Major Gift work is not easy.
Yet when I read the headlines of our industry magazines and web sites, everyone seems to have either an easy way to do major gifts, or some kind of major gift fundraising “hack” where you don’t have to work too hard to get great results.
Perhaps it’s just a reflection on our culture. I get e-mails every day promising something that can be done in 5 simple steps, or they have 3 easy answers to life’s most pressing problems.
Today I want to talk directly to CEOs, Executive Directors and board members because your team needs you to understand that it takes time, the proper resources and incredible ongoing support from you – more than you probably think – to make a major gift program successful.
In all the years I’ve worked either with major donors directly or counseled and managed those who do, I’ve found that there is no shortcut to being successful in major gifts.
I know that’s not a sexy thing to say, nor does it get people to click on my headline to read this. The fact is that life is hard in general, so we’re all looking to make it easier, right? But if you are truly honest about the work your major gift team is doing with major donors, you know that it’s a tough job. Deep down you know that doing it right isn’t about taking shortcuts or bypassing a necessary step to building relationships, so you can get a gift quicker.
Or do you know that? I hear from too many leaders who think that major gifts work is really just about asking wealthy people for money. They don’t understand that building relationships takes time, effort and more time.
Richard and I believe that being a major gift officer is the hardest fundraising job in the industry. It’s incredibly hard. You have to develop relationships not only with donors, but also with every one of your colleagues to help you inspire and solicit donors with your organization’s great projects. You have to be the “life of the party” and be the person who spends time recording information in your database. You have to be both intellectually smart AND emotionally smart. You have to be tough, yet flexible. You have to show the ability to be agile, yet be disciplined and focused. You have to deal with some really tough donors AND a CEO or board that sometimes “just doesn’t get it.”
I hope I didn’t just describe you.
Perhaps this is one reason why MGOs either don’t continue in the profession, or they look for a new job every 2.3 years, seeking another position at another non-profit because maybe, just maybe, it’s a little easier or less demanding.
As a non-profit leader here’s what you need to understand about what makes a successful major gift program, and what you can do to support it:

  1. Major gift programs need time. To really be successful you have to allow 2 to 3 years of structured, disciplined work to start showing real return on investment in major gifts. Yes, you will see some early “wins” because you will have some low-hanging fruit, but major gifts work is a long-term proposition. If you are getting pressure from the board as the Executive Director, or if you are a board member, the greatest thing you can understand is that major gifts is not a “quick fix.” The problems that could be averted if leadership understood this would be unbelievable.
  2. Hiring the right people is critical. You can’t do this on the cheap. We have managed hundreds of major gift officers over the years, and we’ve seen that if you want good people you have to pay them well. And when you have a good MGO, you have to continue to show them you are committed to them. Give them training, award them with higher salary for a great job, tell them they are doing a good job.
  3. Provide solid management. If you have a great manager, I can guarantee you that you will have a successful program. Great managers help good MGOs become great. Look for managers who love to develop people.
  4. Be available to your major gift team. We hear too often from MGOs how their CEO or Executive Director doesn’t support them. That the CEO thinks fundraising is just a necessary evil. Your non-profit will not survive if you believe that. The major gifts team needs to know you are there not only to support them, but also to help them solicit donors.
  5. Be a catalyst for changing your nonprofit to have a positive culture of philanthropy. I’m telling you, if you can lead on this and help your entire organization see that fundraising is everyone’s job, you will do immense good for your major gift fundraisers. This means bringing together finance, HR and program to sit at the table with the development team. Too often the relationships between these departments are fractured; whatever you can do to bring them together will help.
  6. Be patient, yet demand excellence. Yes, this takes time and you need to be patient. You also need to expect that your major gifts team is doing all the hard things the right way. If you give your team the right direction and support and expect the same from them, you’ll be amazed at what they produce.

Your leadership is needed to make major gifts successful. There is no easy way to do it. Your understanding and support is critical to making this all work. When they get that support from you, you will get results.