Guide your donors from modest gifts to major contributions


Guide your donors from modest gifts to major contributions

In 2013, former New York City mayor and renowned businessman Michael Bloomberg committed $350 million to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University—a gift that lifted his total contributions to over a billion dollars and made him the first individual to cross that charitable threshold for an institution of higher learning.

That’s the stuff of philanthropic legend and a development officer’s dream, but many assume it can only be that—a dream—because their institution is not Johns Hopkins and billionaire alumni are rare, to say the least.

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But conversations with my advancement colleagues at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities (AGB) Forum recently confirmed for me that we know how to make major donations more of a reality at every university: engage donors early in annual giving and keep them giving consistently.

Even Michael Bloomberg followed this path to his jaw-droppingly generous contribution. His first gift to Johns Hopkins was a mere five dollars back in 1965, just a year after he graduated. He gave consistently and made his first of many million dollar commitments to the university in 1984, 20 years post-degree.

From modest beginnings to major gifts

As this chart demonstrates, Bloomberg’s path to major giving is fairly typical (in pattern, if not in scale!). The ascent to major giving requires steps along the way, not a straight shot to philanthropic legend.


40% of major donors start their charitable ties with their alma mater with gifts of less than $100 shortly after graduation, and 80% of major donors give consistently during the subsequent five years. Consistent giving for at least three to five years signals an increased likelihood that a donor will persist and eventually make the climb to larger gifts; these commitments can, in fact, be steps up the ladder to major donations and contribute considerable lifetime value along the way.

The ascent of major giving

Advancement teams can use their annual giving data to determine where to place the rungs of that philanthropic ladder to ensure that as many alumni as possible are willing and able to climb it.

We find that analyses of past actions and strategic segmentation of your alumni in the annual giving pool can best focus your campaign resources. The chart below illustrates the process of soliciting and stewarding those alumni through the early stages of their giving—a process that increases the likelihood of future major contributions.


Data from our partner institutions indicates that once a donor gives for three or more consecutive years, they are at least 80% likely to renew their contributions and are better positioned to upgrade to even larger gifts in the future.

A thoughtful, steady stream of coordinated and personalized multi-channel communication pieces that engage donors where they are in their life and relationship with the institution can have a meaningful and lasting impact.

Executed right, data-driven segmentation can move your alumni along the same path of philanthropic leaders like Michael Bloomberg—guiding them to their own gift of a lifetime.

Next, improve donor retention

Explore key findings from five institutions working to improve donor retention—and learn how you can implement these strategies on your campus.

Download the full report.

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