American Philanthropic’s first master class demonstrated that as much as we try to break down major gifts into “science,” it eludes the attempt. We can study the “science” over time, but major gifts remains more than a science. It is ultimately the art of forming authentic human relationships—that’s the trick with major-gifts fundraising: relationships.

It’s sometimes easy to miss the challenges that come with soliciting major gifts. When you see it in action, it looks easy—but doing it is a different story. Every donor is different, and your job is to identify and highlight some shared interests between them and the organization, to strengthen their commitment to the organization, and to bring in their financial support to help the organization.

Then there’s cultivation: simple in theory, but takes no small amount of work to excel in reality.


Twenty-five fundraisers from across the country and representing sundry nonprofits came together for a three-hour, hands-on training session last week. Led by two very successful fundraisers, Chris Kuetemeyer and Jeff Trimbath, “In the Trenches” took participants through the grit, grime, hard work—and glory—of major-gifts fundraising. Kuetemeyer and Trimbath shared their advice for staying on track during meetings, how they prepare for the first ask and determine the ask amount, and much else besides. Ultimately, they were sharing how to become a master in major-gifts fundraising.

As one participant noted, “the key line people give to people really hit home for me. We need to spend a lot more time establishing a personal relationship with them as gift officers before asking for a larger gift.”


Be authentic—and not in the cheap way. Authenticity can’t be faked and donors don’t want to deal with dishonest fundraisers. Be honest about why you’re in this role and why you support your organization’s mission. It’s going to be harder to court donors for a cause that doesn’t resonate deeply with you. Dig deep into who you are and how you share that with people so that you can connect with them and form real relationships.

Be humble. See your donors as people who have more to offer than their money. During the master class we discussed the old adage, “If you ask for advice, you get a gift. If you ask for a gift, you will get advice.” If this person is a serious donor they are going to be invested in the mission, and likely have years of experience in business or life that can be helpful. Don’t assume you have all the answers; view your donors as three-dimensional persons to be engaged on many levels. Your research on them will help inform how to do this best.

Honor people’s dignity. This refers to pacing the relationship. All relationships take time to flourish; donors are not people to be exploited to meet your annual revenue goals. Never (ever) ask for the person’s largest gift amount in the first meeting. In fact, you probably want to avoid a financial ask in your first meeting—instead, think about something else you would like to ask for, like another meeting. You want a reason to get together again, so you don’t have to share everything about your mission all at once.

This is hard work. To help ease the uncertainty of donor relationships, American Philanthropic invited philanthropist Fred Clark for a Q&A session that included some do’s and don’ts. One of the greatest takeaways (and to the relief of us all) is that Mr. Clark emphasized the value of good research. Perhaps you (like me) have pit in your stomach when researching donors. Worry not: they appreciate it. Successful solicitation of major gifts looks easy because it’s often in the unnoteworthy details that a person feels known and valued. That’s why you prepare a prospect meeting with research, and prepare active donor meetings with both research and reviewing past meeting notes. Make sure you remember what your donors have told you!

Raising money in good times and bad, leaves little room for the faint of heart. American Philanthropic’s In the Trenches master class series gets into the trenches with you to roll up our sleeves and help you plan for and achieve fundraising success. As Jeff Trimbath likes to say, “fundraising is simple—but it’s not easy.” Well, it’s easier together.

If you missed the major-gifts class, stay tuned—it will be available for purchase soon, and we’ll do another class soon enough! In the meantime, I hope you can join us for our next master class on direct response!