement to donors, your vision — which Make Philanthropy Work can you help you develop.

Of course, your timeless elements of a home renovation (style, comfort, etc.)  and your major gift program are easy to prioritize.

Some Timeless Styles For major gifts:

Relationship-based fundraising, not a transactional: Treat your donors like individuals, not records or an ATM

Systems matter: A great fundraiser will fail with a bad system, but a new fundraiser with a great system will succeed

Message and big ideas count: Let people know why their gift matters and in the most meaningful way you can

Your organization matters: How your organization is perceived is vital. People give to those they trust. Do you deserve that trust, and do you let donors know why they can trust you?

Efficiency vs. Budget

And when deciding on the tools of your major gift program or the appliances of your house, you factor in budget, both one-time and lifetime use. For a sophisticated database and customer relationship software, you might spend a great deal. But that system is robust and will last. Similarly, it is much more efficient to install a whole-house furnace and the ductwork infrastructure during the renovation than to add it bit by bit later. So is your major gift software helping you look for donors in the most efficient way…in your own backyard?

Living in the House while Building, Or Getting Ready while continuing to Ask

If you’ve ever lived in a remodel, you know the inconvenience of living in a home while you build. Building a major gift program as you continue to raise funds through your annual giving campaign, run your events, and manage the board can be just as trying.  So be prepared to juggle the extra demands. But when the program is up and running, or your remodel is finished, you’ll forget about the noise, mess, and discomfort.

#3 Initial Work: Breaking Down Walls and Executing

Sometimes you’ll need be willing to do a little demo to get started. For homes, that means taking down a while to allow a new space. In the figurative sense for your organization, that means looking at new ways of doing things or removing barriers building what we call a “Culture of Philanthropy.

Also, be prepared for the unexpected.  If you find out something is more challenging than anticipated, adjust.  Let’s say a staff member you thought would be great at grants is not the best writer, but they know the organization and are great connecting with donors.  Adjust their role. Say you find mold damage…okay, stale message, you’ll have to spend more budget on communications help or put more staff time into it.

With every new endeavor, there’s the unexpected  the difference between success and failure.

Steps to Remodeling Your House, or Your Major Gift Program:
  1. Foundation: have you checked your organization’ foundation of support and are you ready for a major gift program (ex. enough donors, data management? systems, leadership, etc.).  Do you know major gift fundamentals?
  2. Framing: How do major gifts fit with your nonprofit or institution
  3. Installation of windows and doors: Is your program transparent to donors so they feel confident their gifts invested wisely?
  4. Siding: How does your organization look from the outside (ex. your case statement, website, social media pages).
  5. Electrical: Are your current donors, volunteers, staff, and board energized for a major gift program
  6. Plumbing: Ready to do the dirty work?
  7. Insulation: Do you have thick skin, can you weather the criticism?
  8. Paint and Trim: Don’t forget the details, are you receipting accurately and other “small stuff” that matters to donors.

#4 Time to Assess and Adjust

Unlike your home expansion, major gift programs should never reach completion (WOW, my shelf project has company!). But sticking with the home analogy, you should have a “punch list, similar to the construction industry; it’s an evaluation of the work you’ve done and a list of what you need to finish for completion.

Walk through completion and celebrate when it’s all done!  Well, for your program, celebrate but the next day start thinking about how to keep getting better!


To remodel and expand or renovate your major gift program, you’ll need to:
  • Be prepared to plan, make tough decisions, and communicate consistency with everyone involved

  • Accept it will take time and be inconvenient, even trying at timesRealize you most likely will go over budget or at least know it will take more time than you anticipate

  • Most importantly, keep at your vision. Be it a new addition or a new major gift program;you have the power to move either project forward.