If you are a Development Director for a small non-profit, you’re probably juggling a thousand different tasks and responsibilities all at once. I know what it’s like. The first eight years of my 28-year career I was a Development Director of two small non-profits, and I had no staff.
It’s both frustrating and exhilarating all at the same time. Exhilarating because you’re doing a variety of things all the time, but frustrating because you feel like you don’t have time to focus on any one thing enough to do it well.
What happened to me is that I generally gravitated toward the things I liked to do rather than the things that were more strategic and hard to do. For me, this meant that developing a major gift program always took a back seat. Why? Because it was harder to get it going, and it took more time to see an immediate payoff. So Major Gifts was always something I did “when I had the time.”
Sound familiar?
Then one day I sat down with my CEO, and we looked at my workload and attached an ROI to it (a calculation of Return On Investment). You see, my CEO was a real numbers guy. We discovered together that I was spending most of my time on low-ROI producing work and neglecting the high-ROI work – Major Gifts. That’s right, when we looked at all the things I was doing, major gifts work by far had the highest ROI of any development strategy I was working on, yet I was spending the least amount of time on it.
That one meeting changed completely my way of working as a development director. After that meeting, I immediately carved out 50% of my time toward major gifts. It made a tremendous difference. Here is what I did:

  1. Blocking out the time — I worked with my CEO to block out 20 hours a week devoted to major gifts. Yes, I actually put it in my calendar so that I was focused on it. Just that one act alone helped me tremendously. Now for you, it may be only 25-30% of your time… whatever you and your boss decide, block that time in your calendar.
  2. Creating a structure — Twenty years ago I wasn’t as savvy about major gifts as we are now at Veritus Group, but I was able to create a structure of goal-setting and strategic plans. Today, if I were in that situation, I would be doing everything Richard and I are telling you about how to create a structure for major gifts. From creating qualified caseloads to tiering your donors, to creating a 12-month strategic plan for every donor. It’s even more important for you to have a structured major gift program if you are a development director with no major gift officer, because it’s the only way you can be effective with the precious little time you have for major gifts work.
  3. Weekly meetings — After that meeting with my CEO I told you about, we decided that it would be good to meet weekly just to talk about major gifts. So 30 minutes to 1 hour of the 20 hours a week, I devoted to talking about donors with my CEO. That was probably the best thing I could ever have done. 1) It kept me accountable, 2) It allowed me to “manage up” with my CEO’s small caseload, and 3) it allowed us to strategize donor moves. I needed this meeting because it really helped me to stay focused all week.
  4. Just say “NO” — Focusing on major gifts by actually putting it in my calendar allowed me to say “NO” to a bunch of stuff that didn’t produce revenue. And because I was in constant communication with my CEO about it, he had my back when others complained that I wasn’t involved enough in their project or event. “Jeff has to focus his time on strategies that produce tangible results for our organization.” He had to say that over and over to many staff members, and I was thankful for it.

As a development director of a small non-profit, you have to make a decision to focus your time where you will be most effective. Major Gifts is where you will see the highest ROI over the long term. You will always be pushed to do the urgent, immediate thing. But if you are going to help your organization grow and develop… and eventually have someone full-time devoted to major gifts, you have to focus on it yourself, now.
Believe me, I lived it – and it worked.