thorn in my side

How to identify a major donor prospect

When considering how to identify a major donor for your charity, don’t allow yourself to become distracted by the house / car / appearance.  It may be only skin deep…

Allow me to elaborate.  Chris Dawson, founder of The Range (home / DIY / garden centres) is Devon’s first billionaire.

Therefore, every major donor fundraiser working in the locality will have him suggested to them as a possible prospect.  He is our local Richard Branson and quite frankly, a thorn in our sides (sorry Mr Dawson!).


Being visibly rich is only one factor which suggests that someone is a viable major donor prospect.


I would argue that it is NOT the most important factor.


I’ve been a major gift fundraiser for 14 years and in all of that time, cannot recall any major gifts to a fundraising campaign having been made by individuals who didn’t have an existing and genuine connection to the cause which they were being asked to support.

Some (and not all I hasten to add) people are wealthy because they keep their money and don’t give it away.   Some people (both rich and poor) are frankly greedy, individualistic and self-serving (and before I get sued, I am NOT putting Chris Dawson in the category.  I don’t know him and have never seriously considered him as a prospect for any of the charities I’ve worked for).

Chatting to a colleague in the North West recently, she told me about their Chris Dawson equivalent, also founder of a similar business whose mother was cared for by the local hospice up until her death.

When the businessman in question indicated that he’d like to make a donation in memory of his mother, the fundraising team (understandably) got a little bit excited!


He donated £10.




When seeking to qualify someone as a major donor, consider that they don’t often look as you might expect them to.  Wealthy people can have multiple homes kitted out in the latest gadgetry, flash cars and holidays to Mustique but if they’re not in the habit of giving and if philanthropy isn’t a part of their life then a cold letter from someone they don’t know, like or trust isn’t going to compel them to part with significant sums.


Rich does not equal philanthropic


More compelling factors which you should probably consider before you look at someone’s wealth are:


  • Interest in a cause (and other philanthropic behaviour)
  • Connection to the charity (direct beneficiary or known to a member of the senior leadership team or a trustee, hint, probably not your fundraiser)


Many major donors I’ve worked with over the years have displayed all the expected traits of the ‘wealthy’ and an equal amount have not.

Plenty of major donors live modest lifestyles in unassuming homes.  Sometimes the wealth is not theirs, but inherited from a family member, so the donor becomes the custodian of a charitable trust.  Perhaps they don’t have children, don’t enjoy foreign travel and derive most of their pleasure from tending their garden (I’ve met LOADS of people like this).

A few clever investments early on in life combined with minimal household spending is the story of many philanthropists, which means that they won’t look like you would expect.  These people have worked out that quality relationships, meaning, purpose, community, enjoyment of the natural world and lifting others high are the things which truly matter.  These are the things which cost nothing.

Make sure you don’t discount these important factors when looking to identify a major donor who might be a good prospect for your charity.


I’m always wary of fixating on potential donors who only present with wealth indicators.


Philanthropy is about personal growth and fulfilment.  Unless a charity approaches prospects with this in mind, all parties will end up frustrated with time wasted on both sides.

Don’t be surprised (or judgemental) if a major donor prospect doesn’t look as you expect and don’t discount those who are already supporting you.  When working to identify a major donor, it’s likely that everyone you need is already on your radar and waiting to be asked.


Who is already supporting your good cause and ready to step into their role as a philanthropist?


major gifts made simple

Our new course, Major Gifts Made Simple will help you to identify these people and will give you a tried and tested method for working with them on a deeper level.

The course will be available to buy in summer 2021.  Read more and sign up here.

Posted in Fundraising, Major gift fundraising.