Starlight Children’s Foundation chief executive officer, Louise Baxter, gives some ideas for building a major giving program, based on her instrumental role re-focusing Starlight on the channel through a newly structured program which has magnified major gift income from $180,000 ten years ago to almost $6 million in 2014.

Historically, corporate giving was the chief income source of the Starlight Children’s Foundation, which started its life granting wishes to seriously ill children 27 years ago and has since expanded into a range of positive distraction programs to support sick children. Where other charities often struggle to get leaders tolouise_baxter recognise their role in fundraising, the impetus for a switch to focus on major giving has come from Starlight’s chief executive officer since 2009, Louise Baxter, the organisation’s former head of partnerships who has a background in advertising and marketing.

She realised individual giving could be a foundation of fundraising, given the engagement of Starlight donors. Building organisation-wide commitment was a key in making the switch. This was helped along by regular communications about the reasons behind the change. Starlight also began using its resources – a database of committed donors and moving stories of children being assisted.

The belief everyone in an organisation is a fundraiser led to the introduction of a program called Get Connected where each staff member had to spend a half-day each quarter working with children and their families, gathering stories about Starlight’s work to share with prospects and donors. Also a philanthropy executive was hired (there are now five in different states) to analyse the database, identify prospects and start conversations to discover their interests, then feed information to Baxter who connects with the highest level donors as the organisation’s figurehead.

From $180,000 in 2004, Starlight’s major giving is now approaching $6 million, with the most growth in the last four years. The first million dollar donation was in 2012 and was a light bulb moment when Baxter realised using the organisation’s needs for capital – for example, to build Starlight Express Rooms in Australian hospitals – could be used to prompt major gifts.

Here are eight tips from Baxter for creating a strong major giving program:

1. Utilise your database. 

Record all information about major donor interactions and interests because you are only as smart as the data you get out of your constituent relationship management (CRM) system. You never want to call a donor and find out someone spoke to them last week and didn’t put it in the database. This is also where you will find your major donors. We had someone on our database who had given us $6,000 eight years ago. We reconnected with them when we were building a Starlight Express Room in a children’s hospital and they committed to a significant gift over four years.

2. Start by listening to donors, not with a proposal.
Don’t take a proposal to a first meeting with a potential major donor. To create a relevant proposal, you need to listen to them. Also this is your touch-point to start another conversation. And major donor engagement is through conversation.
3. Have stories and anecdotes ready to share.
You need to substantiate with facts, but don’t get lost in them. Donors give because of a compelling story that really connects them to their potential impact. An example is me telling a prospect: ”I was in the Starlight Express Room last week and a mother came up to me and said, ‘The only time my son is not in pain is when he is this room’ ”.

4. Don’t cold call.

Often new people on my team will ask me to call someone just because they’re wealthy. Then I discover they only support the arts and there is no link. Ask yourself, ‘Do we have a connection?’‘Will they connect with our impact?’ You might ask your board if anyone knows this person and could facilitate an introduction.

5. Be patient – remember, people work to their timeline, not yours.

If a major gift prospect says ‘I’ll get back to you next week,’ you don’t have to be on the phone to them on Monday morning at 8am. Give them time. Recognise they have other priorities, and even if they haven’t called you back for three weeks, it doesn’t mean the answer is no. They may just be busy doing something else at that moment.

6. Use your chief executive officer effectively.

Major donors feel they are being treated with respect when they are dealt with by the highest person in the organisation. At Starlight I ask when we are seeking $500,000 or $1,000,000, because I am across all the research regarding our impact, our financial status and the relationships. Also if a donor looks me in eye and asks tough questions, I can answer them.

7. Use photos not brochures.

When you’re meeting a major donor, don’t take a brochure. They don’t want to see you spending a lot on words. Instead take visuals. They will shuffle through these images and gravitate to the ones they like, which provides you with valuable insights about their interests.

8. Create opportunities to connect with potential major donors. 

To reconnect with past donors who may have the capacity to give a significant gift, we have established a series of touch points – such as breakfasts. These do not cost us anything. We ask a great speaker to speak on behalf of Starlight as a thank-you to major supporters, then we ask a supporter to sponsor the breakfast. There is no gift ask but several of our very significant gifts have come from people who reconnected with us this way.

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