stepsup 2011-Oct17
“Yeah, we realized we needed a major gift program so we just started one!”
This statement summarizes what Jeff and I hear very frequently.  A leader says, “We’ll just hire someone and get going.” As if the money will flow like water out of a tap.  And then people like us come along and rain on the parade with statements and questions like:

  • “We should look at how you are organized to make sure it can actually work.”
  • “What kind of donors do you have?”
  • “What do you need the money for?”
  • “Is there any talent in the wings and do they have experience?”
  • “What program needs do you have that will make a compelling ask?”
  • “It will probably take 8 months or more to get a talented MGO up and running.  Can you wait that long?”

The fact is that doing major gifts right is a long and tedious process and involves a lot of steps – steps that if not followed will undermine the MGOs ability to raise money.  Just because you have a great cause and a good hearted and even talented MGO does not mean your major gift program will be successful.
Starting and maintaining a good program takes discipline, thoughtfulness, strategy and focus.  We have assembled a checklist of “minimum essentials” for starting and maintaining a major gift program.  There is a lot of detail to each of these points, but here are the highlights:

  1. Design Appropriate Organizational Home For Major Gifts – this is about acknowledging that major gifts is not direct marketing.  We see managers that place the entire major gift program under the direct marketing manager.  Big mistake.  Don’t do it.  At the very least, major gifts should have a direct relationship to the Director of Development.
  2. Create The Right Job Description – most often this little piece of paper is written wrong – unbelievably wrong!  And then everyone wonders why the MGO is failing. We have some very strong opinions in this area we’d be glad to share.
  3. Find And Hire The Right Talent – this is one of those things that just needs to be right.  We have a checklist for the minimums in this area.  Get this one wrong and you will have dark days ahead.  Get it right and you are in for an unbelievable ride!
  4. Make Sure You Select The Right Donors – we’ve talked about this quite a bit on this blog, i.e. the qualifying process, the whole thing about how not all donors that meet the metric will actually be on a caseload, the bit about not every donor that gives a lot of money actually wants to relate to an MGO, etc.  There are donors.  And then there are donors that want to be on a caseload.  Make sure you get this right.
  5. Segment Donors into top, mid and lower potential.  Also, select 3-5 top tier donors on which and with whom you will spend a great deal of time and to whom you will submit major proposals.
  6. Set Goals And Make Plans For Every Donor – If you don’t know where you are going financially or in your moves management, you will not get there.  And make sure that a critical part of your planning is about identifying and serving major donor interests and passions.
  7. Develop Offers – work with finance and program to come up with significant and substantial offers you can present to donors.
  8. Create Monthly Reporting that captures how the same donors are performing from month to month and year to year; that measures progress against goals; that tells you how the MGO is performing, and; that gives management a look at return on investment.
  9. Have A Process For Integrating New Donors – it is a fact that not all current caseload donors will perform as expected and new donors will migrate up to major donor level via direct marketing.  You need to plan for this dynamic.
  10. Keep A High View of the entire program and make sure the caseload value is growing, the MGO is productive and sufficient funds are being raised for the organization.

Now, if you did all of what I’ve written above and you did it with discipline, thoroughness and focus, your major gift program will be successful.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Yup.  But here’s the rub.  If you don’t watch it, you will not execute some of these points; you will take shortcuts; you will decide there are other things that are more important, and; you will find yourself wandering away from the course I have talked about here.
And that is where it all starts to grind to a halt.  So, be vigilant in all of these areas.  Do them with excellence and with great energy and excitement.  You will be really happy with the result.