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Design Your Program - Major Gift Strategy

With all these initial steps made, it is time to prepare a strategy. What are the key events in the major giving program and how do they relate to other development activities, what structure will your major annual giving program have, what benefits will you offer, what sort of identity will those within the group have, and how will donors be recognized?

Topics of Interest
Topics of Interest

Developing a Fundraising Calendar

The annual fundraising schedule for individual giving within public broadcasting is complex. At any given time, initiatives using mail, telemarketing, on-air, website, e-mail, and events are all in various stages of implementation. Many of these activities cluster around on-air campaigns because the synergy that develops when more than one technique is used is proven. Likewise, there are other activities that do not need this synergistic lift.

Using a Fundraising Calendar (MS Excel file, 31KB) is essential to tracking event dates, mail dates, telemarketing campaigns, and e-mail campaigns. The calendar will also help you coordinate activities between major giving and membership, find synergies between major giving and corporate support, and discover economies of scale among all activities so that fundraising resources can be used both effectively and efficiently.

When filling out your fundraising calendar, keep in mind:

  • Optimal times for conducting each initiative — including daily, weekly and monthly initiatives
  • Events that take advantage of special circumstances such as a visiting celebrity
  • Potential conflicts with other activities need to be resolved.

There are some activities that should not happen concurrently. For example, the Visions planned giving newsletter may be scheduled for the mail at the same time people are receiving invitations to a donor event. Or a mailing inviting people to become members of the major giving society should not be sent at the same time as the membership renewal mail or additional gift appeal — this needs to be coordinated with membership. There are also considerations of size and scale. A smaller station may not have the resources to hold a major donor cultivation event two days after the end of the spring on-air campaign.

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Beyond the Fundraising Calendar

The fundraising calendar is an essential tool to align the various activities within the development, but two additional steps help to ensure that conflicts are avoided and synergies identified.

  • A Donor Cultivation System (PDF, 79KB) serves as the strategic planning tool for individual giving. It provides a level of detail, down to a plan for each prospect, which cannot be covered in the fundraising calendar.
  • Regular meetings of those who have prospect contact — including major giving, planned giving, membership, corporate support, and auction — can help to ensure that everyone is aware of who is being approached and when. Such conversations help to identify connections, such as a major donor who is the board member of a corporation whose support is being sought, and eliminate conflicting asks.

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Structural Models for Major Donor Clubs

The major donor level at any organization is the natural progression from member to donor to major investor. As your donors move up and through each level, their experience with your station should become a more personal one, relying less on mail and telemarketing and more on personal contact. When this group is sent mail, it should be personalized and specific whenever possible, often hand addressed on higher-quality stationery with first-class postage.

Generally, major giving is defined as annual gifts of $1,000 or more, although this is not always the case. Some organizations begin their programs at $2,500 or even $5,000. Often, major giving programs reflect what is acceptable within the community. Are other organizations beginning at $5,000 or $1,000? It's not that you cannot raise the bar for giving, but within your community, will you be leaving people behind if you do raise that initial entrance bar above $1,000?

Additionally, evaluate what is happening at your lower giving levels. If your station has a large number of donors at $500, you have a nice prospect pool from which to pull your $1,000 donors. Making the stretch from $500 to $2,500 or $5,000 might be asking a bit much, however — at least initially. Oftentimes, a simple analysis of your existing donor file will help inform your decisions about where to begin donor levels.

The most common division in major donors programs consists of the following:

$1,000 - $2,499
$2,500 - $4,999
$5,000 - $9,999
$10,000 - $25,000
$25,000 and beyond

Other variations have been designed to accommodate monthly giving models:

$1,200 or $120 per month
$1,800 or $150 per month
$2,400 or $200 per month
$3,600 or $300 per month
$4,800 or $400 per month

The monthly giving variation does not provide for as large a span of gifts as does a more traditional structure. While the per month feature might make an easier "sell," it does add more lower levels and thus, more need for superfluous benefits. Better to market the payment option as an easy way to pay, rather than a destination within your program.

A key element in determining structure is the capacity of the staff to manage the process. It is better to have fewer levels and benefits that can be delivered consistently, rather than an extensive list of benefits that cannot possibly be fulfilled by limited staff. Under promise and over deliver, rather than the reverse.

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Modifying Existing Major Giving Structures and Benefits

It is not easy to modify or nullify a program structure that is already established. Many stations are saddled with cumbersome or outdated club names or structures. As difficult as it may be to change existing structures, it can be done.

Evaluate your existing program. Is it broken or just in need of a tune-up?

  • Your program is broken if you cannot afford to maintain the program or if the benefits are so extensive that the station is often in the undesirable position of over promising and under delivering benefits. In all levels of the giving continuum, it is best to deliver more than you promise throughout your fundraising program, but this is particularly true in major gift fundraising.
  • Your program may also be broken if your structure and benefits are so comprehensive that as a major donor fundraiser, you cannot remember or recite most of them. Imagine that if it's this difficult for you, it's even more so for your donors.
  • Perhaps the structure is good and workable, but the benefits don't quite fit your station's goals in building personal relationships. You may be able to fix your program with just a simple realignment and launching of the "new" program benefits. This tune-up will give you the perfect opportunity to "talk" to your donors, introduce the new benefits and explain the reason behind the change. And, you might even get them to upgrade their current level of support!

If your program needs mending, Fixing Your Program (PDF, 19KB) outlines the steps you can take to turn it around. The bottom line: be sure to launch your new program with an emphasis on creating personal relationships whenever possible with your major donors.

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Donor Benefits

When deciding upon benefits for your major giving program, the most important thing to remember is that once a member has reached this level of commitment to your station, benefits become secondary. It is doubtful that anyone is giving your station $1,000, $5,000, or more in hopes that a gift membership for a friend or the new station logo mug will be offered in gratitude.

At this level of investment, your donors are seeking access to your station so that they may invest through you to your community. These investors are special friends who want to be treated as such through personal relationships and unique insider information. As a donor's level of commitment increases, so should their access to station staff, board, and information. Think of them as station stockholders.

Still, we recognize that for many stations, there are some benefits that donors welcome and have become accustomed to receiving. This Giving Club Benefits Checklist (MS Excel file, 33KB) will help you to identify them and assign them to the appropriate levels of giving.

One benefit that public broadcasters can offer that no other organization can match is on-air recognition. Maine Public Broadcasting uses an On-Air Tracking Sheet (MS Excel file, 34KB) to ensure that benefits are delivered as promised. Note that this joint licensee uses both television and radio in its recognition plan. Both the tracking sheet and a Recognition One-Sheet (MS Word file, 29KB) describe the on-air benefits offered at each level and provide the text of the network's copy, which includes a brief statement of its mission.

As the tracking sheet illustrates, many donors choose to decline on-air recognition, in part because it may bring unwanted attention from other organizations seeking donations. Maine sends the following Permission Letter (MS Word file, 28KB) to donors requesting permission to air their names. This illustrates the important principle of letting contributors play a role in how they wish to be recognized, which contributes to gift stewardship.

There are a multitude of other benefits a station can offer donors, and even those who don't take advantage of them may appreciate the perceived value. The main objective is to choose benefits that will bring your donors into the fold to allow station representatives to maintain regular, ongoing contact with them. Major gift fundraising is about building a lifetime relationship that will lead to more major gifts, capital gifts, and ultimately, the planned gift.

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Naming Your Major Donor Group

Special care should be taken when choosing names for the various levels within your major donor group. The names should not only reflect your station and the donor's important place within its structure, but also should be names that can evolve with your program. This isn't the place to be "of the moment" or you may be faced with the difficult task of reconfiguring your program's identity at a later date. For example, one station used program titles to identify levels when it established its program in 1987. Today, few of those programs still exist.

There are two general approaches to naming your program levels. They can be stand-alone based on dollar amount or you may choose an umbrella name for the entire group and differentiate dollar levels with the group in a more generic way. For example: You may name your entire ($1,000-$25,000) group, "The Leadership Society," but within the society you may have a bronze level at $1,000-$2,499; a silver level at $2,500-$4,999, and so on. Many stations and organizations favor this option for ease in publications and on-air recognition. It is much easier to thank "The Leadership Society" as a whole, rather than mentioning a list of three, five, or even more categories.

Alternatively, you can choose to have distinctive names at each level. Always leave some room at the top to grow into so as to not limit your gift potential. The choice is yours, just remember to be thoughtful and choose wisely.

For major donors, consider program names like those in the first column below. Some of these names may need a noun modifier, such as those in the second column below.

For example: The Leadership Circle or Investor's Society.

Program Names Program Name Modifiers
  • Director
  • Producer
  • Cornerstone
  • President
  • Leadership
  • Investor
  • Circle
  • Society
  • Council
  • Club

Should you want to create subgroups within an umbrella name, consider these additional qualifiers:

Subgroup Names
  • Bronze...
  • Silver...
  • Gold...
  • Platinum...
  • Member
  • Fellow
  • Partner
  • Patron
  • Benefactor
  • Sponsor
  • Friend
  • Affiliate

On rare occasions, it may be appropriate to name the organization in honor of an individual who played some outstanding role in the station's history. WGBH established The Ralph Lowell Society to honor the Boston philanthropist who helped to found the station. WGBY named the Edward and Janet Murrow Society to honor the pioneer broadcast journalist and his wife, who was among the station's founding board members. In such cases, it is essential that the individual have played a truly important role in the station's history and have earned the respect of a wide segment of the giving public.

With all of these possibilities it's easy to get carried away with a complicated hierarchy of giving levels and clubs. If it's complicated for you to explain, it will be even more confusing to your donors. Creating too many levels also complicates identifying and delivering benefits. Keep your structure as simple as possible with named levels that reflect your station and fit within your community.

While structure and identity are important, major giving success is ultimately not about the name, but about donor relationships.

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"Grandfathering" Current Donors

If your station has donors giving at levels of $1,000 or more, but no "formal" major giving program has been in place until this point, you will need to grandfather these existing donors into your new program. This is a perfect opportunity to share the excitement about your new program and will give you another reason to communicate with these donors.

Many organizations make these existing donors "Charter Members" of the new group, granting them the distinction as a special way to recognize them for their ongoing commitment. Communicating the changes to these donors can be done through a letter from your general manager, using the charter member example in the letter templates (MS Word file, 126KB) ) as a guide. Be sure to include the major giving director's name and phone number in case your donors have questions about the changes.

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Major Giving Acknowledgment Program

The following points represent a bare minimum of steps your station must take when it receives a major gift. Your acknowledgment program serves as an extension of your cultivation and stewardship efforts and thus should be focused on relationship building, with personal touches added wherever possible.

Your written acknowledgements, including outer envelopes and letterhead, should have a look that is distinctive from other station correspondence. The stationery should be of higher quality and the name of the major donor group should be clearly displayed on your printed materials. Your marketing department need not cringe, however. You do not need a separate program logo, but you do need the name of your major donor group added in some complimentary way to the existing station logo.

The tone of your acknowledgment should be personal. Think of this process as writing to a good friend: You wouldn't send a form letter to a good friend, but would take the time to send a personal, hand written thank you note. You would include language like, "Call me if you have questions" rather than "The Membership information number is ..."

And, if your friend did something spectacular, you might share the news, which might warrant a note from another person — in your case, the board chair, general manager, development director or other key station representative.

The key is that your major donors feel valued. Every gift from a major donor — no matter the size — should be acknowledged quickly (within 48 hours) and should be handled with the same personal care as is shown throughout your entire program.

The following grid outlines the minimum acknowledgement treatment for three types of gifts from major donors:

New Donors


Personalized thank you letter with gift amount on 8.5 x 11 stationery signed by station manager, delivered in close-faced envelope, live stamp


Handwritten note from program director


Major donor welcome packet including any or all of the following:
     • Benefit information
     • Member card, if used
     • Matching gift information
     • Station logo items such as window decal, if used


Follow-up phone call from program director one week after sending information packet to verify delivery and welcome new donor

Renewing Donors


Personalized thank you letter with gift amount on 8.5 x 11 stationery signed by station manager, delivered in close-faced envelope, live stamp


Handwritten note from program director


Major donor welcome packet including any or all of the following:
     • Benefit information
     • Member card, if used
     • Matching gift information
     • Station logo items such as window decal, if used


Follow-up phone call from program director one week after sending information packet to verify delivery and welcome new donor

Additional Gift Donors


Personalized thank you letter with gift amount on 8.5 x 11 stationery signed by station manager, delivered in close-faced envelope, live stamp


Handwritten note from program director

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Establishing a Planned Giving Recognition Society

Stations that include planned giving in their major giving programs benefit from establishing a recognition circle for known donors. Establishing such a society provides the station with:

  • The opportunity to publicize planned giving and to identify those who have already included the station in their estate plans. Send a letter to prospects that announces establishment of the society, asks prospects to consider including the station in their wills, and requests that they notify the station if they have already made such plans "so that we can appropriately recognize you."
  • A mechanism for assuring appropriate stewardship of known givers. This is particularly important when donors have made revocable bequests, since continued contact with the organization helps to confirm the initial commitment. There are many instances of donors increasing their planned gifts due to effective stewardship of their original commitment. In addition, many have made significant current gifts to organizations.

Establishing a planned giving recognition society can be quite straightforward, since the benefits and recognition events can parallel those of the major giving club. Once the number of participants has reached a level that justifies more focused attention, a limited number of events can be developed of interest specifically to planned giving donors and prospects.

If many of your prospects are elderly, they find if difficult to drive after dark and are unlikely to attend nighttime events. If you conduct events on weekends during the daylight hours, your studio may be filled to capacity. In planning events, put yourself in the shoes of your audience and make it easy for them to participate.

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Fundraising Calendar Template (MS Excel file, 31KB)
Donor Cultivation System (PDF, 79KB)
Giving Club Benefits Checklist (MS Excel file, 33KB)

Jeff Wright,
Campaign Director, Oregon Public Broadcasting

OPB Benefits Program (PDF, 97KB)
KUED Benefits Program (PDF, 21KB)

On-Air Tracking Sheet (MS Excel file, 34KB)
Recognition One-Sheet (MS Word file, 29KB)
Permission Letter (MS Word file, 28KB)