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Mayes Wilson & Associates

How to make the major gift ask

Julie Whelan Capell |

This is the fourth post in my series on major gifts fundraising. If you need to remember what I covered in my previous posts:

In today’s post, I go over how to make a major gift ask. For many people, this is the most anxiety-producing part of the process, but if you’ve followed all the steps outlined in my previous posts, you will be more than ready to get out there and start asking for major gifts.

First, and most importantly, once you and the donor have settled into your chairs (whether in person or online), focus on creating a friendly atmosphere through a bit of social conversation. Every person is different so pay attention–some want a very efficient meeting, others like a bit of chit-chat about the organization, their family, etc. It’s good to project confidence, but if you are feeling nervous, it’s absolutely okay to admit that, too, especially if you are inexperienced with making asks (this is why it’s often good to start with people you know well).

Some opening major gifts questions:

  • What change would you like to see in the world?
  • What appeals to you about our organization or mission?
  • What motivated you to give in the past? (this can be gifts to your organization, or to other organizations the donor is passionate about)
  • What would have to happen to encourage you to give more in the future?

Remember your objectives for the meeting, but be ready to be nimble in response to what you hear from the donor.

Ask for permission to ask

Before you start reeling off all the great program information you memorized for this meeting, be sure to ask for permission to ask

  • May I tell you a bit about the new projects and plans our organization has for this year?
  • Would it be okay if I shared with you some of the most pressing needs our organization is facing right now?

Make the ask

After you have listened to the donor and answered all their questions, you must make the ask. Be sure to ask for a specific dollar amount! Leaving the amount open-ended is confusing for the donor and you run the risk of getting a smaller gift than you were hoping for.

Ask for a specific amount for a specific thing

  • I hope you will consider a gift of $500 for a new kiln for our after-school arts program.
  • Would you consider a donation in the range of $1,000 to support our ongoing efforts to conserve important natural areas of our community for future generations?


Wait quietly and patiently for a response. This can be very hard. Give people time to think about what you’ve asked. Write WAIT on your notes to remind you.

Once the donor starts talking, be sure to LISTEN. Resist the urge to talk. Practice higher level listening.

Dealing with objections

Donor objections can take many forms, below are just a few.

  1. “I can’t make a decision without my partner.” This is a tough one. Ideally, you would always make sure both partners/spouses are present at any meeting you set up, but this isn’t always possible. Be especially careful of excluding women partners–in the US, women make 90% of household consumer decisions, whether they are single or partnered. If you do hear this objection, offer to schedule another meeting. “It would be great to meet your partner. Could you suggest a time that’s good for both of you? Or can I call you next week so we can schedule a meeting when you can both be there?” (notice you are giving them two choices, both of which are positive outcomes for your organization).
  2. “Now isn’t the right time.” Ask when would be a better time, and offer the option of making a pledge now to be paid later.
  3. “I/we can’t give that much” Rather than immediately backing down to a smaller number, try starting out by asking if the donor could give the amount you were hoping for by breaking the donation into smaller donations made over a period of months, or even years. Another possibility is to start a conversation about making a gift out of assets (like appreciated stocks, or a qualified charitable distribution from an IRA), where many people have more capacity.

Be Authentic

Above all, remember honesty and transparency can go a long way. If you’re nervous it’s okay to say so. If you’ve never done this before, go ahead and admit that. Donors are nervous in these situations, too, and they’ll appreciate your candor. For more on having an authentic conversation with a donor,  check out this post.

After the donor has had a chance to ask all their questions, thank them and agree on a next step. Ask when you can check back with them, and be sure to ask about their communication preferences (email, calls, texts).

Next month, I’ll close out this series with some suggestions on how to follow up with the donor.

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