Kicking A** and Taking Names: Sources of Major Gift Prospects

A special post from guest blogger, Paul Jolly, Jump Start Growth. Paul is just one of the fantastic trainers who will be presenting at the upcoming Money for Our Movements conference.


The first important milestone for major gifts fundraising is compiling the prospect list.

Sometimes it’s easy. Once I was literally carrying my box of stuff into the office for a new job and my (fired) predecessor was carrying his box of stuff out. He muttered “There are twelve people who could make million dollar contributions to this organization.” I called him and asked if he would tell me about those twelve people. He agreed. Three years later, we finished a $4 million campaign, and $3 million had come from that list.

Sometimes list-making is more challenging. An organization I consulted for recently had so much chaos and turnover that the names on the donors plaque in the foyer weren’t in the database. In that instance, creating a prospect list involved quilt-work: patching together names from the plaque, current donors, and friends of board members.

Whether that list is handed to you on a platter, or you have to piece it together, making the list is the beginning of major gift success. Here are places to start. Replace the numbers with whatever threshold makes sense for your organization.

  • Current and lapsed donors of $1,000 or more
  • Long time donors whose largest gift is $500 or more and who have given in the past 2 years.
  • Donors whose largest gift is $2,500 or more, regardless of how recently.
  • Donors who live in the wealthiest zip codes in your area (Google “wealthy zip codes”).
  • People who give significant gifts to similar organizations
  • Friends of the executive director, board members, and current major donors

The last item involve a conversation like this:

Q: “Do you know any prospective major donors to this organization?”

A: “No.”

Sound familiar? That “No” means one of several things, and it is important to figure out what’s going on.

  • I am not committed enough to the organization to share the names of my friends (so ask me again after I have gotten more engaged).
  • I don’t trust you – if you ask for a gift prematurely I will be embarrassed (so make it clear that you are not going to ask my friends for a gift the first time you meet them).
  • I have friends with millions in the bank but they don’t think of themselves as rich (so be clear what you mean by “major gift”).
  • I don’t know anyone who is already committed to the organization (so describe your cultivation plan).
  • I don’t think of my friends in terms of their wealth or giving (so give me a profile of your donors).

Figuring out what “no” means requires a one on one conversation. Announcing at the board meeting that you need new major donors might not be the best strategy.

Finally, a short list with the right names is more helpful than a longer, more random list. Remember your goal: enlarging the circle of influential people who are committed to your organization.

Good luck!


Paul Jolly ( worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth. He began his career serving several Quaker institutions in one-person development offices, then moved to The Wilderness Society, where he was a one of six major gift officers. His last job before launching Jump Start Growth was at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. In every instance, he has zeroed in on gifts from individuals at the top of the giving pyramid. The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are ready for dramatic expansion. His successes include leading three capital campaigns for organizations new to major gifts fund raising, securing millions of dollars in bequest and planned gift commitments, and bringing a laser-sharp focus on donors and increased vitality to small development departments. He is a regular contributor to the Guidestar blog, and is a popular workshop leader. His insights about building a major gifts program are now available online at (

Paul has a BA in English from the University of Maryland and is a not-yet-published poet.