Association members: making major gifts?

Here’s a timely tip: maximize this revenue stream for your association or medical society

Are you leaving money on the table?

Oh, wait – that question needs some context. I’m not talking about restaurant tipping (you know, that time-honored practice wherein people choose to give something extra above what’s expected).

No, I’m talking about securing philanthropic major gifts for your organization (you know, that other time-honored practice wherein people choose to give something extra above what’s expected).

Sure, members of our associations and professional societies pay dues to receive benefits from our organizations. But increasing numbers of them are going farther, by making major gifts that support and elevate their organization’s mission.  If your organization isn’t maximizing such revenues, you’re not only leaving money on the table, but missing a valuable opportunity to increase member engagement.

Are major gifts worth the effort?

The answer is a flat-out “yes.” There’s a commonly held misperception that most charitable giving comes from corporations and foundations.  In fact, the opposite is true. According to Giving USA, 86 percent of the $485 billion given in 2021 to US nonprofits came from individuals, bequests, family foundations and donor advised funds. Foundation grants added 10 percent and corporations rounded out the final 4 percent.

That balance pretty much reveals where your real opportunities lie.

Major gifts programs pay off in some very attractive ways:

Increased financial stability. A mature major gifts program can produce 70-80% of all philanthropic revenue, helping to ensure long-term financial stability. By focusing effort on major gifts, your organization can reduce its reliance on less predictable sources of funding (like event participation and giving from foundations and corporations).

Stronger relationships with members. A major gifts program builds long-term relationships with its most committed supporters.

Increased program impact. More resources will allow your organization to expand its programs and services to create greater impact. Major gifts can support new initiatives, research, advocacy efforts, and other strategic priorities that might never happen without limited funding.

Enhanced reputation. A major gifts program can enhance your organization’s reputation; a strong base of dedicated supporters is a great “third party endorsement” that can influence other external stakeholders.

Stronger culture of philanthropy. Donors who give large gifts can change the equation for all donors. Properly communicated, a major donor’s high-profile example can cause other rank and file members to stop and consider their own commitment and aspirations. When it comes to copycat giving, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Consider the facts of life

If this all sounds great, there are some major gift facts-of-life to consider. Major gift request letters seldom work – after all, most of these donors are dipping into their assets to give, not just dashing off a check. Strong engagement is key, so you’ll have to invest in building personal relationships – a process that can take 3-18 months. Also, major donors tend to fund compelling programs and projects rather than general operations, so you’ll have to identify those opportunities and build your case.

The good news is that, with proper stewardship, major donors become more than transactional, annual fund givers. Properly stewarded, they will tend to give again and again, with a lifetime of impact on your organization.

Consultants in Association Philanthropy can help your association, association foundation or medical society establish or enhance a members major gifts program.  See the steps below and visit our website or contact Joe Skvara (; 708-990-1325) for a no-obligation 30-minute consultation.

How to start a major gift program

  • Commit your entire organization to a members major gifts program
  • Determine your priority giving opportunities and their budgets
  • Determine minimum/other levels for major gifts contributions
  • Set a preliminary philanthropic goal and initial timetable
  • Develop a compelling case for support for each of your program/project giving opportunities
  • Identify your major gifts prospects — discover if you have enough prospects in your donor base, even for a modest start:
    • Top $1,000+ annual donors for the past 3-5 years (not gov’t)
    • Top 25 donors (cumulative amount) for all time (not gov’t) 
    • Loyal donors who have given any amount every year for the past 5-10 years
    • Loyal conference and program event participants for the past 5-10 years
  • Consider conducting an electronic wealth screening of your members             
  • Recruit a major gifts committee, with a formal charge and job description
  • Create a major gifts plan; staff and committee should share their plan with your development committee, board, and select major gifts donor prospects.

Get Going on Your Gap

Why and how to energize your annual fundraising NOW

More and more membership associations are returning to in-person annual conferences and workshops. At the same time, many are still reeling from pandemic-driven revenue losses. Unfortunately, it’s anyone’s guess when we’ll see a rebound on conference, sponsorship and membership dues.

Daunting? Certainly.  However, organizations that recognize the potential of a re-energized annual fundraising initiative are experiencing positive results to fill that revenue gap.

Philanthropy as your NEW OR ENHANCED Revenue Stream

Many membership associations have traditionally over-relied on corporate sponsors and grants sources. If you suspect your organization is one of those, a pivot to emphasize individual member philanthropy could make a significant difference – now and for the future.

And, if you equate “individual giving” with big gifts from board members and emeritus leaders, don’t discount the short- and long-term progress you could make with a renewed and concentrated emphasis targeted on gifts of $500 and less. 

What To Focus On

At Consultants in Association Philanthropy, we get many calls from organizations wanting to raise lots of money via “Big Gifts.”  And we’re all for it!  But organizations that are used to a steady diet of sponsorship and grant revenue sometimes have unrealistic expectations. They frequently struggle to identify the programs and stories that will compel individual donors to give, and they don’t have enough long-term donor relationships in their pipeline to generate those windfalls.

Sound like a lot of work to change your strategy?  Well, it’s not as much as you think…and the payoff is tremendous!

A thoughtful <$500 annual giving effort can triple your giving – or even increase it ten-fold. Even more important, that success will provide the pipeline necessary for future major and planned gifts programs that will secure 70%-80% of your total philanthropy.

The key to success?  Anchor your giving appeal in a sense of loyalty to the profession, an expression of gratitude for the organization’s role in the member’s or donor’s career, and desire to pay that impact forward for new generations of members – and for society at large. 

Clearly, your approach must go beyond simple opt-in or dues check-off giving techniques – these don’t make the case for giving, don’t ask donors to stretch, and treat each individual as if they had the same capacity. What you need instead is an engaging donor-centric giving culture that cultivates your members to give from the heart (and, one day, from their personal wealth assets, not just their check books)!

Ideas to Grow your < $500 Donor Base

Through the mail

Matching Gift Challenges: Do people really respond to these? Yes! Ask a current major donor to pledge a sizeable gift or a few Board Members to make a group gift. When members learn that every dollar they give will be matched two or three to one, you’ll see many upgraded or new gifts.

Donor Ambassadors: Ask 10-25 of your organization’s top leaders and donors to send a highly personalized email to members they know well and to their friends/associates/vendors. Create a template for them to adapt, which outlines your organization’s case for support and reasons to contribute to a special funding opportunity.

At your conference (face-to-face or online)

Social Media: Ask all of your attendees to your keynote event or banquet to fund a priority project through crowdfunding or social media.

FitGive: Hold a fitness fundraising special event at your conference (group spin class, boot camp, etc.). Members pay an entry fee donation and get other members or their friends to support them. Great for getting sponsorships too!  For more info:

It does take time and some organizational commitment to ramp up an annual fundraising program to become your philanthropic backbone and a pipeline for major gifts. And, it should not be considered only at the end of the year.  On the other hand, relatively simple moves like these can snowball, bringing you opportunities – and revenue – you never anticipated. 

For a free 30-minute consultation on how Consultants in Association Philanthropy can help you get going on your gap, please contact:

Joe Skvara, CFRE



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