Cultivation & Stewardship

Cultivation: Not Just for Major Donors

Donor cultivation is for more than just major donors, but this doesn't have to mean a lot more effort.


Major donors get a lot of clout, and for good reason. It’s estimated that up to 90% of a nonprofit’s fundraising revenue comes from just 10% of their donor base. However, there are many reasons to create a donor cultivation plan that focuses not just on major donors, but rather all of your donors—both current and prospective, big and small.

Who you count as a major donor is unique to your organization and will depend on your nonprofit’s size and goals. 

Some of the ways you may view your major donor cohort include:

  • Individuals who give a sizable gift for a specific project. For example, a major donor may give a children’s after-school program a $50,000 donation to build a new playground.
  • Individuals who sponsor your nonprofit’s events or are otherwise offered naming opportunities for their gifts.
  • Individuals whose gifts are within the top 10% in size for all of your donors within a given year.
  • Individuals who give $5,000 or more within a calendar year.

Since these donors provide such strong support for your organization, it’s easy for donor cultivation plans to gravitate towards focusing on these individuals. But below, we’ll discuss reasons to expand your donor cultivation efforts beyond major donors. 

We’ll also provide you with three ways you can take current major donor cultivation strategies and easily pivot them to support additional donor cohorts.

5 Reasons to Expand Donor Cultivation Beyond Major Donors

There are several reasons to include all donors—not just major donors—in your donor cultivation activities. Here are some to consider:

1. Emerging donors can become major donors.

Not all major donors start with a $10,000 gift. They may donate just $25 at an event of yours or through an online giving campaign. Donor cultivation efforts can unearth the potential of that gift to become a larger relationship in the future.

2. Small donations add up.

Have you ever been asked at a store’s checkout to round up your total to a whole dollar amount, with the roundup amount being donated to a specific cause or charity? While these individual amounts are small—ranging from $0.01 to $0.99—Domino’s has reported raising $1.5 million this way and Macy’s has reported raising $5.9 million. While your nonprofit may not have quite the reach that these corporations do, the concept still applies: small donations add up. Donor cultivation efforts can encourage consistent, small giving that can make a big impact over time.

3. Recurring donors offer revenue stability.

Some donors may opt to give to your nonprofit on an automatic, monthly basis. While each month’s gift may not reach the level of a major donor, these recurring donors are vital for your nonprofit’s financial health. Recurring donors can increase your donor retention rates, and studies also show that recurring donors are 400% more valuable to your nonprofit than those who give one time—and that’s a statistic worth cultivating.

4. Relying too heavily on one source can create challenges during uncertain times.

As the COVID-19 pandemic showed us, the world can change quickly and usher in economic uncertainty that can impact your nonprofit’s bottom line. If you’re relying too heavily on one or a handful of major donors and suddenly lose those connections, your nonprofit can face a crunch. Donor cultivation strategies that include all donors help create a buffer for when the unexpected hits.

5. Smaller donors may have connections to potential major donors.

Never underestimate a donor’s greater network. By including small donors in your donor cultivation efforts, you may build strong relationships that help you get your foot in the door with a personal introduction to a potential major donor.

3 Ways to Pivot Major Donor Cultivation Efforts to All Donors

If you’re convinced that you should include all of your donors in your donor cultivation plan, you may now be wondering how to make that shift. Nonprofit staff often wear multiple hats as is, and expanding your donor cultivation strategy can feel like a lot of extra work.

However, there are simple ways to pivot what you’re already doing with your major donors to strengthen your donor cultivation efforts with the rest of your donor cohorts. We'll cover three ideas below to get you started.

1. Create opportunities for your donors to offer feedback.

Major donor cultivation involves a lot of listening. When donors give sizable donations to your nonprofit, they want to feel that they are heard and have some say in how you use their gift. Major donors often have greater influence than small donors in how your programming looks. 

However, taking time to listen to your smaller donors is also an effective strategy that can build donor trust in and respect for your nonprofit. Doing so shows that you value their opinions. 

While you might not be able to sit down individually with each small donor to hear their ideas, you can show them you care by asking for their feedback through other forums. For example, you can:

  • Email a short survey asking for their feedback and ideas on your programming.
  • Run a social media campaign that solicits insight from your followers.
  • Organize a small donor focus group where you can ask for ideas and feedback. 

2. Offer opportunities for face-to-face meetings.

Again, you likely don’t have the time or budget to take every donor out for lunch. However, in-person engagement can be an effective way of strengthening connections with your donors. Help your small donor cohorts put a face to your cause by hosting small events where they can mix and mingle with your staff.

Some in-person small donor cultivation events could include:

  • Happy Hour: Create an opportunity for your donors to meet each other and your staff in an informal, fun environment. This can have an added bonus if you’re able to partner with a local restaurant willing to donate a portion of the proceeds from the night.
  • Volunteer Day: Invite your donors to join a hands-on day of volunteering. Working together on a tangible project can demonstrate your nonprofit’s mission in action and strengthen donor bonds to your work.
  • Donor Recognition Ceremony: Major donors aren’t the only ones who should receive awards. If you have a donor who has gone the extra mile in sharing your work with others or putting in volunteer hours, consider hosting a small event to hand out recognition awards to these donors for their efforts.

3. Establish a donor recognition wall.

Major donors are often the ones to get their names on events, buildings, programs, and other aspects of your nonprofit’s work to recognize their significant contributions. However, there are some simple ways you can recognize your smaller donors this way, too. 

For example, you may want to:

  • Run a recognition wall on your website that keeps a live update of donor names as they make donations to your cause.
  • Include all donor names from the year in the back pages of your printed annual report.
  • Let donors add their names to a mural on a new community project or other gathering spaces within your organization.

Adapt Your Major Donor Cultivation Efforts to Benefit Donors From All Giving Levels

Donor cultivation is for more than just major donors. But this doesn’t mean that your donor cultivation plan has to involve a ton more effort. By getting a little creative, you can adapt many of your major donor cultivation efforts to benefit donors across your giving tiers. 

In doing so, you’ll strengthen connections that can improve your budget’s sustainability and open the door to other relationships to support your nonprofit—maybe even your next major donor!

Building a donor cultivation plan for your small and mid-level donors? Download our template to get started!

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