How would you like this to be YOUR headline?
"The University of South Alabama in Mobile has announced a $50 million gift from local businessman and philanthropist Abraham "Abe" Mitchell in support of its business school and a new scholarship program.
The largest gift in the history of Alabama public higher education brings to $93 million the total given by Mitchell and his family to the university." http://www.southalabama.edu/publicrelations/pressreleases/2013pr/050313.html
There is a tendency among smaller nonprofits confine their thinking to Facebook donors and grants. In reality, major gifts and bequests should form a large slice of your funding plan.
Landing a gift like this is a matter of relationship building. You can't just get a list of the 50 richest people in your area and send them a generic mailer.
One of the small nonprofit shortcomings that I see constantly is a reluctance to get out there and actively form alliances and use the power of face-to-face conversation. In today's wired world this is still a necessary skill to promote awareness not just of your mission, but of your needs. In business it is often referred to as networking.
One of your administrative focuses should be the creation of a major gift strategy. One person should be in charge of prospecting for events attended or sponsored by local philanthropists. If you don't know who they are, go to number of events, preferably somewhat related to your mission, but at least that attract the so-called "moneyed" crowd. If there are local museums, art galleries, zoos or colleges in your area, go to those institutions and look to see who is on their wall of supporters, or search for press releases related to funding they may have received. Check Facebook or Google the supporters and look for press releases or articles that mention where they may be spending their dollars. Look on the websites of charities that have a related mission to yours. Many of them have a supporter page. Check the Board of Director lists for local foundations. The information is publicly available on many nonprofit-related websites that rate foundations or compile information on them.
Once you have a target list of a dozen or so prospects, attend functions they may be at, and have your 15-second elevator/introduction speech ready (I'm pleased to meet you. My name is Jane Doe and I represent the charity, XXX, a nonprofit interested in helping Y") if you are introduced to them. Don't pounce on them like a starving hyena, or immediately ask for a meeting or donation. Just make small talk, comment on an exhibit, or even ask for their opinion of something at the event. People love to talk about themselves and their interests, so keep it on that level at first. If you make them feel good about themselves, they will feel good about you.
Some nonprofit staff may feel inadequate or unprepared to attend gala events. First, that is a skill that you learn, but if you really don't feel comfortable in that situation, or feel that you can't present yourself adequately see if a friend or volunteer would go with you to provide moral support. Just circulate, enjoy the event and observe. You will very quickly learn the ropes and then you can go forward with your relationship building efforts. More informal gatherings such as community breakfasts or picnics are generally something anyone can enjoy attending and feel comfortable in the environment.
There is an old saying that goes "It's not what you know, it's who you know". This is good advice for nonprofits, so get out there and start finding people that will support and validate your mission.