10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Became a Major Gift Officer

By Robin Bellinger, Strategic Partner and Certified Coach at Advancement Resources

Many distractions stand in the way of our focus on building relationships with the highest level of potential donors, matching passion to areas of need, facilitating engagement, securing support and demonstrating philanthropic return on investment. Reflecting on my early years as a major gift officer and now as a coach to development professionals and leaders, the challenges faced by major gift officers remain the same over time. The 10 things I wish I knew when I began my career in development are just as true then as they are now.

1. Focus on major gift activities.

It is easy to put other development work ahead of major gift activity. We are often asked to be involved in special event planning, grant writing, and annual giving solicitations, to name a few, yet our performance is measured by metrics such as meaningful contacts, solicitations made, and gifts secured. While serving as a supportive and contributing member of the development team is important, building a strong pipeline for higher levels of support should be a priority for the majority of your time. Report out on where you are toward goals in meetings with staff and your supervisor. Keep your major gift activities at the top of your mind and those around you.

2. Identify top prospects.

Often we inherit our prospect portfolio without knowledge of why or how a potential donor was placed on the list. Take the time to meet with your assigned research partner, or colleagues with institutional history and donor knowledge, to determine the potential donor’s previous connection to the organization and financial capacity based on information available. Work through your prospect list to place each potential prospect on a priority grid with A’s being those with the highest capacity and demonstrated inclination to give and D’s being those with the lowest level of capacity and without connections to the institution.

3. Seek referrals.

Institution leaders, key volunteers, and supporters are the strongest source of potential donor support and information. Working through the appropriate process, development officers can engage potential donors and create more effective strategies with assistance from institution stakeholders.

4. Create donor strategies.

A written donor strategy is needed to build and maintain relationships. Without a strategy, time will go by without meaningful contact and follow-up to previous discussions. Strategies for top potential donors should be continuously reviewed and updated, outlining 18 months of meaningful engagement throughout the development process, with the majority of the activities focused on the potential donor vs. a group of prospects.

5. Carve out time for potential donor contact.

Reserve a set time each day for calls, emails, and other communication. Vary your set times to accommodate morning, afternoon and evening availability of potential donors. Prepare for a conversation before making calls or extending and responding to correspondence. What is the potential donor’s current relationship with the institution? What do you plan to accomplish when connecting with the individual? What questions or statements might occur during the exchange and how will you respond to them?

6. Understand the organization’s vision and funding needs.

Before entering into commitments, development officers need to be confident in the institution’s priorities. Doing so will help prevent gift discussions that may result in commitments difficult to manage and require unavailable or additional resources.

7. Prepare to tell the story.

Discovery visits with potential donors should include an organizational update. How has the institution, department, or program made a difference in the community it serves? What are the unique challenges of the organization? How does the institution plan to address those needs? What are the opportunities for a potential donor to partner with the organization?

8. Include family members.

Unless a potential donor suggests otherwise, include the spouse or partner in the process of building relationships toward institutional support. Rarely is a gift secured without the knowledge and support of significant others. For potential donors without a partner, inquire about the involvement of children or siblings during the engagement process.

9. Don’t make assumptions.

A potential donor’s area of interest and inclination to give may not always be what we think. Face-to-face visits are the best way to uncover passion and capacity. There may be tipping points in a potential donor’s life that increase or decrease capacity and inclination to give or their area of passion may shift to mirror a life-changing experience.

10. Create Return on Philanthropic Investment.

From the perspective of a potential donor, the most overlooked step in the donor process is the organization’s ability to demonstrate the impact of their support. As a development professional, we are responsible for ensuring timely and on-going donor appreciation through thank-you correspondence from institution leaders, endowment and impact reports, program or site visits, an invitation to serve on a task force, committee or board, or provide a testimonial.

Whether you are a new or seasoned major gift officer, the obstacles and distractions remain the same. It takes daily discipline to remain focused on strategic potential donor objectives.

Develop and refine your skills through individual coaching with one of our certified coaches or sharpen your management skills in leading your team to higher levels of performance by attending a public session of Coaching! An Intense Workshop for Development Leaders.

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