seven 2013-May20

Every week Richard and I answer dozens of questions from Executive Directors, Development Directors and Major Gift Officers.  While every question is slightly different and every non-profit is unique, there are basic key absolutes hidden in all of them.

So today I’m going to “answer” these questions by laying out seven elements of what a major gift program and those who work with that program need.  We firmly believe that if you follow these seven “absolutes” you’ll be successful with your major gift program.

Here goes:

  1. You have to know yourself—This may seem kind of odd, but I placed it as #1 because if you don’t understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and know how to use and manage them, you will struggle in your work with major gifts.  We have seen so many MGOs who bring their baggage to work and then can’t create healthy relationships with donors.  The role of an MGO is extremely difficult and if you are not an emotionally healthy person you will struggle for many reasons.
  2. Love the mission of your organizationRichard and I get questions from MGOs about what they should do if they just can’t get excited about the organization they are talking about with their donors.  Our answer: Leave.  If you are no longer passionate about the mission of your organization, how are you going to inspire donors to support it?  There are times that I see a lot of energy spent by MGOs trying to “fix” whatever the problem is at the organization they don’t like.  That is not your role.  Your role is to be the bridge between your donor’s greatest passion and desire and the need your organization addresses.  If you can’t believe in that solution, then find a place where you can.
  3. You have to be donor-centered—This means that as an MGO you are listening to your donors about what they have a passion for.  You role is not to bring the donor projects and programs they have no interest in.  Yes, I know the school needs a new gym, but the donor is only interested in research and libraries.  I get so many questions about trying to “push” things on donors that the organization really cares about.  You have to take a donor-centered approach.  When I really start to dig deeper into these questions with MGOs, I often find he or she really doesn’t KNOW the donor well enough, or hasn’t even had a conversation with the donor to understand what the donor’s passion is.  By the time I’ve listening to the MGO go on and on, I finally say, “You just need to get in front of your donor.”
  4. Don’t go after the money—I know this seems counterintuitive, but if you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time, you know we hammer you over the head with this.  In the many years we have been doing this work, we know that MGOs who chase the money rather than work on forming solid relationships by listening to their donors are failures. We get many questions from MGOs who are being pressured by their boss to go after the quick money because revenue is hurting.  Gosh, I know that is tempting and you feel the pressure, but don’t do it.  It will hurt you in the long run.
  5. You need a plan—“Do I really need a plan and revenue goal for all my donors?”  I get this all the time.  Yes, you do.  Most MGOs are wired NOT to like structure, a framework, plans of any kind that will limit their freedom.  I totally get it.  But, that is EXACTLY why you need it.  Without a plan you will be all over the place and you need it to stay focused and accountable.  Without one you will fail. A solid plan includes a series of touches that thanks, cultivates, reports back to and solicits donors.  And yes, you need a goal for every donor.  To do this, look at what a donor has given in previous years, get a handle on his or her capacity, and then consider a reasonable increase based on your knowledge of that donor.  Most MGOs argue with us about planning and goal setting because it takes a lot of upfront work.  We get it.  It’s not fun, especially for an MGO who loves to be out talking with donors, but it’s critical to the success of that MGO whether he likes it or not.
  6. Record all of your moves into your database—This is absolutely essential.  I get questions around this every week that begin with, “Do I really…?”  I know it’s a pain in the rear, but you need solid data about who the donor is and what has been done to cultivate the donor.  And, you need this recorded correctly in order to produce proper activity reports for management. Remember, these are NOT your donors.  They belong to the organization and, in most cases, the donor will be around longer than you will.  The best thing you can do for your organization is to make sure you have top-notch notes, information and recorded moves in the database.  The next MGO or Executive Director will thank you.
  7. You need to be managed—every successful major gift program that Richard and I have seen is managed correctly.  This means anyone working with a major gift caseload has someone who is holding her accountable, keeping her focused and providing a solid structure and boundary to work within.  I cannot stress this enough.  If MGOs are left on their own without solid management they will be all over the place and fail.  The problem in our industry is that there is very little good management.  Either the leadership of the organization thinks they can’t afford it or they don’t see it as a priority.  Gosh, we could write a book just about the lack of good management in the non-profit sector. However, IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that major gift programs and the people who work in them are managed.

Whew!  There you go.  If you follow these 7 absolutes your major gift program will be on solid footing for year over year growth and YOU will have success working it.




  • Michael Hodgson says:

    I couldn’t agree more – both within MGO roles, and wider fundraising roles, I’ve worked for and with a number where the quality of management was poor. I see it in other organisations I know. Perhaps it comes from not having a large pool of managers with solid fundraising experience.

    However, it’s relatively easy to identify problems; the challenge comes in addressing them – if there isn’t a will within the organisation to change or challenge poor management, then what can be done?

    Or alternatively, how can an organisation be encouraged to change or challenge?

    And looking at the bigger picture, as someone who hopes to move into a management role longer term, how can talented fundraisers develop the management skills they’ll need to effectively manage?

    • Hi Michael. There are some great books out there. One book that really helped me was called, “First, Break All the Rules.” I don’t remember the author, but it was extremely helpful. Also, the Gallup organization has written many books on discovering your strengths and management. Finally, I would look into some different universities that offer Master’s degree’s in non-profit management. There are a number of good programs out there.

      Thanks for reading and for your comment.


  • Cecilia says:

    A concise article with great insight into the world of Major Gift Fundraising.

    Thanks for sharing your success and expertise.


  • Libby says:

    I learned more about major gifts from your blogs than I have from a book, training, or a development leader. Thank you. No one shared the system I needed to be successful. I will be a better fundraiser as a result of reading your blogs.

  • Gregory says:

    My favorite: You need to be managed.

    Too many fundraisers are not managed properly or at all.

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