Major Donor Pipeline: Three Key Ways to Fuel Fundraising Success in Higher Education

Justin MarquartVice President, FundraisingJuly 6, 2022
Blog: Major Donor Pipeline, blurred image of a campus common area
How do you build major donor pipeline that transforms your institution? Likely with a donor who starts with a small gift today.

When I think about the value of an annual giving outreach program, I am reminded of my time as a director of development at a large university. I was honored to be part of the engagement that closed one the largest and most transformational gifts in the history of our university and for my particular college unit. This mega-gift came after long cultivation and stewardship of the donor by partners at all levels, including the president, fundraisers, faculty, and deans.

But it all started with a phone call and a $25 gift over 40 years before.The donation ask from a student kicked off a relationship that would change the trajectory of the college and university forever.

I’m sure many of you have stories like this or could find them in your long-term donor data. Unfortunately, in a time where we are focused on “big gifts—NOW,” many organizations lose sight of the importance of the annual giving outreach program and the role it plays in the overall success of your advancement operation. I can’t tell you how many times this donor fondly shared with me about his first gift and the interaction with that student caller.

A well-run annual giving program that does not operate in a silo and works in an integrated way across all facets of fundraising can be the crown jewel of a mature advancement operation. Leaders who recognize this are rewarded with a continuous pipeline of mid-level and major and planned giving prospects who are educated about the institution and mission, engaged with the institution and mission, and have context for giving big to the institution and mission.

We can see it in our data here at RNL: The transformational naming gift you receive 30 years from now will likely come from someone making a $100 gift today. How you engage, steward, and move these people through your pipeline is important. Here are three ways to maximize that pipeline for transformational giving.

Major donors need to start somewhere, and personal outreach is key

We’ve seen that more than three-quarters of gifts at the $25,000+ level still come from people who have given six times or more annually. Giving is a learned behavior, and trust isn’t built overnight. Donors need to see their smaller, initial gifts being stewarded just as well as their major gifts later on. A well run, well trained digital engagement center ensures this can happen at scale.

This reminds me of another great story about a naming gift that was closed for the accounting program at my alma mater. A report came to the major gifts team from a student caller who was making an annual giving solicitation to a 90-year-old alumnus who had been giving regularly in small amounts each year. The donor casually mentioned their desire to consider the university in their will. This donor did not use the internet and did not know where/how to contact anyone at the university to discuss. The caller was smart in taking note of the conversation and alerting the team even though it had nothing to do with their pledge metrics.

After meeting with the donor, I heard his interests and he doubled the size of his initial bequest amount. After his passing, his gift named an institute at the university. This was one of the largest single gifts in the college’s history, and it all started with a casual comment to a student ambassador who listened and communicated as part of a well-managed annual giving team.

These conversations can be part of what you train student ambassadors to listen for, or you could identify very specific pools to survey donors after a pledge about their planned giving interest. We’ve seen around one-third of donors in targeted pools say “yes” to a conversation with a gift officer. That’s pure magic for your pipeline and game-changing ROI for your annual giving outreach program.

Annual giving today is about personalization at scale.

Annual giving today is about creating opportunities to engage that are curated, customized and personal for the donor. Gathering information, updating donor data, and really listening for donor passions along the way is critical. Personal conversation at scale with great data recording and contact reports is part of this. So is digital listening: what donors are clicking on, what are they reading in your content, the videos they watch all the way through, and more. We now have the technology to really listen to donors at scale, and in today’s personalized world, donors expect it.

Whether it’s taking this data to more personal conversations, or collecting in an AI-driven engine that can personalize future communications automatically, this engagement is a game changer. In fact, we’ve seen that emails personalized through AI get double the opens and clicks. When you listen and actively apply what you hear, you just get more for your engagement investment.

While it’s still important, It is no longer just about giving to the annual fund

These tools can be taken beyond the annual fund. An example: let’s say you’ve been listening with an AI-driven engine like RNL QuadMail for a few years. You can see, in the data, everyone who regularly clicks on content centered around a new initiative. Starting a major campaign for medical research? Or the marching band? Why not segment a prospect list based on those who always read content and watch your videos around those topics? You can launch a warming campaign targeted to these individuals (especially predicted high net worth individuals) and then ask for gift officer appointments. You’ll see your success rate on getting appointments rise immediately.

Personal engagement at scale makes sure donors don’t get stuck in the wrong place

Think about how we are engaged by our favorite brands and retailers today. They integrate communications across multiple channels, from web content to commercials to emails to texts. And they know that the more channels they employ, the more likely a message is going to be heard and (more importantly) acted on.

Listening to how donors are engaging and acting is what’s crucial. I’ll guarantee that if you are using old-school systems, you have donors stuck in the annual giving bucket when they could move up and give more. In fact, another cause may already have converted them to great involvement while you were sleeping. And the same is true of our prospect pools. The average gift officer doesn’t even get to see half of their assigned pool in a year. These donors are never visited, need more engagement, and worse, are sometimes even removed from annual giving because they are “assigned.”

Let’s bring advancement into the 21st century with pipeline-driven engagement

It’s time to make a key shift, and start living our advancement mission the way we live our lives, with continuous relationships and engagement over time. It’s time to think about the donor experience as an investment beyond the appeal going out the door this week.

This requires some investment, and more importantly, long-term thinking. Yes, we need to book big gifts now to meet crucial needs. But to create a vibrant pipeline of major donors, annual giving needs more than table scraps. With new technology, your seat at the table is ready for the taking.

I know you don’t have an unlimited budget. But if the stories and examples I’ve given spark your interest, I’m confident that I, or my fellow consultants could help you make a shift to focus on pipeline within your resources. In fact, what you need to make it happen is probably sitting in wasted communications and solicitations that don’t listen to donors and annoy them today. Reach out to set up a time to talk, and we’ll make the shift to a better donor experience and an accelerated donor pipeline, immediately.

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About the Author

Justin Marquart

Justin Marquart is a fundraising professional with a depth of experience in both advancement and business. Prior to joining RNL, he served as vice president for philanthropy and business development for SightLife, a unique global...

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