It’s Not All about Major Gifts: 10 Ways to Succeed with Small Gift Fundraising

Small giftsToday I went to research something online and ended up viewing the first entry Google gave me – which was on Wikipedia. To my delight, I ran into an awesome fundraising campaign (this is an occupational hazard with fundraisers – we actually like and admire things like pledge breaks when they’re done well)!

Here’s what I found superimposed at the top of the screen:

DEAR WIKIPEDIA READERS: To protect our independence, we’ll never run ads. We take no government funds. We survive on donations averaging about $15. Now is the time we ask. If everyone reading this right now gave $3, our fundraiser would be done within an hour. We’re a small non-profit with costs of a top 5 website: servers, staff and programs. If Wikipedia is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online and ad-free another year. Please help us forget fundraising and get back to Wikipedia. Thank you.

I could then make a one-time gift of $3, $5, $30 or $50, or a monthly gift of $10, $20, $100 or other.

It’s not all about major gifts for everyone, and this was a great reminder. Even though many nonprofits survive by the grace of 3% of their donors providing 97% of their contributed income (or something closer to the 80/20 rule) there are indeed nonprofits that are exceptions to this rule (e.g., Heifer International raises about 80% of it’s funding from small donations; American Red Cross relies heavily on small donations during disasters). Wikimedia lives online and is a resource used extensively by the masses. So it makes sense to go to the masses online in order to fund their endeavor.

It worked on me!

You should not eschew small gift fundraising, even if the lion’s share of your funding comes from major donors. Whenever you can get a donor in the door, one with affinity for your cause, you should. And since I’m clearly using Wikipedia, I’m likely a good candidate when it comes to affinity.

NOTE: I’m distinguishing between affinity-based grassroots fundraising vs. transaction-based fundraising where someone may make a one-time transaction in return for a value that’s not really related to your mission (e.g., a gift in exchange for a free tote bag; a gift that is really an auction or raffle ticket purchase; a gift that is really a golf tournament entry fee; a quid pro quo gift made because a friend is chairing a dinner dance, etc.). The transactional small gift is just that. A business deal. It doesn’t create loyal supporters or long-term sustenance for your organization. But not all new gifts need be transactional gifts. They can be akin to a great first date – and the prelude to a long, fruitful relationship.

So let’s take a mini-break from thinking about major gift fundraising (of which I’m a huge proponent  — and, in fact, I’ll be offering a course beginning late January on major gifts for small and medium-sized shops; so watch for it!).

Let’s look at 10 ways to succeed with small gift fundraising:

  1. Your request must be perceived as more than reasonable.  This Wikipedia request is downright easy. If I give even just $3.00 I’ll feel good because that’s what was asked.
  2. Your small donor must be made to feel like a big shot. In terms of what Wikipedia is asking, I can pick their very top category — $50 – and feel like a major donor. After all, it’s way beyond the $3 minimum requested and also more than three times their average gift. And I’m investing in journalistic independence – this makes me feel good!
  3. Your ask must be targeted towards a specific goal.  In this case, it is to keep Wikipedia ad-free for another year. Often small gift campaigns are for special (e.g., disaster relief) or incremental (e.g., a new truck) needs. The best small gift campaigns are followed by subsequent small gift campaigns for different projects. As long as a legitimate case is made, and folks are engaged in a fresh way, donors will support multiple philanthropic opportunities in the course of the year – and give more overall than if asked to give for just one initiative.
  4. Your ask must be targeted to someone with affinity for the cause. My response would’ve been different if a version of this same appeal were made on a site that advocated something I don’t believe in and/or have a use for. And even if for some reason I were persuaded to make a one-time small gift, I wouldn’t be likely to repeat. In the long term, you want to put resources into acquiring donors you can renew.
  5. Your ask must trigger impulse giving.  People don’t think a lot about small gifts; they don’t have the time for analysis and contemplation. You’ve got to capture folks’ interest and imagination in the moment; then trigger their impulse to respond in the affirmative (Social psychologist Robert Cialdini talks about this in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion). This caught my attention mid-research, and influenced me to give by offering a simple reason: because Wikipedia is useful to me.
  6. Your donor must be able to easily and quickly respond. Remember: small gifts tend to be impulse gifts. Anything that gets in the way of giving gets in the way of the impulse. Online giving has vastly facilitated small gift fundraising, making it possible for folks to give on a moment’s notice. But if your website is not optimized for mobile, or if your donor has to click multiple times to get to your donate form, you’re going to lose folks along the way.
  7. Your organization must be able to secure contact information so you can steward the gift and renew the donor’s support. Again, this is where online giving is great – and head and shoulders above getting donations dropped into a bucket at curbside. You can’t follow up with folks unless you know who they are.
  8. Your promotional platform of choice must reach your target audience.  Just building a great, user-friendly mousetrap (one that enables a quick response and captures meaningful donor information) is not enough. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If you have no Twitter traffic, then trying to raise money exclusively via Twitter may not make sense. Ditto Facebook, or any social media space. Start with your most trafficked spaces (usually your own website and email list); then layer on from there.
  9. You must have an acknowledgement and reporting system in place to close the loop and assure your donors feel good about their gift. After I donated, Wikimedia immediately took me to a Thank You Landing Page that said:  Thank you for your support. Read about why other donors around the world support Wikipedia and its sister projects, or find out if your company has a corporate matching gift program. Tell the world that you support Wikimedia: tweet it with hashtag #keepitfree!  There was also a video link on the page that led me to some testimonials by Wikimedia editors all over the world. Very compelling, interesting and totally feel good. They started the stewardship right away, and I was interested to see what might follow. They didn’t disappoint. Shortly thereafter I received an emailed thank you that began with “You are wonderful Claire.” Wow!
  10. Your campaign must be inexpensive to implement, while also incorporating a plan to invest resources in stewardship. Unless you’re the exception (and stand to raise the lion’s share of your contributions from small gifts) you can’t lose sight of the fact that you’ve got to guard your resources carefully, applying them where they will offer the greatest yield. Just as small gifts play a role in your development marketing mix, major gifts do as well. Determine what the best mix is for your organization. Be realistic, and plan accordingly.

While major gift fundraising gets all the hype, thoughtfully planned small gift fundraising has a place in your marketing mix. Even if you’re not a top 5 online website, you can use small gift campaigns to acquire new supporters and as a gateway to engage current supporters at higher levels of support. After all, the more frequently someone gives to you, the more likely they are to feel invested. In fact, many of the best legacy gifts come from annual supporters who made numerous small gifts during their lifetimes.

What do you think is the best mix of small and large gift fundraising?

Speaking of small gifts, your year-end online e-appeal campaign should yield quite a few of them.  Are you ready? What else have you got? Are you pulling out all the other tools in your tool kit to assure you maximize your success this year? To double check, get my new Year-End Fundraising To-Do’s and Checklists. Don’t just wait for the best and hope to get lucky. Take charge!  

Photo: Flickr, Alicia Bernal

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I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. Claire – great post! I agree that micro-funding is THE wave of the future in philanthropy – b/c everyone has something to give and everyone can be a philanthropist . . . the key is for non-profits to be able to establish communities where the micro-partners (donors) desire to return time after time and feel truly engaged and uplifted.

    • Thanks for the comment Laura. Absolutely agree about the importance of helping folks to feel engaged and uplifted. That holds true for all types of fundraising — micro and major. We’ve got to think beyond one-time transactions and make philanthropy transformative, for the donor, the nonprofit, the community and the world.

  2. Claire, thanks for another terrific post! Small donors can generate a great deal of support for organizations. As you indicated at the end of your post, those small, loyal donors can also grow to become major and/or legacy donors. One charity I worked with found that over one-third of its major donors made an initial gift to that charity of less than $500. For many, a small donation is indeed a gateway gift, as you suggested.

    I would just like to add that small donors can actually be more significant donors if we give them the chance. Someone who donates $15 to a charity is likely not thinking, “I like this charity. How much should my philanthropic commitment be THIS YEAR? Ok, $15.” Instead, most small donors think in terms of how much they can afford to give THIS MONTH after they’ve paid their monthly bills. Guess what? That reservoir of discretionary income is replenished every month. So, why not give the donor the opportunity to give every month? A monthly donor program can easily turn a $15 donor into a $180 donor! Sadly and shockingly, few nonprofit organizations offer donors a monthly giving option. More should.
    Michael J. Rosen, CFRE recently posted…Impressive Statistics v. One Good StoryMy Profile

    • Thanks Michael. And you make a great point about monthly giving. It’s not for every nonprofit, but it’s certainly for many, many more than are availing themselves of this opportunity currently.

      Would also like to add that one of the reasons I wrote this post is because the digital revolution has changed fundraising. Seriously. I believe it’s changed it more in the past five years than the previous 50. There are fundamentals that hold, don’t get me wrong. But donor pyramid-centered fundraising is just not going to cut it any more. Folks come into contact with us in myriad ways now, and it’s important for us to pay attention and engage. Someone who shares your tweets or blog posts numerous times can be like that $15 donor and turn into a legacy donor.
      Claire recently posted…It’s Not All about Major Gifts: 10 Ways to Succeed with Small Gift FundraisingMy Profile

  3. Brilliant minds think alike. And little guppies turn into big fish if properly fed and cared for.


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