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Major donor fundraising and working with your trustees

Trustees can be critical to major donor fundraising success. But it can be easy to feel frustrated that your trustees “don’t get” major donor fundraising or aren’t more actively involved introducing potential donors. I’ve definitely been there in fundraising roles! I’ve also had fundraisers I’ve worked with exclaim to me in frustration that “the Board just don’t get it”.

Read on for my 4 top tips from having worked with over 200 charities, boards, trustees and many more fundraisers and leaders. Some of these you might be doing but there may be one or two things you can take away…….


Read on for your bitesize tips and perspectives to help you work together with your board for major donor fundraising success.

1. Identify your key trustees

When talking about “the Board” , it’s easy to forget that they are not one homogenous group, but made up of individuals with different experiences, backgrounds and motivations.

So, when I work with fundraisers and leaders I often ask them:

“Who are the two, three or four trustees who could make the biggest difference to your major donor programme?”

They nearly always know instinctively.

  • There might be a trustee who seems to know a lot of influential and potentially high-net-worth people but “they’ve never introduced anyone”.
  • They might have a trustee who is on the Board of a FTSE250 company.
  • They might have a trustee who’s given a major gift in the past, but no one really mentions it or thanks them!

If you don’t know much about your trustees, read their bios and speak to your CEO to identify those who could help your major donor programme the most.

Because you don’t need  the whole Board actively involved in major donor fundraising. And it’s not realistic to expect this. If you aim for the whole Board you’re going to be constantly disappointed.

But if you identify the key trustees for major gift fundraising, it becomes manageable and achievable all of a sudden.

2. Get to know your key trustees

Ask yourself…“How much do I know about this trustee?”

How much do you know:

  • About their world
  • About why they give their time for free to your cause
  • About their family and work life
  • About their knowledge of fundraising at your charity

I asked this to someone I was coaching who was envisaging a challenging conversation with a trustee  – the trustee had said at a Board meeting that they’d introduce someone to the charity, but nothing had come of it. And the trustee had a reputation for being “abrupt”.

The fundraiser was really surprised when she thought about that trustee, because she actually had no idea why they were involved with the charity. When she met with the trustee she opened the conversation out first, and a potentially tricky conversation became an enjoyable one.

We can’t expect trustees to feel comfortable opening their networks if they don’t have deep enough relationships with the staff who are going to be managing their contacts.

It’s their reputation on the line. And we can’t build their confidence to reach out to their networks, if we don’t have good communication with them.

💡 TIP
If your organisation doesn’t “allow” fundraisers to contact trustees directly, now is the time to explain to those shielding the trustees, that you will only increase major donor fundraising income with a whole organisational approach.

So, if you haven’t met one of the key trustees you’ve identified, or you realise you don’t know much about them, ask for a 30 minute virtual of coffee chat

As with major donors, you might be surprised how much of a springboard this is to a strong relationship.

3. Helpful Nudging

Your trustee mentions that they know a certain high-net-worth individual and/or a company leader and that they’d be happy to introduce you.

Then….nothing.

📩 You send an email chasing your trustee but you don’t hear anything.
😖 You find yourself tipping back into the mindset of “the board really aren’t doing enough”.

Your trustees, like you and your donors, have busy lives.

And what I’ve learnt through working with hundreds of boards, and supporting fundraisers to work with their trustees, is that there are a whole host of reasons these introductions don’t happen from the perspective of a trustee:

  • I feel uncomfortable speaking to my contact, I think they’ve got their own causes, and they are a friend too so it feels awkward.
  • I really don’t want to have to ask my contact for money!
  • I’ve been meaning to reach out but I’m so busy it’s at the bottom of my to do list
  • What if I get asked a load of questions that I don’t have the answer to?

How can you anticipate and solve all of these? One question can help you hugely:

What do you need from me?

Fundraisers who’ve used this technique and simply ask their trustees, have been able to move things forward in so many different ways.

You won’t know what your trustee needs until you ask.

And you may have to ask more than once to keep the momentum and make progress.

But rather than thinking about it as “chasing” how about “helpful nudging”?!

Because if you can be in a generous state to help THEM to introduce someone to your major donor fundraising programme, it doesn’t just mean you start relationships with new potential major donors.

4. Get your board “on board”

Excuse the pun 😂 but what do I mean by this?

Well major donor fundraising, more than any other income stream, is surrounded by myths like:

  • There’s no reason why your charity shouldn’t get a £€$ 100million gift this year.
  • Significant income growth should happen within the first 6 months of a major donor programme.
  • Major donor events should always be fundraisers asking for money
  • Fundraisers should crack on and it isn’t part of the board’s role

So my final tip to help you work better with your trustees, is to educate them!

Most trustees aren’t major donor fundraisers. There is no reason that they should know much about this area of fundraising! I have never done a session with a board, where trustees didn’t come away more confident, more informed and excited to help.

Because what trustees will understand through all their varied experiences, is the importance of building relationships, and by the end of a Summit session they’ll know how they can support you to do this directly or indirectly, so together you can have major donor success.

Need some support to secure work more effectively with your board and make a step-change with your major donor fundraising? Get in touch.

Louise Morris is the Founder of Summit Fundraising. She is a major donor fundraising specialist and has worked with over 200 charities helping them raise large gifts.

This was posted on 24 March 2023.

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