The Mysterious and Magical World of Major Donor Qualification

By Ray Foote May 10, 2024

Like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter that neatly shunts new students into schools where they’ll fit best, donor qualification is a powerful sorting tool for nonprofit fundraisers. Unfortunately, qualification often remains a murky activity. Even when well defined and understood, it is frequently the process left on the shelf to collect dust, a loss for the organization hoping to maximize philanthropy.

Simply put, major donor qualification is how one decides whether a prospect is worth pursuing for a major gift. It is a binary choice: the process results in a “qualified” or “disqualified” status. From there an individual is routed into a non-major-giving stream (such as membership, direct mail, or mid-level giving) or on to major donor assignment and cultivation. Qualification is the systematic method which converts prospects of unknown capacity and/or interest into qualified prospects who can be more strategically engaged for major giving.

It is important to qualify both capacity and interest. A fabulously wealthy individual with no interest in your mission is not a qualified prospect. An individual passionate about your mission but with the limited ability to give is not a qualified prospect.

Major donor qualification should be done live through direct contact with the individual. While plenty of electronic and non-contact tools exist to suggest capacity, few exist to predict interest with any accuracy. Prospect research into a donor’s giving habits yields clues—e.g., the individual may show a history of meaningful gifts to the arts—but that information lacks the specificity of their interest in your organization. A donor profile of their interactions with and giving to your organization begins to fill in that information and may very well suffice for determining a high level of interest.

Strong qualification (which should always be the goal) generally requires a conversation to verify capacity and interest. An in-person visit is the gold standard, but often is not practical. The telephone (or virtual meeting) is next best and highly efficient. If neither of these routes is available, you may be able to engage the individual in a thoughtful email exchange and glean enough insight to qualify them as a true major gift prospect. The beauty of a live interaction is hearing how—and when—the prospect becomes animated or passionate. Those are the paydirt moments!

A qualification meeting or telephone call consists primarily of you asking questions and carefully noting everything you learn. Such calls do not need to be long. Fifteen or twenty minutes is usually adequate to make a determination, though if an individual is eager to talk, by all means go further and learn more.

Below are some questions you can ask to get someone talking about their giving, their interests, and more. You probably won’t ask more than four or five total, so choose which feel most natural and appropriate to the situation.

  1. Why did you first get involved with the organization, and what has your involvement been? (A different way to ask: why is this organization important to you?)
  2. What is your personal connection to our mission?
  3. Are there things you especially love about our mission?
  4. How do you make your charitable gifts? By check, DAF, or some other way?
  5. Can you share a time when you gave to a charity and it felt wonderful? (It doesn’t have to be to our organization.)
  6. As you know, we have so many ways for people to get involved (describe some). Which of those appeal to you most?
  7. What are you curious about (or not understand) (or have questions about) our organization or mission?
  8. Is being involved in charitable causes an important part of your life, and if so, how?
  9. You seem to be a dedicated donor; who or what influenced you in becoming philanthropic?
  10. In what ways could we involve your friends and family in our cause?
  11. How does your giving relate to what type of legacy you would like to leave?

Note that there are two specific types of questions: those about your organization (1, 2, 3, 6, 7) and those about the donor’s giving habits (4, 5, 8, 9, 11). Mix and match to follow the flow of the conversation. Regardless of which questions are asked, the conversation should feel natural and mutual. You don’t want the prospect to feel they’re answering a survey. Well-handled qualification calls actually become a form of cultivation as they create a positive linkage with the organization who is expressing interest in them.

Without qualification, a major gift officer’s portfolio becomes a hodgepodge of qualified and unqualified prospects which results in lower productivity. In smaller organizations, the gift officer may have to do the qualification themself. In larger staffs, this can be more specialized with one staff member qualifying and quickly handing off qualified prospects to a gift officer, while ensuring disqualified prospects land in the correct place as well.

Qualification is not magical, of course. However, it is powerful, providing a jump-start to your major gifts program. It efficiently focuses your gift officers on the most important and promising prospects. In turn, they can achieve far greater fundraising results.