Major donor fundraising

Major Donors
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What is major donor fundraising?

A major donor is an individual who makes a gift that has a significant impact on the work of a fundraising organisation. There is no set threshold for what a ‘major gift’ is – for some organisations it might be £500 for others it might be £10,000 and it can be money given over time, rather than just a one-off donation. 

Major donor fundraising is about people and relationships. It often will involve a number of individuals and teams working together across an entire organisation – from the chief executive officer and chair of trustees, to major gift officers or administrative assistants. Often it involves a lot of background work, meetings, research, and events before a gift is made – asking for a major gift at the first meeting before understanding the individual’s interests in your cause is unlikely to be successful.

Because the success of major donor fundraising is so dependent on development of relationships with individuals, it’s often described as an art rather than a science. But even so, it’s important that all fundraising communications, approaches, and activity in major donor fundraising follows the Fundraising Regulator’s Code of Fundraising Practice.

Prospect research

The term ‘prospect research’ covers a lot of different activity and work. Essentially, it means the identification of potential donors, and undertaking background/preparatory research so that the charity can make a tailored approach to an individual that is likely to appeal to their interests and experience. Prospect researchers may also undertake some of the due diligence work for a charity on accepting potential donations.

Prospect research can be used to:

Prospect research and data protection

When researching existing or potential donors, charities will be processing personal data of individuals and so need to ensure they are doing so according to data protection legislation. Organisations must process all personal data fairly and lawfully, using an appropriate lawful basis for the processing, appropriately informing individuals, and respecting their choices.

Due diligence and gift acceptance

Appropriate due diligence policies

Trustees are responsible for assessing and managing risks to their charity’s activities, beneficiaries, property, work and reputation. Money laundering and adverse publicity about a donor are examples of how a charity could be exposed to criminal liability and suffer reputational damage.

Having an appropriate due diligence/‘know your donor’ policies in place to provide fundraisers with appropriate guidance when raising large sums will be important.

Gift acceptance policy

One of the key areas for charities to consider and be aware of is thinking about which donors they might approach and whether there are any donations they would not accept. Charities have to undertake due diligence on donations so they can make sure the money is safe to accept, and that the acceptance of the gift is in the best interests of the charity and does not unduly affect its reputation.

Money laundering

There are various offences relating to money laundering contained within:

Compliance when dealing with donors is of paramount importance. 

When approached by a new donor wishing to make a large donation, fundraising organisations have to sensitively satisfy themselves as to the donor’s identity and carry out a risk assessment.

It would be advisable to be wary of any gift that comes from abroad or that comes with unreasonable or seemingly unnecessary conditions.

For instance, if a donor offers a large donation on condition that it is used to support a project about which nothing is known, the donor may be attempting to launder money.

Are you satisfied that:

If, in the course of work outside the regulated sector, fundraisers suspect that the property to be donated is the proceeds of crime, the donations cannot be accepted and it is the fundraising organisations responsibility to report the proposed donation to the appropriate authorities (usually the Police or NCA).

If fundraising organisations are not clear about their obligations, or are suspicious of a potential donor, the Charity Commission can be contacted for advice.

Benefit packages and conditional gifts

It is common for a charity to engage a major donor by offering them benefits (e.g. a place at a gala dinner), or recognition (e.g. to name a new building), or less material forms of engagement (e.g. trusteeship). Equally, a major donor might want to make their gift conditional so that, for example, the funds:

Alternatively, a major donor might wish to make a contribution other than by way of gift (e.g. a loan or other form of social investment).

All organisational representatives need to be clear in dealings with a major donor whether or not they are able to bind the charity to a particular arrangement.

Some conditions might be unacceptable to an organisation because of its status (e.g. it requires inappropriate political campaigning) or for operational or reputation reasons.

There may be serious legal consequences for fundraising organisations if terms are not recorded and approved. If there is any uncertainty, legal advice should be obtained.

Revocable gifts

The courts or other authorities can in certain circumstances set aside gifts made by vulnerable people or made without due regard to the needs of others. When negotiating a major gift there are, therefore, certain circumstances that will require careful handling. For example:


Major donor membership, friend or gift club schemes are a way of encouraging donors to increase the level of their support, through involvement with the cause and other major donors, and enable fundraisers to manage communication, events and donor recognition in a cost-effective manner. If properly established and promoted, membership schemes may encourage the creation of a body of major donors who are giving at increased levels, are more aware of the cause and have a closer association with the mission, purpose, aims and objectives of the organisation.

The structure of the scheme should be carefully considered before being introduced, as the launch and maintenance of the scheme may involve committing a significant level of resource, and making significant changes to the scheme, once launched, may be difficult. For example, consider the number of different levels of membership, the level of gift required to attain different levels, and whether a scheme is appropriate for an organisation's major donors.

Seeking the opinions and suggestions of existing donors and potential club members would be beneficial before a scheme is launched to make sure that the level of gift required, concept of the scheme, and benefits offered are appropriate and will prove to be attractive to potential members.

It is not advisable to place existing donors under undue pressure to increase their support purely to become a member of the gift club. The option to opt out of a scheme should be available at all times.

Making it clear what level and frequency of gift is required to become and remain a member of the club in all communications and solicitations is important. It should be clear whether the level of donation required is net or gross of reclaimed tax.

Membership of such a scheme may offer contact with the trustees or senior management of the organisation, opportunities to discuss issues affecting the organisation, and access to more detailed information from the organisation, but it must not confer control or direct influence on the organisation’s decision-making process.

Tax issues

Most major donors will wish for their giving to be as tax-effective as possible. An unconditional gift is likely to obtain for a donor relief from capital gains tax and inheritance tax. However, only certain assets when donated create a deduction for an individual donor from their taxable income and/or gains or profits. These are:

When completing any major gift, it is important to ensure that the charity or the donor is provided with sufficient information to enable it/them to verify to an auditor or examiner and the tax authorities the nature of the receipt. In particular:

If benefits are provided in return for a gift, HM Revenue and Customs might treat the donation as consideration for a standard-rated supply and so subject to VAT. This could oblige the charity to account for VAT on the gift and, if the charity is not VAT registered, lead to it having to register.

Fundraisers need to check with the charity the VAT status of any benefits to donors and whether any exemptions apply (e.g. for fundraising events) before agreeing to provide the benefits and, if necessary, ensure the charity:

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