Written by The Bridge Blog guest writer – Christopher McGown

So then, what part does social media play in major gift development?

Social Media plays a role in cultivation!

As we dig in, it is important to remember that social media cultivation—no matter how well it is done—will not replace ‘traditional’ major gift development efforts.   Rather, it will augment the cultivation process.    Earlier, I listed the common major gift development stages–identification, research, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship—to varying degrees, there is place for social media in all of them.



I’ve already mentioned an example of the ‘feeder’ role social media might play.   However, conventional teaching says that identification is more than simply putting ‘leads in the funnel’.

Social media can be an excellent way to really spot one of the important characteristics of a prospect—passion.   That is, those who interact most passionately with your organization’s social media presence are great candidates for giving.   Basic wealth data might then be used to further help define the level of giving appropriate for the donor’s situation; and, in turn, the most appropriate cultivation method.


Social media staff (and tools) can be used to help identify areas of interest to donors.  Traditionally the gift development officer learned about a donor’s area(s) of interest over coffee or dinner, but social media can help streamline that conversation by noting areas of interest.   One way this can be done is observing likes, or followings, or participation in niche groups/platforms.

Social media, along with the great World Wide Web, is a powerful tool to also identify wealth.   From antidotal information like family vacation photos from a Tahiti Resort and ‘check-ins’ at exclusive clubs; to more concrete information like home ownership and luxury item (planes, Royals Royce) purchases.

Social media can also be used to find connections—shared friends, etc.    It is a powerful tool to draw your connection map between the prospect and key staff and/or volunteers.   And this is a dynamic transition to who and how to cultivate.


Cultivation means different things to different  people; for the purposes of this post, I’m going to define cultivation as:  Intentional relationship-building steps in which the donor and organization learn about each other to determine if and how they can work together to meet complementary needs.

Traditionally, this is the major giving officer working one-on-one with the donor to match passion with purpose.   By the very nature of the process time is often the greatest boundary the major gift officer faces.   But social media allows the cultivation process to be spread around, and done in a way that may be unnoticeable to the donors and prospects.

A common part of the cultivation process is sharing data and stories of interest to the donor and prospects.   This can be done via social media, and as such can be assigned various staff (assuming they are familiar with social media etiquette).     Using a connection map (or web) you can identify others (volunteers, board members, etc.) who can also assist in the process.

Using social media in this way has the added benefit of real-time, empirical statistics on how the donor interacted with the information.   This can help shape what information is shared in the future and in what way.

So, what might social media cultivation look like in a major gift development plan?

  • General social media actions that resonate with the donor
  • Social media actions targeted to specific groups within your general ranks (through the use of SM Personas, or ‘Tribe’ identification)
  • Very personal, singular references in your organization’s social media actions and/or responses by your organization to actions by your donor.


No, you should not make your “ask” via a Facebook wall post or a tweet!

Solicitation is the least likely phase of development to utilize social media.   However, there are times when it may be possible to ‘promote’ an ask.  Given the right prospect, an organization might be able “tag” the donor in a post, make the “ask” and explain the need it would meet.    But be VERY careful in doing this, doing so without clear indication that it would be well-received would jeopardize not only the gift, but the entire relationship.

In most major gift solicitations there is a time lapse between the time the “ask” is made and the time it is accepted.   During this intervening time-gap, social media can be utilized to highlight the need which would be met by the gift.    That is, the organization’s social media platforms can strategically place/reference stories that highlight the specific need into their feed.


Using the philosophy that stewardship starts with the donor’s thank you, social media can play a meaningful role in this phase of the major gift development process.

Organizational “news” place on social media platforms-by definition-has far greater potential to spread than more traditional methods, like newsletter, emails, blogs, or website updates.   Thus, appropriately using all of the organization’s social media platforms to publicly thank a donor (assuming the donor’s permission) by tying them to the need they are meeting can have far-reaching, positive impact.    It is likely this kind of activity will be spread by the donor’s friends—whether or not they previously supported or even interacted with your organization.   The news is also likely to be shared by those who are interested in the need which was met—even if they don’t know the donor—again, likely exposing the need and your organizational mission to new audiences.

Promoting the donation along with explaining what the donation means to those served by your organization is likely to have to other advantages worth mentioning:

1) People like to get behind a winner. This gift might be the sign needed that your organization is a winner, thus garnering new, renewed, and increased giving.

2) Others who are motivated (even if only secretly) by such public accolades are far more likely to step forward in the same manner; or at the very least be motivated to learn more about your mission.   It is important to note that there is value in engaging social media to bring exposure to: a) the need being met, b) any remaining unmet needs, c) the donor’s gift) d) the donor and the donor’s ‘why’, e) and various combinations of a, b, c, & d.

As the stewardship process moves farther and farther from the actual gift date, social media can still play an important role.    In fact, because of the low cost of social media, it may be one of the most practical ways to provide long-term donor stewardship.      For example, an organization may take the opportunity to highlight the donor (or donor’s family) when mission-based activity is made possible because of the gift.    This can most easily be seen in capital campaigns—for example, a Facebook picture and post of a group of children learning in the McGown Family Classroom, tagging the donor in the entry.   While naming opportunities of all types make it easier, you aren’t limited to them.   Let your mind free and explore all the possibilities.

Before we wrap-up this section, just a quick word about ‘anonymous donors’.   It is presumed that the organization knows the donor, but the donor has opted to remain anonymous.   In those cases, best practices suggest that your organization will still use social media to promote the gift and steward the gift—just without the use of the donor’s name or clearly identifiable traits.   I would still urge you to talk with the donor and why (s)he choose to support your organization when (s)he did and how (s)he did, again without names.   If this is a serious concern with the donor, pass the information by the donor first reminding them the value to organization such sharing can have.

Do this sound familiar?   It should.  The fundamental concepts for social media are virtually (pun intended) the same as traditional major gift development.    Social media is not a replacement for personal ‘high-touch’ activities that lead to a successful program.  Rather, social media is yet another tool used as part of an overall process of identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of major gift donors.


At this point, for most organizations, social media is an option as an active or pro-active part of the major gift development process.   Given the composite of most organization’s major donors, for the next couple years an organization can take the window of time to develop a plan for how social media will be part of their major gift development process.

Note, I didn’t say social media was optional.   I don’t believe it is in today’s environment.    And to reiterate, integration of social media into major gift development will become an expectation—sooner for some organizations than others.

Like any organizational change, it will take time to work through how full integration will work for your organization.   The larger the organization or the more splintered the verticals within it, the harder the process will be.   However, I believe that social media is here to stay, and any organization that ignores its importance does do at its own peril.

There are thousands (if not millions) of social media platforms and the next “Facebook” is just over horizon.   But, regardless the platform, social media is certain to have a growing place of importance in the lives of our prospects and donors.    Social media is a tool—though be it a powerful tool.   One way it should be used is as part of a strategic major gift development plan.

I genuinely doubt that major gift officers will ever be replaced by rooms of gnomes blasting out a social media stream.   However, we already see the value placed on it by our society, and that is growing every day.

The Bridge is a full service consulting firm that supports non-profits in Leadership Development, Major Gift Campaigns and Board Building. To help you get started planning your Major Gifts and Social Media Strategy, download our free Cultivation Calendar.


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