He was “this close” (index finger and thumb a millimeter apart) to being fired. “John” had been a major gift officer for five years, and the organization we were about to work with was fed up with his performance.
In fact, it took everything I had to convince leadership not to fire him until we had some time to see if we could turn his performance around. They agreed, but they gave me a very short time period to figure out if John had what it takes to really be a successful major gift officer.
All over the country at this very moment this same situation exists with thousands of different non-profits. You probably have in your employment major gift officers who are struggling for one reason or the other, and they are about to get the ax.
To be honest, in many cases you are probably justified in letting them go. There are many major gift officers who should not be doing this work. Richard and I have written extensively on what it takes to be a great MGO, and sometimes it’s a matter of “do they have it or not?”
But there was something about John when I first met him that led me to believe he actually could do the work and do it well. Remember, I had very little time to help turn John’s performance around. In fact, John himself totally doubted he could do the work either. “Maybe I’m not cut out to ask people for money,” he said. I didn’t buy it. I’ve worked with dozens of MGOs and I knew there was something inside of him that could do this work well. Here is what I found when I started working with him.
- No one was really managing him. Yes, John had a manager, but the manager was not doing her job. She did not have a regular meeting set up with John and provided little direction. She was busy with her own caseload of donors and dealing with administrative stuff. She had no time for him. Okay, that was the first red flag. Quite frankly, we see this all the time in non-profits. MGOs are left out there to do it all on their own with little direction. Without tight management (not the kind that looks over their shoulders constantly), consistent accountability and focus, it’s difficult for many MGOs to succeed. Essentially what happens is the development department becomes one where you either sink or swim on your own.
- John was a total “creative idea – salesy – I love to talk to people” guy. Yet he was not out in front of his donors! Because he wasn’t being managed, he was getting involved in all sorts of things at the organization that had nothing to do with his job. He was coming up with new marketing ideas, getting involved with program issues, and doing everything but cultivating relationships. He did this because it fulfilled his creative need to be an “idea guy.” That was disaster for an MGO. You might be thinking, “gosh, that would never happen at my organization.” Let me tell you, it happens all the time. MGOs are doing work that has nothing to do with cultivating and nurturing relationships with donors. They do this because someone allows them to.
- There was no set caseload of donors John was working with. Instead he was given a “list” of literally hundreds and hundreds of possible donors to go out and cultivate and bring in money. When John was first hired, he thought this was great. He would just go out and start calling and meeting people, having dinners, flying out to have lunches, go golfing, etc. Well, when John found it wasn’t so easy to get in front of donors, he stopped trying and started to go and get involved in other business at the organization.
- John’s confidence level was extremely low. Not only that, he had lost his passion for cultivating and soliciting donors. This is when he sat down with me and said, “Jeff, I just don’t know if I can do this work. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a major gift officer.”
You might say, “Well, let this poor guy go. Why try to keep him on; obviously he wants out.”
Here’s the deal. When we start working with MGOs at Veritus Group, we start with the premise that we are going to help each of these MGOs to succeed. Richard and I decided long ago we would never go into a client relationship ready to help fire a bunch of people. If over time, we see the MGO just isn’t going to make it, we help them find what their own passion and desires are and figure out what they should do next.
So that is the approach I took with John. I…
- Put a structure to his work — John needed tight management and a structure to work within. We created a caseload of 150 qualified donors. We put goals to them. We cash-flowed those goals by month and then created a strategy for every donor. Then we managed John by having weekly meetings to hold him accountable and keep him focused on those goals. He didn’t like it at first, but later he realized it was the best thing someone ever did for him.
- Allowed him to be creative, yet in a controlled, specific way — I had John work with program staff to come up with creative offers for his donors. That scratched John’s creative itch, yet focused it all on his caseload. This allowed John to use his strengths, but do it in a way that helped his performance rather than take him away from what is actual job was.
- Got him out in front of donors — Through a lot of coaching (being persistent and patient) and re-igniting his passion by matching those creative offers with actual dollar handles, he was able to speak eloquently about the program to donors and help get his donors excited about funding them. I helped him schedule over half of his time to be in front of donors. Because John loves people he couldn’t get enough of it. The other half of his time, I gave him quarterly goals to reach out to every one of his donors on his caseload through phone calls, e-mails and personal notes. Everything he did was focused on his caseload.
The results were astounding. Within six months John was bringing in high five and six figure gifts. He was meeting and exceeding his monthly goals. Leadership was happy with his progress. Most importantly, John had found joy and passion again in his work. This resulted at the end of the year a 256% increase in giving from his donors versus his previous year.
I’m not saying every MGO can turn it around like this, but I am saying that if you can provide solid management, get to understand the strengths of the person you are managing and provide the structure for her to succeed, she will have a real shot at becoming the MGO you want and need for your organization.
Don’t we owe that to them?