People often ask us what we think makes for a really good major gift program.  Sometimes this question comes from frustration with how things are currently going.  Often it’s about wanting to make their program better.
In the next seven posts I am going to write about The Seven Pillars of a Major Gift Programseven indispensable categories of work that Jeff and I believe are a must in any major gift program that will be successful in raising significant dollars for program, retaining  donors and providing  meaningful and fulfilling work for major gift officers.
I added “retaining donors” and “providing meaningful work for MGOs” to the list that I call the Major Gift Value Triad because all three of these things are important parts of having a successful major gift program:

  1. Raising the money is important, as we all know.
  2. But retaining donors is equally important.  With most major gift files we see losing from 40-60% of their value from year to year, and millions of dollars simply vanishing into air, keeping donors is a critical value to the major gift effort.
  3. And providing meaningful and fulfilling employment is also a critical value.  If you are keeping the donors and raising the money but not valuing your MGO, there’s trouble ahead, believe me. With the tenure of most MGOs lasting just over two years, we can’t say we’ve learned much about stewarding this important human resource.  And there’s a direct connection between losing your MGO and losing donors.

So, Pillar #1: Attributes of the Ideal Major Gift Organization starts with these three critical elements – an ability to raise money, which is a by-product of a non-profit that is doing good work and a donating public who supports it; a deeply held belief that donors are partners vs. sources of cash and a strong desire to nurture and retain them, and; a business environment and culture that honors its staff and provides them with meaningful and fulfilling work.
If you’re missing any of these points, don’t read any more.  Just start working on getting the Major Gift Value Triad into your organization.
The next critical area that the ideal major gift organization has is a clear understanding of the difference between direct marketing, public relations, events and major gifts.
By “clear understanding” I mean that the leaders of the organization have organized work in a manner that recognizes that major gifts is not direct marketing, although at times it may use some DM strategies; is not public relations, although it will seek to preserve and promote the brand; is not events, although at times it will use an event (sparingly, please) to relate to caseload donors, but;  is a one to one very personal strategy where the sole objective is to match a donor’s interests and passions to the needs of the organization.
There are so many non-profits that do not have this right.  Major gifts reports into the manager of direct marketing.  Or, public relations, events and major gifts are all lumped into one management structure.  Or, the events manager leads the major gift agenda.  Crazy stuff, like that!  Crazy.
I really don’t know why managers/leaders do this.  All I can conclude is that it’s ignorance – ignorance about what a major gift program is and how it works.  Or, a bias towards some other marketing and communication program that keeps the major gift program “subordinate” to its agendas and objectives.
Whatever it is, it’s pure foolishness and a recipe for disaster and failure.
Major gifts should be an entity by itself, reporting directly into the Director/VP for Development – even if it’s a one person department.  It should not have PR, Events, Volunteer Management – any of that stuff – mixed in.  It should be solely dedicated to managing, nurturing, upgrading and relating to major donors.  Period.
And who makes up the major gift team?  Professionals who relate to individual major donors; others who relate to foundations; gifted team members who handle corporations and businesses, and; talent that handles other institutions like other non-profits, churches, synagogues, parishes, social service club etc.  All of these “types” of major gift sources have one thing in common:  they require a one-to-one, personal approach.  That is why I include them in the major gift “house”.  Everything else belongs in another house – yes, a house on the same “development” street – but, assuredly, a different house.
Many times when I present this concept to management and leadership a great deal of angst, debate and downright arguments ensue.  It’s almost as if I have been promoting fundraising heresy and I should be banned from the discipline.  It’s only when I can show how millions of dollars are lost each year and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of donors are going away each year that my voice can be heard as one of reason and practicality.
Please listen to me, friend.  This thing about donors is a sacred trust.  It is a mysterious and mystical thing.  It is something to be valued and treasured.  Believe this and then take steps to align your organization so that it can properly and effectively house the ideal major gift program.
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