Identifying Major Donors: 11 Top Strategies and Tools

FREE BONUS: See our list of the TOP 15 Auction Item Ideas. You can save this resource as a PDF and use it for your organization’s next charity auction event. Make your next auction an overwhelming success!

Major gifts are the largest donations that your organization will receive, constituting a vital portion of your nonprofit’s funds. And as we all know, there are no major gifts without major donors.

After all, it’s the donors who put the keys in the ignition and kickstart fundraising.

There are many important steps in the process of earning donations from major donors, but before you can begin asking for — and receiving — those donations, you must first identify who your major donors might be.

To find out how to recognize the major donors who can help skyrocket your nonprofit’s success, check out these top eleven strategies:

  1. Start With a Great Donor Database
  2. Clean Up Your Donor Database
  3. Perform Prospect Research
  4. Zero in on Past Giving
  5. Screen Auction Participants
  6. Consider Event Attendees
  7. Look to Your Annual Fund
  8. Analyze Political Giving
  9. Capitalize on Business Affiliations
  10. Study Real Estate Ownership
  11. Bring in an Expert

These tools can help you identify major donors, from auction attendees to donors already in your database.

Let’s get started with number 1.

1. Start With a Great Donor Database

Before you can really start digging down into your major gift data, you have to start at square one: selecting a great donor database.

A CRM solution that simply doesn’t work for your organization’s current situation isn’t going to do anybody any favors. Instead, look for a donor database that can track all of the data points you’re interested in when researching and identifying major gift donors.

Of course, a donor database should be able to do more than simply store information. The best software solutions also include:

  • Integrations with other types of fundraising software.
  • Automated communications and follow ups.
  • Mobile responsiveness for making updates to donor profiles on the go.
  • And more!

Having a great donor database at your side will help you track each stage of the major gift cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship processes.

Pulling it together: A donor database with up-to-date information is the key to finding major donors within your pool of existing donors.

2. Perform Prospect Research

Prospect research is a process that can indicate a person’s likelihood of donating, as well as relevant background information on potential major donors.

The most effective approach to prospect research should include both philanthropic and wealth data because both of these factors carry significant weight when it comes to identifying major donors who are both able and willing to give.

Why is prospect research important?

Prospect research can help you to not only identify potential major donors but to learn more about their backgrounds.

For example, prospect research can identify real estate ownership and past charitable giving, both of which are prime indicators of major donors.

But even more so, nonprofits can use prospect research to create an informed approach to cultivating relationships with major donors.

Identifying your major donor candidates is just one part of the equation; knowing who they are can help your nonprofit craft effective asks and maintain strong donor relationships.

This process can play out across a multitude of fundraising avenues. For example, consider capital campaigns. The quiet phase of a capital campaign is a vital step in which you solicit donations from major donors before the campaign goes public.

Prospect research can help you target those donors to get your campaign off the ground!

To learn more about the value of prospect research to the quiet phase of capital campaigns, check out DonorSearch’s resource on capital campaign timelines.

Whether you’re leveraging research for the very targeted aim of identifying donors for a quiet phase or much more generally looking to grow your major gifts program, prospect research can help you understand your donors better to fundraise more effectively.

What donor information are you looking for?

Two key components are vital for prospect research: wealth indicators and philanthropy indicators.

Both must be taken into consideration to identify the most likely major donors.

A. Wealth indicators

The most prominent indicators of wealth are:

  • Real estate ownership
  • Business affiliations
  • Political giving

Each of these topics will be discussed in more depth later in the article, but they are not the only wealth indicators to take into consideration.

SEC transactions, for example, can highlight a potential major donor’s finances. These transactions can be found through SEC.gov’s searchable database.

It is important to remember that wealth alone cannot determine whether a person is willing to donate. As such, wealth indicators should be considered in conjunction with philanthropic indicators.

B. Philanthropy indicators

People who already make donations, to your organization or to other organizations, are the most likely candidates to continue donating. However, general interest and support for nonprofits can also be an indication of a willingness to donate.

To find philanthropists who may not be on your nonprofit’s radar, extend your search to your larger network. Personal information can be gathered from social media sources, for example, and may indicate which causes a major donor is inclined to support.

Putting it all together: Prospect research opens the door to major donors by targeting people who are both capable of making large donations and willing to make a donation in the first place. Knowing who your donors are can help your nonprofit create lasting relationships.

3. Clean Up Your Donor Database

Your donor database is going to be the starting point for all of your identification efforts.

Keeping your donor database neat and tidy maximizes efficiency and eases the process of finding major donors.

Why is clean data imperative?

By eliminating extraneous or inaccurate data, you’ll have less, and therefore more focused, material to sort through in your major donor search.

The more accurate and precise your database is, the easier it will be to not only find major donors but to get in touch once you do!

How do you clean a database?

  1. Cut out inactive donors. Those who haven’t donated in two or more years should be removed to make room for new, active donors. You may consider sending a notice of removal via email or phone to those who are on the list. A nonresponse is an OK to cut.
  2. Update information. Be sure to have accurate addresses and phone numbers for each donor. Use the National Change of Address (NCOA) to stay on top of changes.
  3. Consolidate duplicate information. There are bound to be errors and duplicates when it comes to data entry. Screen your database twice a year to keep it clean.
  4. Organize the remaining information. Determine the average donation amount for your organization, and sort your donors into those who pay above and below the average amount.

Pulling it all together: Your donor database is your foundational platform for organizing potential donors. Perform the above steps once a year to set yourself up to find major donors.

4. Zero in on Past Giving

While the annual fund indicates donors already invested in your charity, past giving indicates donors invested in the broader realm of philanthropy. Peeking past your own donor pool can reveal untapped giving potential in your donors.

Why is past giving your most valuable resource?

Past giving is the strongest indicator of future giving, and it will help you single out major gift donors.

For example, one donor might be giving small gifts to your organization but major gifts elsewhere. By taking a holistic approach to past giving, you can identify major donors who are already in your donor database who are making small contributions to your annual fund.

Past donors are statistically inclined to give future donations.

How do you use past giving history to find major donors?

Donors who have contributed between $5,000 and $10,000 to an organization are 5 times more likely to make a donation elsewhere than the average person.

The likelihood of donating only increases with the amount of past giving. Donors who have contributed $100,000 or more are 32 times more likely to donate elsewhere.

For example, let’s say you’re looking for major donors to help fund your capital campaign. Since roughly 60%-80% of your donations will come from major donors, it’s critical that you find supporters who are passionate about your cause and willing to give large contributions.

Organizations should look through their nonprofit CRM or donor management software to find donors who have made large contributions in the past.

Additionally, you can perform prospect research to find potential donors that have made major contributions to similar organizations. These donors likely have a passion for the cause and would be more willing to support your organization as a major donor.

Past giving is one of your most valuable tools to finding major donors; whether you’re launching a capital campaign or looking for major donations for your annual fund, use this positive statistical correlation to your advantage.

Putting it all together: Past giving allows you to pinpoint major gift donors based upon their demonstrated ability and willingness to donate. Evaluating past giving provides you with the context you need to make an informed assessment of a prospect’s projected giving capacity.

5. Consider Other Event Attendees

Auctions probably won’t be the only events that your nonprofit hosts. Understanding the value of your other events, as well as the strategies that you’ll need to identify major donors, will help your nonprofit maximize the benefits of an engaged donor base.

After all, event attendees are already invested in your nonprofit. They’ve taken time out of their day to express their interest; use these circumstances to your advantage.

Why are events a good place to look for major gift donors?

Events allow donors to interact with your organization face-to-face. This interaction can personalize their experience with your organization and encourage them to donate more.

You may also identify major donors at events by monitoring their giving habits while in attendance. Events offer a fun environment with plenty of merchandise to attract the eyes of supporters who contribute major gifts.

By keeping track of your donors’ patterns and spending at events, you might just catch a glimpse of their giving capacity.

Plus, events have a wide draw, attracting people who are interested in your nonprofit’s work but who may not be on your donor radar.

How do you find major donors among your event attendees?

Now that you know how important event attendees can be to unlocking your major donor potential, check off all the boxes on your event checklist to ensure that your event is a smashing success.

To keep tabs on donors once the event is in place, plan for your event in three stages:

1. Before. Rank your attendees according to RFM. RFM stands for:

  • Recency. When did the donor last give?
  • Frequency. How often does the donor give?
  • Monetary. How much does the donor give?

Ranking your attendees before the event can help you plan out how your fundraisers should spend their time during the event.

Plan ahead; get ahead.

2. During. Check up on your attendees as the event occurs.

Now that you have a plan of action, enact it. Allocate your time toward the top donors that you’ve identified. Events are the perfect opportunities to speak face-to-face, so use this opportunity to persuade your potential donors and assess their likelihood of making a donation.

Use the work you’ve put into the before to maximize your during.

3. After. Reconcile your information.

Add new donors to your donor database and make a plan for follow-up contact for all of your attendees. Although it is important to pursue contact with everyone, pay special focus and attention to your potential major donors.

Putting it all together: Events present the in-person opportunity to solicit major donations and make contact with new major donors. Use face-to-face interaction to your advantage, but plan ahead to make the most of your time.

6. Screen Auction Participants

Charity auctions are exciting and fun events that usually garner participation from potential major donors. Screenings are a service you can use to pinpoint major donors among participants.

Why is screening at auctions a vital process?

Auctions are about spending. Major donors won’t be shy about putting money on the table when it comes to snagging your fabulous items. Screenings can help you target these individuals.

Screening at auctions takes place in two parts:

  • Before. Screen your participants before the auction, and incorporate the information you learn to promote donating. For example, you might discover that two of your major gift prospects are (healthy) business rivals within the community. Seat them near one another during your live auction to spark a little competitive spirit and maximize giving.
  • After. Because auctions focus on bidding, major donors are likely to make their wealth apparent, and their participation in your event indicates that they want their money going to your organization. Make note of any major donors who surface during the auction and add them to your database for follow-up contact.

Screening at auctions is an easy way to pinpoint major donors whom you might be missing.

Auctions may also attract new people with their items, bringing you a larger base of potential donors. Screening is a chance to gather information on potential major donors who don’t necessarily have a history with your nonprofit.

How can you use the drawing power of auctions to your advantage?

To screen auction participants, you must first host an auction. Auctions have plenty of variety in their form and execution.

For example, silent auctions are traditionally associated with a gala experience and/or a relaxed environment. And of course, you can always branch out into an online auction or stick to a traditional live auction.

Once you have the auction in place, consider using nonprofit auction software to track donations and streamline your event.

Software can be employed for everything from purchasing tickets to arranging seating to tallying the donations themselves.

Putting it all together: Auctions are more than fun and flashy events. They’re fantastic tools for easily identifying potential major donors, and the auction itself serves as a liaison between bidders and your nonprofit.

7. Look to Your Annual Fund

Your annual fund is your generalized funding. It’s funding that you’ve received outside the scope of specific campaigns and very pointed fundraising efforts. As such, your annual fund is vital for not only serving your greater cause, but often for covering basic operational costs.

Why does the annual fund offer valuable information?

Your annual fund is bursting with loyal, repeat donors.

These donors have already demonstrated a vested interest in your organization. By performing a gift capacity analysis of your most loyal annual fund contributors, you might just find that their ability to give is greater than the amount they’ve historically given.

How can you use the annual fund to find major donors?

To find major donors in your annual fund, you’ll need to learn if those donors have reached their full giving-level potential.

To estimate a donor’s potential giving capacity, focus on larger donations. Even if these donations are less frequent, they are a more reliable indicator of wealth than consistent, smaller donations (That doesn’t mean that frequent, small-gift contributors are any less valuable to your nonprofit’s continued growth!).

It is also important to consider the potential benefits of leveraging the data you gather from those who give to your annual fund via mobile. Mobile giving makes collecting data on donor habits relatively seamless, putting your nonprofit one step closer to key clues about major gift potential.

Mobile donations are usually much smaller than other donations, but remember that approaching the annual fund is all about assessing potential.

Mobile data can pinpoint areas that require more focus in your major donor campaigns, such as groups that donate relatively large or frequent amounts with mobile devices.

Putting it all together: The annual fund is an easily accessible point of reference for finding major donors. Don’t look past the people who already possess the qualities you need in a major donor: an interest in your organization and a proven willingness to donate.

8. Analyze Political Giving

Looking into contributions to political campaigns can provide valuable insight into potential major donors. Information on political giving is publicly accessible for your research purposes, and it often follows a pattern similar to that of giving to a nonprofit.

Why does political giving help you identify major donors?

Political giving is not only a demonstration of wealth, but of capacity and affinity as well.

Political gifts indicate:

  • Willingness to give. People who donate to political causes have already shown that they will financially support causes that they agree with. Nonprofits, like political campaigns, are mission-oriented.
  • Capacity for giving. The amount that donors give to political campaigns can be a strong indicator of their wealth.
  • Personal interest. The campaigns that political donors support suggest the kind of interests that a major donor may have. If your organization supports similar causes, then you can make a segue between your mutual interests.

How can you pinpoint political giving?

If you decide to look for political details, check out FEC.gov, which offers information about political donors. Specifically, it gives the donor’s name, occupation, address, and the date of their gift.

Putting it all together: Political giving mirrors donating to nonprofits because both are done by people looking to financially support an organization or cause that they believe in. By identifying political givers, you can identify major donors based upon the amount that they’ve given and the particular causes that they support.

9. Capitalize on Business Affiliations

Business affiliations are not just the occupations that potential major donors have, but also their ties and relationships to other people already involved in your nonprofit. Business affiliations are a top resource that you can use to identify — and persuade — major donors.

Why is business affiliation a top concern?

Business affiliations open your major donor pool to broader oceans. With the right information, you can estimate average salaries and wealth of potential donors.

But even more so, business affiliations can illustrate a potential donor’s professional relationships.

Their relationships with other donors can then be used to foster an interest in your organization and earn a major donation.

How can you connect across business affiliations?

The early phases of major giving are a lot like networking.

Leverage the professional network already established in your nonprofit to reach out to potential major donors.

Reach out to bosses, to CEO’s, to board members — and use the connections in your organization to initiate the conversation.

You can also use social media sites, like LinkedIn or even Facebook to find connections. LinkedIn specifically includes a section for organizations that each user supports. You can use that information to identify common interests and causes, drawing potential major donors to you!

Putting it all together: Business affiliations are a prime network for identifying major donors, both through their potential earnings and through previously established professional relationships.

10. Study Real Estate Ownership

Real estate may seem irrelevant to finding major donors, but it demonstrates some of the strongest donating trends.

Why is real estate ownership vital information?

The correlation between real estate ownership and donating cannot be ignored.

People who own $2 million or more in real estate are 17 times more likely to donate to your nonprofit than the average person.

Real estate ownership goes beyond being a wealth marker. This positive correlation means that real estate must be on your radar when it comes to identifying potential major donors.

How can you calculate property values to find major donors?

If you have an address, you have information!

Keeping track of property values through free websites such as Zillow and Trulia can determine how much a potential donor’s properties are worth. A county tax assessor can also be a valuable resource when it comes to establishing official records of purchase prices and property values.

Putting it all together: Real estate ownership has a strong positive correlation with donating and can be a prime indicator of major gifts donors.

11. Bring in an Expert

Finding, cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding major donors is so important that it’s a job all on its own. Experts in the field can do the major legwork with more expertise and finesse than the average person.

Why should you consider experts?

Experts are not only trained in finding major gift donors, but in ensuring that your events run smoothly and efficiently.

Hiring a major gift officer will prevent you from splitting time that could be used to keep your organization running.

Likewise, event experts can ensure that your event runs smoothly, from performing behind-the-scenes work to heading your registration table. These experts can have the specific inside knowledge necessary to support whichever event you choose to host, such as your nonprofit’s charity auction, for example.

How can you get an expert on board?

You can recruit your expert internally or externally, depending on what works best for your organization.

External recruits can take the form of:

Screening companies.

Screening companies will have software designed for identifying major donors and the ability to categorize a huge amount of information into an easily accessible and understandable format.

Using a screening company is a great option because you can choose a company with years of experience. The researchers will know where to find the most telling information and be able to help nonprofits of any size.

Individual consultants.

Individual consultants are experts in their field who can dedicate their time specifically to your needs. They can be hired for specific events or prospect research, and some consultants will use screening company services.

Not only can consultants give you results, but they can also help you analyze the data so that you can create a strategy based on the information you gained. Understanding how to use the information you receive will make it easier for you to move forward. Learn more about how you can hire a consultant.

Event support.

Trained event support staff may be offered when you purchase event software. These experts can be on-site software support teams with technical expertise, for example.

These team members can train your staff on how to use software so that you’re better prepared when your event comes along.

If you’re tight on funding, or if you run a smaller nonprofit, consider internal recruitment. You may need one of your own team members to take on the major gift officer role.

More established nonprofits can consider building a team to divide the work of identifying and stewarding major donors. Your team can still use external recruits, such as specific event support teams if necessary.

Putting it all together: Experts can fill in the blanks in your major donor search by offering support that’s specific to your nonprofit’s needs. They have the tools, the know-how, and the time to find the major donors your nonprofit needs.


Now that you’ve learned the top ten tricks to finding major donors, it’s time to set to work and find who might just contribute your next major gift.

Take the time to truly analyze the information you already have, while using the resources available to you to gather new information and data.

You know where to look — now go find those major donors!

Not Done? Keep Learning with OneCause!

For more information on fundraising, check out our awesome additional resources:

  • 17 Phenomenal Fundraising Ideas: Fundraising events can be the perfect opportunity to raise money from first-time donors and major contributors. Get our list of top fundraising ideas to inspire your next event!
  • Building Evangelists for Your Cause: Similar to peer-to-peer fundraising, team fundraising brings your supporters together to help your nonprofit raise money. Learn how this fundraising technique can help boost your donor engagement.
CTA_Bottom_2