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7 Steps of Solicitation

Major donor fundraising

This article shares practical ideas on how to secure major gifts for your organisation.

There are many different ‘Step’ models used by major donor fundraisers. It is simply one of a number of management tools used to provide a framework for securing major gifts.

Here is =mc’s version in the table below:

Step Description
1 Identify
2 Research
3 Plan
4 Cultivate – Involve
5 Ask
6 Close
7 Thank and steward

The purpose of this model is to positively manage relationships over time with prospects at the right level (value), so that your organisation can achieve its financial goals.

The steps are sequential and it is important not to miss out a step in a desire to speed up the solicitation process. Some steps are necessarily faster than others, but you cannot miss out any without damaging your chances of ultimate success.

The model works for both staff-led major donor fundraising and a peer-to-peer approach – where volunteers have an important role to play at each stage of solicitation.

Organisations often begin with a staff-led approach, only moving on to involving senior volunteers when the fundraising has built up momentum.

Transformational levels of income are usually reliant on the personal support of Trustees and other key supporters willing and able to introduce their networks to the organisation and participate in asking them for money.

At its heart, the seven steps are about relationship fundraising, designed to bring the your cause closer to the donor. Key to unlocking a donor’s interest in your charity’s work will be an understanding of their specific motivations. Typically, we group motivations into four main types.

These are:

Motivation Type Explanation
Philanthropy Donors who have a desire to make a difference or change the world for the better. They often have a vision for the future and a conviction that they should use their resources to do good, sometimes driven by religious conviction. Philanthropists often support a wide range of charities – we include trusts and foundations in this category, alongside some high net worth individuals.
Affinity Donors with a strong personal connection to a cause – based on either positive of negative experiences. Donors motivated by affinity to your work may provide your largest gifts, which may be disproportionate to their wealth.
Mutual Benefit This is a more transactional form of giving. Typically, corporates will be motivated by mutual benefit and expect some commercial advantage in return for their support. Another example might be a theatre or art gallery offering a tiered set of benefits to mid and high level ‘friends’ or ‘patrons’.
Social Donors motivated by the social dimension of giving. This might include wanting to be part of a particular group, meet specific individuals or join a ‘club’ (in a loose or actual sense). In the major donor context, social donors are often strongly influenced by the person who asks them for a gift.

Step 1: Identify

The purpose of this step is to build a prospect list of the right people who can provide the necessary level of funding for your work.

During this stage, you are looking for individuals who match three key criteria. These are:

  • Capacity – prospects who have the financial resources to give at the required level
  • Propensity – people who have an interest in supporting your charity at the required level
  • Connection – individuals who have a personal connection with someone already connected to your organisation such as a Trustee, Board Chairman or senior supporter

The most valuable prospects are those that demonstrate all three qualities.

Prospects can be identified from a variety of internal and external sources. It is best to start with those individuals you already know. Not all of them need to be donors but they must be committed to your work.

Sources of prospects are:

  • Existing ticket buyers to events
  • Current supporters, including major donors, corporate partners and members of existing donor giving clubs
  • Chairmen of Boards and Committees at a national, regional or local level – and those within their networks
  • Commercial and professional service delivery partners and other specialist stakeholders
  • Contacts of senior staff
  • Trustees and those known to them
  • Potentially some beneficiaries and their families

You will need to undertake additional research as the prospect list develops – and match them against the three criteria. You will discard names as you go, but at this stage you want to gather as many names as you can.

The table below, describes the different roles of fundraisers and volunteers:

Who What
  • Wealth screen the database – often using external agencies
  • Create and manage the prospect list
Trustees, Board or Committee Chairmen and members, other supporters and senior staff
  • Provide names of prospects from their networks. People are often nervous of doing this to start with. It can make it easier to focus on people they know who have a propensity to give (i.e. they already a have a known interest in supporting the type of work you do).

Step 2: Research

The purpose of research is to assess each potential donor against the three key criteria listed above. You can obtain information on prospects from both external and internal sources.

Careful research is important as the basis for an effective donor solicitation plan. But do not make it an industry. You need to know when you have enough information to make a plan and get started.

All research should be outcome focused. The purpose is to understand how much an individual might be able to give and why they are likely to do so. This will help you design a plan that meets their needs and motivations so you get the gift you need.

External sources of information include:

  • Google searches
  • Online registers and directories
  • Annual reports and publications of charities operating in the same ‘space’ as you
  • Corporate annual reports
  • Magazines and newspapers

Typically, external research will provide details of giving behaviour, interests, family connections and other basic data. Sometimes you can find profiles and interviews that provide more in-depth knowledge.

Internal sources of information include:

  • Individuals who know the person concerned – trustees other supporters and staff
  • Your database – for details of previous support and/or ticket buying patterns

Internal sources – especially those who know the prospect directly – are invaluable to understand the interests and drivers of the prospects. This information is less likely to be widely known, so will add the most value to your plan – and give you a competitive advantage over other organisations seeking to engage the same person.

Who What
  • External desk research
  • Recording information in a prospect file according to data protection guidelines
  • Creating a biography of each prospect, listing charitable giving, business interests and family background
Trustees and other supporters who know the individual
  • Internal research. Providing insight and additional informal knowledge of attitudes and enthusiasms not widely available beyond his/her personal circles

Step 3: Plan

The purpose of this step is to formally set out how you are going to engage a prospect with a view to gaining their commitment to funding the charity’s work.

Having completed steps 1 and 2, in order to create an effective plan of solicitation you need to answer the following questions:

  • How much can/will the prospect give?
  • For what area of work?
  • When is the right time to ask them?
  • Who should ask them?
Who What
  • Draw together all the available information and create a formal solicitation plan that maps out the key cultivation stage and answers the four critical questions
  • Secure commitment from those who will be involved in the solicitation process
Trustees and other supporters
  • Act as a sounding board for the plan – to add value and challenge
  • Provides a sense check for staff on critical stages and assumptions made
  • Agree to take part in key stages of the cultivation process

Step 4: Cultivation – involve

The purpose of this stage is to bring the person closer to the cause so they end up committed to your work and want to help.

At the end of this stage, the individual has moved beyond a general interest in the charity to a real enthusiasm for its work, based on an accurate understanding of how and why their financial support will have the biggest impact.

This step can legitimately take the longest of the seven steps but it is very important that fundraisers do not allow ‘drift.’ Critically, fundraisers will need to keep focused on the financial outcome by keeping the relationship moving forward.

During the cultivation process, you can learn more about the specific interests of the prospect – which will help define your eventual proposition. Each time you meet the individual, you have an opportunity to deepen your understanding of their motivations and test your hypotheses about their capacity and willingness to give. Above all, you are seeking to establish a personal connection between the potential donor and the organisation.

As a rule of thumb, the larger the planned gift, the longer the cultivation or involvement stage will take. Typically this can range from six to 18 months.

There are lots of ways to cultivate a prospect. Until you are absolutely certain about their motivations (and there is often more than one at play), you should plan to speak to all four of the motivation types (listed earlier). As a mechanic you might include events, opportunities to meet key staff and volunteers, meet other donors and take part in discussions about the future plans for the charity at a regional and national level.

By the time you have reached the cultivation stage, you will need to have completed your case for support. This document articulates what you are trying to do and – critically – how the donor’s contribution will make a difference. It will help you speak confidently about what you are trying to achieve and how individuals can help.

Not all individuals will want to become donors and most will disengage themselves during the cultivation stage. You will need to be sensitive to know if someone is keen but short of time or politely telling you they are really not interested. The benefit of this is that for those that do stay the course, you can be more confident of a positive response when you get to the asking stage.

Who What
Fundraisers and other staff
  • Create opportunities for cultivation and involvement
Trustees and other supporters
  • Create irresistible opportunities for cultivation and lend personal support to the activities arranged by other staff

Step 5: Ask

The purpose of this step is to make an explicit request for support from the individual concerned – at the right level, for the right area of work, at the right time and by the right person.

If you have correctly followed all the earlier steps, you should be reasonably confident of success. However, you do not actually want the prospect to agree too readily.

If they say ‘yes’ straight away when you ask for a specific amount, the chances are that you have not asked for enough.

The purpose of major donor fundraising is to secure a stretch gift – a gift that requires thought and perhaps some planning. It is unlikely that you will get an instant agreement if you have pitched the level correctly.

So do not worry too much if the donor initially says ‘no’ as this can still lead to a gift.

At =mc we have defined nine different types of ‘No.’

The good news is that only one of them really means ‘No.’ Here they are:

“Do we need to involve someone else – who?”

Type of ‘No’ Your response
“No not for this.” “What area of work would you be interested in?”
“No not you.” “Who would be more appropriate?”
“No not me.”
No not unless…” “What are your conditions – and do they ft with our strategic objectives?”
“No not in this way.” “Is there another way of providing support that is easier or more convenient?”
“No not now.” “When would be more appropriate?”
“No too much.” “What level would make more sense to you?”
“No too little.” “What had you in mind?”
“No go away.” “Thank you for your time. Goodbye”

The best person to ask will satisfy four key criteria. These are:

  • Personal commitment – they have given themselves
  • Peer – the person asking is known and respected by the prospect
  • Position – the person asking has a specific relevant role within the organisation
  • Passion – the person giving can describe why they are so committed to the charity (and possibly the same area of work) as well

The people most likely to meet the four criteria are often volunteers themselves – including Trustees. Staff can (and almost always should) support the process, but they rarely have the same degree of credibility and personal clout. That is the reason why peer-to-peer (volunteer-driven)

Who What
Fundraiser or other staff
  • Supports the volunteer during the ask
  • Can ask when a volunteer is unavailable – but usually will have less impact (and secure lower gifts as a result)
  • Makes sure that the prospect’s objections and conditions are heard and responded to
  • Ensures that follow-up happens swiftly after the meeting
Trustee or supporter
  • Makes the ask – as the person most likely to satisfy the four key criteria

Step 6: Close

The purpose of this stage is to secure the donation. If the prospect has been asked at the right level, it is unlikely you will get an immediate answer as he or she will want to consider your request. So at this stage, it is about getting a written agreement.

This should record:

  • How much is the proposed donation
  • When the donation will be made
  • How will it be made – one-off payment, number of instalments, via shares, etc.

Closing is an important formal stage in securing the gift. It is often a time for the Chief Executive – or another member of the senior team to get involved. Both to thank the donor and also to ensure that the ‘deal’ is closed.

Who What
Senior staff including sometimes Chief Executive
  • Formal acknowledgement and confirmation of the gift including payment details and time frame
Trustees and volunteer supporters
  • Support and facilitation for staff

Step 7: Thank and steward

The purpose of this phase is two-fold. First, to acknowledge – in ways that are meaningful to the donor – the important contribution they have made to your work. Second, to lay the ground for future gifts and to ensure he or she becomes a long-term supporter of the charity.

High quality thanking and stewarding is essential for maintaining long-term relationships with key donors. It is impossible to understate its importance in major donor fundraising.

Immediate thanking is of course important and the right thing to do. Speed is vital as is making sure that the right person is doing the thanking.

Receipt of major gifts should be made within 24 hours, by phone or email if necessary. Formal letters should follow up from an appropriate member of staff again within a few days. It is the fundraiser’s responsibility to ensure that effective thanking is done – even when it is carried out by others.

Sometimes more than one type of acknowledgement makes sense, especially for larger gifts. For example, a formal letter from the Chief Executive works in parallel with a hand-written personal note from the key volunteer responsible for making the initial contact.

If you have progressed through all the stages of the solicitation processes, you will have a good understanding of what makes the donor ‘tick.’ That should help you design a recognition and stewardship programme that really relates to the donor’s interests and motivations.

Some forms of stewardship are formal, such as an invitations to an annual reception and regular updates. Others are more personal and direct – for example, brief emails with snippets of information from key members of staff or project participants.

Donor recognition will also vary according to the level of donation. Traditional forms of recognition might include public listings in the charity’s Annual Report and on their website.

All forms of recognition should be checked with the donor concerned – especially any that involve publicity. You may need to confirm these as part of the closing stages, but in other cases you will have already had a good steer from the individual. Never assume a major donor wants media coverage.

Who What
Fundraisers and other staff
  • Ensure that all thanking is done promptly and appropriately – depending on the level of donation and who has been involved in the solicitation
  • Create and record a personal stewardship plan that refects the individual’s interests and motivations
  • Implement stewardship and recognition activities – making sure that the donor is kept up-to-date and involved in the projects they are funding
Trustee and other volunteer supporters
  • Immediate personal thanking as appropriate
  • Ongoing stewardship and contact – including personal endorsement of invitations to events and visits
  • Provide added value and interest to your stewardship programme – so that the donor stays warm and receptive to future requests for financial support

What’s next?

For further information on how we can help you transform your fundraising, visit our Fundraising Consultancy pages or contact Bernard Ross, Director on 020 7978 1516 or email

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