Finding the “Lowly” Million Dollar Donor (Part 1 of 2)

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This month and next we’re talking about major gift prospects. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 48% of the $5.6 billion that America’s 50 biggest donors gave in 2016 went to colleges and universities.


While these super-rich donors are the dream of every university advancement leader, the success of college and university capital campaigns depends on motivating many more major gift donors, those capable of giving at least $100,000, to join the cause.

As Douglas Belkin explains in his Wall Street Journal article, “University of Michigan Raises $5 Billion,” an increasing “percentage of the money [raised in capital campaigns] is coming from fewer, wealthier people.”

The positive side of this is that just one major donor can have a huge impact.

But not every school has a Stephen Schwarzman, who recently announced plans to donate $350 million to MIT and $25 million to his former high school to support progress in artificial intelligence and other technology initiatives. However, we believe that every institution has significant numbers of untapped alumni with the potential and passion to make six, seven, and even eight-figure gifts to their alma mater.

But these alumni won’t engage their potential and passion if they aren’t known and cultivated. And they certainly won’t donate for priorities that don’t ignite the passion within them.

Many of these untapped alumni live far from the central campus in regions where the institution hasn’t maintained a commitment to engagement and philanthropy.

We believe it’s time to explore the intersection of major gifts and regional alumni. So, this month and next, we’re diving in, breaking the process into two parts:

  • Part 1: How to Identify and Cultivate Major Gifts Prospects
  • Part 2: The Nitty Gritty Financial Side of Major Gifts


1 – Leverage Data

You’re already familiar with fundraising pyramids and funnels and how they come in and out of fashion. At ALUMinate, we believe alumni can engage in a variety of ways–all of which should be valued and recognized. But, in this blog series, our focus is to help you find and understand donors who have the potential and passion to make major gifts to your institution.

But who are these high potential prospects? And how do you build meaningful relationships with them?  

The mega-donors of the world are often household names, but what about the “meager” six or seven-figure donors living in Dallas, Chicago, or Santa Fe who’ve not yet heard from your alumni relations or advancement teams?

To answer these questions, you need the most dynamic, up-to-date data on your alumni and “friends” (let’s not forget that a large percentage of college and university gifts come from non-alumni).

Current CRM systems come in various sizes and flavors, but often lack the functionality to provide the data needed to develop an innovative engagement and fundraising strategy. The proprietary algorithms and software of our technology partner, Uprising Technology, analyze nearly 100 different traits and data points to create holistic and insightful profiles of individuals.

-First, we connect the many disparate records spread across multiple institutional and external data sources.

-Second, we enrich profiles by mining social media and multiple publicly available online resources to deliver a current, comprehensive understanding of the vocations and avocations of prospective donors.

-And third, through our easy-to-use portal, we empower advancement professionals, faculty and volunteers to locate donors, communicate with them, engage them with meaningful programs, and facilitate their philanthropy.

Using this platform, you can develop an effective data strategy to identify donor traits and interests, regardless of where they live.

 Did you know that analyzing data on your alumni is just the first step in how we help you design and implement a regional engagement strategy? Learn more.






2 – Do your homework.

This is a big one! Once you have that data, it is essential to put in the time analyzing it. You aren’t trying to “boil the ocean” but rather identify the top prospects and their propensity to support education or initiatives currently on your institution’s roadmap. It may be useful for your team to look at alumni in clusters of interest or create donor profile segments and personas. (Watch this space in early 2019 for research on how to create regional donor profiles.)

Another important tip: don’t make assumptions and pigeonhole your potential donors. You never know what may drive their philanthropy. Most times their passion may not derive from their industry or even their interests…it could be that their sibling survived cancer, so they’re really invested in medical research, or the donor had an engineering professor who was like a father, so they are excited to name a state-of-the-art engineering building in honor of the professor.

3 – Build deep relationships over time.

Your high potential prospects almost certainly receive many requests to give to an array of causes. So how do you make your institutional needs stand out and resonate?

This is one of the core questions of the work that we do.

Remember the 80/20 rule? Listen to your donors–don’t talk at them. Invite them to tell their stories, which most likely will be fascinating. Invest time in getting to know how and why they want to make an impact. Even if it takes years. Then find the right fit at your institution or create one.

In this work, we’re building relationships that have both emotional depth and longevity. These relationships are often built through the donor’s engagement with deans, faculty, and even like-minded peers. Someone needs to drive this process with consistent and meaningful communication and engagement.

In a way, fundraising in higher education is like planting a tree–the best time to start was 20 years ago. The second-best day to start is today! We know the challenges of maintaining meaningful contact with potential donors in regions. That is why we built our company–to serve as your consistent presence in cities distant from your campus, working with your alumni relations and advancement teams to build a bridge between your university or college and your alumni.

4-Handle the ask with care.

I wonder how many times colleges and universities have lost major gifts because they were too focused on the institutional priorities and not the needs and passions of the donor? It’s like jamming a square block into a round hole.

square peg and round hole

Fundraising shouldn’t be something you force.

Don’t push institutional projects on potential donors that aren’t aligned with their objectives. Remember, donor intent is what matters. Also remember, data can only take you so far. At the end of the day, the human touch is necessary to discover and understand the real passions of your top prospects and connect them back to the campus and the cause. These prospects have plenty of options! The ALUMinate team can help show them why this is the right time AND your cause is the right one.

Another insight our research has shown—a number of major gifts may not even come from a direct ask. Often times, potential donors are already connected to their alma mater and see a need and initiate action on their own. This is a development officer’s dream come true! But they need to establish that connection first.

If you don’t have a strong and relevant presence in the regions where they live, how many major gift opportunities just waiting to be unlocked have been missed?  

In the next blog, we will explore the specific factors donors consider when making major and transformative gifts to universities and colleges, including:

  1. Federal and state income, gift and estate taxes
  2. Gift fees
  3. Endowment investment returns
  4. Compliance with donor intent
  5. Peer pressure

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Check back here on December 11th for more!

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