6 Things I Wish All Candidates Understood About Major Donor Fundraising

published on 20 December 2022

Process & Prospects

Major-donor fundraising is as much about process as it is about prospects. For example, you might have a rolodex of all the top tier, biggest hitters in political giving, but if you don’t have a thoughtfully designed system to give each one the proper treatment, then that donor list is just ink on paper (or pixels on a screen).

When we talk about giving donors the “proper treatment” we’re referring to your outreach process, everything from…

  • How they are contacted and the methods of outreach
  • When they are contacted including the timing and cadence
  • The content of the correspondence and messaging
  • Specific asks
  • Resources provided
  • Note taking, tracking, and followup

…among other considerations.

Raising funds is a grind, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it should not be done in a thoughtful, methodical way. Don’t let the anxiety of hitting your goal-to-raise be an excuse to get desperate and sloppy. The best raisers are consistently building a foundation, developing meaningful relationships, stacking up hot prospects, and making hard asks - all while showing respect for the donor’s time and consideration.

In short, trust the process. The reality is that very, very few major donors are willing to part with $1,000 or more of their hard-earned money after a single call from a candidate. In fact, our data shows that the average major donor converts after ~7 total touches (including emails, calls, text messages, voicemails, and the like) and takes roughly 6 weeks to pull all the way through the funnel, from prospect to pledge to contributor.

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A good fundraiser will help guide a candidate through this process, and a good candidate will be patient and willing to receive feedback. Building relationships with potential donors takes time and effort. It is important to consider the number of "shots on goal" and to maintain a high conversion rate. If a strong foundation is established and the process is properly managed, the end of year or end of quarter successes can be greatly maximized.

Know your Prospects

Major donors provide the largest sums of money that help a campaign to achieve its goals. The data shows us that successful campaigns raise roughly 40% - 60% of their total raise from major givers ($1,000+ gifts). To use a simple example, let’s say that your goal-to-raise is $1M, and we assume 60% of that sum will come from major gifts, and the average major gift is $1,000. That means you will need to identify, engage, and convert 600(!) major givers. No small feat! It’s no wonder so many raisers are looking for a shortcut.

High dollar givers require a different - more personalized - approach than small-dollar or grassroots supporters, but major donors are not a monolith.

The challenge of major donor fundraising is being effective and efficient, or effective at scale.

  • Effective = High conversion rate
  • Efficient = More “shots on goal”

There is a delicate balance here. The most effective tactics are not necessarily the most efficient (i.e. hard to scale). Meeting people face is an effective approach, in that the chances of a conversion are much higher in that setting. A highly effective strategy, then, would be to (somehow) arrange 1-on-1 meetings over coffee with 2,000x major givers and convert a high % of them. This is clearly not realistic, but if it were possible, that would produce the best results. On the other hand, the most efficient strategy involves casting the widest net possible and contacting donors en masse. Sounds great, but there are trade offs. The wider the net, the more generic and impersonal the appeal, which invariably reduces gift size and conversion rates.

The goal in major donor fundraising then is to design and execute a program that balances effective communication that is targeted, personalized, thoughtful, in the most efficient way possible. Scalability is important, but only to a point.

It is important to remember that there is no single approach that works best for all major donors. Each donor has their own unique set of preferences and expectations, and a fundraising team must be able to tailor their approach to best meet the needs of each donor. Before approaching any major donor, it is helpful to do research to understand the donor’s giving history and political leanings. Understanding any specific goals or focus areas for the donor’s giving history can help to craft a tailored approach that resonates with the donor. After a donor has been identified, it is important to reach out in a personal way, that takes their preferences into consideration. Knowing the donor’s interests and personality can help to create an approach that is tailored to their specific motivations.

“Smile and Dial” is dead

Cold calling, or “smiling and dialing,” used to be a common practice for many fundraisers. Cold calling involves randomly calling prospective donors without doing any prior research in order to solicit donations. However, the days of cold calling are over. Today, it is no longer enough to just randomly call people off of a “list” and hope they give you money.

Fun fact: Data decays at a rate of ~15% every 6 months. Contact information changes, donors retire from political giving, and yes, people become *ahem un-alived. If you’re using any form of static “lists” then you are wasting a considerable amount of time.

It’s not enough to simply hunker down and hammer out calls for 8 hours a day. Tracking success metrics, measuring your output efficiency and effectiveness is key to building a successful and sustainable major donor fundraising operation. For example, we track weekly call volume, take rates, “Hot Prospect Rate,” and “Buzz Off Rate” to make sure our users are making best use of their time. Tracking success metrics helps you identify opportunities for optimization and improvement.

Healthy success metrics makes happy candidates, and happy candidates are more effective communicators. Simply “cold calling” until your ears bleed is no longer a viable way to successfully solicit donations.

Timing is Everything

When making calls with prospective donors, timing is everything. More specifically, the time of day when you call a prospect, the time of year when you make hard asks, and the time between touches can all make a measurable impact on your results.

Making calls too early in the day is a wasted effort, because they might be busy completing their morning routine. Similarly, calling too late at night is also a problem. Who wants to pick up the phone when they just got home from work, or are in the middle of eating dinner, or when they’re getting ready to go to bed? Nobody. Starting in the morning (but not too early!) is important. So is taking advantage of things like a noon lunch break.

We analyzed take rates gathered from 75k calls made in the 2022 cycle. Our data shows us the best time to make calls is in the mid-morning to early afternoon. Call time sessions conducted in these blocks tended to produce slightly higher take rates vs. later in the afternoon.

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The time of year - or phase of the election cycle - is also an important consideration. Some political contributors are willing to get in early on a campaign, while others have a tendency to hold off until after the primaries and closer to election day.

For both these types of prospective donors, early outreach can help increase your likelihood of success, so long as you take the right approach.

For the “risk taker” prospects who give in the earlier in the cycle, early engagement can give you a competitive advantage, an ability to stand out from the crowd. It may sound counter-intuitive, but early outreach to the late-breaking donors is also worthwhile. Why? Well, because building relationships takes time. Even if you have reason to believe that a prospect will not be stroking a check any time soon, it benefits you to make their acquaintance.

There are numerous advantages to getting your major donor fundraising program off the ground as early as possible. Starting early will give you more time to reach out to a greater number of potential donors and build a larger pool of supporters. Getting a head start will provide you with the time they need to cultivate relationships with donors who are more likely to be generous and commit to long-term support.

Knowing about a donor’s giving history, and when they tend to give during a cycle is an important part of successful fundraising. By knowing when a donor typically donates, candidates can tailor asks accordingly. If a donor typically donates in the first quarter of each cycle, the candidate can reach out to them at the start of the election cycle with a hard ask. Maybe a donor doesn’t give during the primary season at all, and prefers to donate once there is a nominee. In this case, reaching out with a softer touch early in the cycle, just to get on their radar, would be most effective.

It Takes a Village

It's important to diversify your fundraising tactics to reach out to different types of donors and build relationships through warm introductions. Just like running a small business, it is important for a campaign to have a diversified revenue stream so that a single bad month doesn't do enough damage to sink the organization.

Campaigns should diversify their revenue streams using methods such as mail, online/digital, major gifts, and social media to reach out to different types of donors and build relationships with them. This way, if one type of fundraising falls short, the campaign can rely on other sources of income to support itself.

  • Mail is one way to reach out to donors, and while it is not the highest ROI activity, it is the most scalable. Direct mail is “expensive” in that the returns tend to be low, but the idea is that it allows you to solicit (and hopefully recruit) a large number of potential supporters with a single message.
  • A Finance Committee or Steering Committee that help build your major-donor prospect base by making introductions to prospective supporters, “bundling” donations, is a force multiplier for any campaign.
  • Online/digital fundraising is also an essential too because it allows campaigns to reach out to the greatest number of prospects in the most efficient way. You can also target potential donors who may not be in the same geographic area. This includes email, digital advertising (list building campaigns) and social media.
  • Major gifts programs should be used to target large donors who can give generously.

Campaigns should use a combination of different fundraising tactics to reach out to donors, build relationships with them, and create a diversified revenue stream. This way, if one type of fundraising falls short, the campaign can rely on other sources of income to support itself.

Focus up & know when to cut bait

There are a number of bad habits candidates and campaigns have developed over the years, and not knowing when to give up is most certainly one of them. Part of being efficient means focusing your efforts on those prospects who are most likely to give, and most likely to give most generously.

Let’s dispel a few myths:

  • Just because someone is tremendously wealthy doesn’t mean they are a high-value prospect.
  • Just because someone is a generous and prolific political giver doesn’t make them a likely giver to your effort, specifically.

Your job as a raiser is to present potential supporters with the opportunity to help you achieve your goals, not to badger people until they give. If you have given a prospect ample opportunity and plenty of information upon which to make a decision and they are still not interested, take the hint and move on.

If you've sent more than a few emails, left a few voicemails, and sent more than one text without a response, then you're barking up the wrong tree. 

Want to run an efficient & effective major-donor program? 

Book a demo to learn how Prospector Pro helps campaigns raise more money, with less struggle.  

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