Tip Sheet: Major Gifts & an Interview with Charles Bronfman

Major gifts are the largest donations an organization receives. Depending on the organization a major gift might be $500 or $100,000. Typically 80% of donations come from 20% of donors, so identifying, cultivating and retaining major gift donors should be a priority for your organization.

Your Fundamentals

Identifying Major Gift Prospects

Major gift prospects are people who are likely to support your organization either because they identify with your cause or know someone connected to you. They may be among your current donors. Canvass your staff and volunteers to see who they know. Use the internet to research potential major gift donors.

Cultivating Major Gift Prospects

Cultivation is the process that leads up to the “ask” for a major gift. It’s an opportunity to introduce prospects to your organization and the work you do, and to learn about their specific areas of interest.  Good cultivation involves opportunities for a prospect to engage with your organization whether through introductions to the leadership of your organization, invitations to events, or an opportunity to see your work in action. Remember you are in the hunt for a major gift so it’s time well invested.

Every “ask” will have a different strategy but the common elements are:

  • Choosing the right team to make the “ask”.
  • Knowing how much to ask for [research on a prospect’s donations to other organizations will help you learn this].
  • Telling the prospect how the gift will be used and demonstrating the impact it will have on your organization.
  • Understanding how the prospect may wish to be recognized for the gift.

A Donor's Insight

Charles Bronfman is the former co-chairman of Seagrams.  As Chairman and majority owner of the Montreal Expos, he brought Major League Baseball to Canada. Until 2016, he chaired the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which oversaw groundbreaking work in Canada, Israel and the United States.  Among his signature philanthropic achievements are Heritage Minutes (Historica Canada) and Birthright Israel.


In October 2016, Alison Faulknor, Director of New Initiatives at National Trust for Canada had the opportunity to sit down with Charles and learn about his experience as a donor.



01. (AF) So Charles, I thought maybe we’d start with the question of what motivates you as a donor to give.

(CB) What motivates me, and I think others, is giving a damn, really caring. And if you care about something and if enough of us care about enough things, we’re going to be an okay society.

02. (AF) How do you choose a cause, or what draws you to particular cause?

(CB) I like that question very much because I think that is lesson number one in philanthropy. If it isn’t in your gut, it isn’t. It has to be something about which you’re passionate. I was passionate about [Canada’s history], I’ve been passionate about a few other things, so I pursued them with colleagues and had a formula, and our formula was to do something on a pilot basis. If it worked, then we could go out and find other people to try this. So we put in the first capital as it were, and then other people, if we were successful, which fortunately we were most of the time, would come and join us and then over time we gradually decrease our involvement.

03. (AF)That’s a good point, that’s a role we play at the National Trust. We provide tools and build the capacity so that ultimately it’s the people on the ground who take it on.

(CB) Yeah and I think what you folks are doing is terrific because if we’re not going to have preservation of our important iconic buildings, then what do we have? You know you go to Europe, you go to Asia, you go to Africa and see all these great things. Well, had somebody not decided to preserve them, they wouldn’t have been saved.

04. (AF) Do you have any advice for community organizations who are trying to attract donors, sponsors, or volunteers to their cause?

(CB)I think that what you have to do is maybe have a meeting, and see if there are people at the meeting who really are reverberating or throwing enthusiasm, and then try to start something going.

05. (AF) What do you think has been the greatest change in philanthropic giving over the past five to ten years and where do you think philanthropy is going?

(CB) I think it’s going to be more private philanthropy than there ever has been. In Canada we’ve been slow to have private philanthropy; everything has gone to these major organizations, whether it’s United Way, or the Red Cross. Companies and people are now starting to do much more, the kind of thing that we did in our foundation, is to start saying well what really interests us, what can we do to make our society better? I remember years ago I suggested one time that we show everybody where our money goes, and everybody went to sleep. They didn’t give a damn, because it was peer pressure that was making them give, not the cause. Then, all of a sudden, life changed, and today, we can’t give through an amorphous organization without showing where it’s going and you have, Charity Navigator, that shows the various philanthropic institutions and what goes where, and they rate them: how much overhead they have, what their marketing expenses are and so on. I think that’s what will be going on more and more.

06. (AF) You just said something interesting Charles, about how the relationship between donors and charities are changing. There’s a big discussion in Canada here among some of the larger charities about whether or not, we should be looking at admin ratios and fundraising ratios, or whether instead we should be looking at the impact of the organization. As a donor, do you think there is a greater emphasis now on where the funding ultimately goes?

(CB) I think that’s better for our future. People are going to look, because we now have the information: how much the administration is, how much the administration overhead, where the money does wind up going. And that’s going to, in this current age, at least, determine a lot of the funding, whether or not the particular charity is doing a great job.

07. (AF)I’m going to shift gears a little bit to the cause that is close to our hearts at the National Trust. Why do you think that it is important that communities rally together to save, and not just save, but renew historic buildings and give them a community purpose?

(CB) That’s who we are. That’s our heritage if you’ll pardon the expression. That’s everything about us. If those things disappear, the history, the story of the country disappears. I think if people get a silly view of history, a lot people find it boring etc., but it’s really our story. The story part of history is where it’s so important, and that’s why we did our Heritage Minutes [at Historica]. To show in one minute the Underground Railroad, for instance, when we brought American slaves into Canada, or many of the others, this is who we are. If we don’t preserve who we are, what are our kids going to think about who we are? I think it’s right.

08. (AF) Thank you Charles

Before You Start - Ask Yourself:


Why should a major gift donor support your organization?


Are your leadership volunteers prepared to ask for major gifts?


What ways do you have to recognize major gifts [i.e. website, naming opportunities]?