With fierce competition in today’s philanthropic marketplace, how and what you are communicating with your donors is vitally important to ensuring success in development. And of all the things you are communicating, nothing is more important than how you offer a donor the opportunity to invest in the vital work your organization is doing.

A good major gift offer must first grab a prospective donor’s attention with a strong opening, then build a solid case for investing in a program.

An effective offer answers five questions — why, what, who, how, and how much. You can build a strong case for support by closely following this outline:

  1. Demonstrate a single, critically urgent need using statistical evidence buttressed by vivid stories and testimonials.
  2. Highlight how your organization is particularly qualified to solve this problem.
  3. Summarize your overall approach and outline the key elements of your unique solution.
  4. Clearly state the expected outcomes of the solution, particularly how it will impact people’s lives.
  5. Lay out resources essential to achieve success, including a breakdown of costs and time required.
  6. Specify how you are asking donors to help, and how their gift will make a real difference in the lives of people.

To be maximally effective, each offer should be designed to evoke three responses from the donor, appropriately balanced for each individual (i.e. the ABCs of a good offer):

  • Affective: Emotion is a powerful motivator of behavior, and a good offer will therefore provide stories and/or personal testimonies to evoke an emotional response in the prospective donor (i.e. it will pass “the goose bump test”).
  • Behavioral: The objective of any offer is to drive the prospective donor to wonder, “How can I help?” and to provide the donor with a tangible way they can make a difference.
  • Cognitive: Emotion on its own will rarely lead to a major gift. For a donor to give at a major level, the donor must understand both the urgency of the need and why your solution is likely to be effective.

We recommend incorporating these tips into your writing habits when creating offers:

  • Don’t talk down to donors. We have a saying at Dickerson-Bakker that I repeat often to clients: Never under-estimate the intelligence of your donors. But be careful not to over-estimate their knowledge and understanding of your cause or organization either. And whatever you do, no matter how much of a true believer you are in your cause, resist the urge to get on a soapbox and preach.
  • Keep it as short and simple as possible. Don’t turn it into a dissertation. Hit all of the points above, but do it succinctly and directly.
  • Resist the urge to make it fancy. An offer shouldn’t look like it was mass produced. It should come across like you created this offer exclusively for their consideration. Save the fancy graphics and design for the materials you share that are collateral to the offer itself.
  • Intersperse the donor’s name(s) into the narrative, particularly where you are articulating the ask, so they know you are directing this offer specifically to them. Add personal references as well, for example… “Liz, I remember how much you were moved by the testimony of Sarah during your visit to the Center this past August”. This becomes increasingly important at increasingly higher levels of giving.

Finally, always have someone read your offer with a fresh set of eyes before presenting it to a donor.

Whether in the form of a personal presentation to a major donor, a formal proposal to a foundation, or a mail appeal to an individual donor, offers are your most important fundraising documents, as they boil down a specific problem and compel your donors to do something to make a difference.