I am amazed at how well some newly hired MGOs get to know the programs of the organization they work for and, by the same token, how many MGOs, who have been with an organization for five and even ten years or more, do not.  I’ve tried to discern what is different about either the person or the organization that results in such a wide gap of knowledge about the very thing the MGO was hired to represent – the program.
Could it be that the MGO who knows the program is the one who (a) understands his job, i.e. matching donor interests and passions to organization needs and/or (b) has been proactively trained by the organization to know what it does?  Maybe.
But what about the MGO who doesn’t know the program?  Putting the best light on it, maybe they expect others to know.  Maybe their understanding is that someone outside themselves gathers the info and all they do is act as the broker or presenter to the donor?  Or maybe they just don’t know how to conceptualize the whole program thing and organize it for donor consumption?  Or, maybe they are just too busy with “donor stuff” and don’t have the time to get this work done?  Or, maybe, it’s a manager who says,  “Look, I want you out there with donors!  Do not spend time visiting program.”  I’ve seen that one before.
Whatever it is, it’s an amazing thing to watch; exhilarating when it works right and downright depressing when it doesn’t.
I think by now you’ve gathered that one very key point of proposal writing (and donor contact) is to Know Your Program.  You cannot expect to be successful as a major gift officer if you don’t.  Which is why you need to, at a minimum, take the following steps to make sure you are informed in this critical area:

  1. Understand the organization’s budget:  I strongly urge you to spend time with your top finance person to gain a clear understanding of the organization’s budget.  Do you have any idea what the total expense number is?  What the total revenue number is?   What the major categories of expense and revenue are?  If your answer is “no”, start heading for the finance department.
  2. Understand the details of the program part of the budget:  it should be a number which equals anywhere from 60-80% of the total expense budget.  Find that number and then understand how it breaks down into (a) each location, (b) each program category within location, and (c) any sub-categories below that.  This work may make your head spin, but I guarantee you will be glad you did it.  We have a whole system for helping non-profits figure this part out – let us know if we can help.
  3. Start digging into how each program category works:  this is about understanding the need that is being addressed, how the need is met and who (gender, age, etc.) is helped.  If YOU don’t understand this, how are you going to explain it to a donor?  Yes, this does mean you will have to read program plans and actually visit program sites.  And it does mean that this will take time – quite a bit of time.  When a new MGO starts, I’d like to see him or her spend 30-40% of their time engaged in this activity alone.  Why?  Because the MGO needs to know the “product” to be effective. But this part is the intellectual side of program knowledge.  You also need to get into…
  4. The emotional side of the program content.  No matter what the program is, either helping people, the environment, animals – whatever what the cause – you need to be emotionally connected to it. So, if your organization is helping the homeless, go sit with a homeless person and let that experience get into your heart.  If you’re helping animals, get into their world and feel it.  If your program is about conservation, wander into the beauty and wonder of nature and marvel at it.  If it’s about space exploration, feel the mystery and glory of space and other planets.  If it’s about cancer research, cry about the pain this dreaded disease has caused and fill your heart with hope for a solution.  If it’s about justice, be angry about how cruel and selfish people can be.  You get what I mean, I’m sure.  Your heart must get engaged.  You cannot stand outside of the emotional impact of your cause and hope to be an effective major gift fundraiser.  Whenever I am engaged with our clients, I always fill my head with the program info (intellect) and open my heart (emotion) to its impact on other people and our home, the earth, and all that is in it.  You cannot by-pass this important step.
  5. Gather stories and pictures that illustrate need and impact.  I’ve always said that the primary role of a major gift officer is to experientially transport the donor right into the need that the organization is addressing.  This is not an easy thing to do.  If the MGO had a special “transporter” that could magically put the donor right in the middle of the action, so they could hear, see, taste and feel the experience, that would be a beautiful thing.  Unfortunately, such a machine does not exist.  And so we must rely on the representations of the MGO.  And these representations are delivered via words and pictures.  And they involve intellectual information as well as emotional information.  If all you do as a MGO is fill the donor’s head and not move his or her heart, you have failed.  So, gather stories and pictures about the heartbreak of the need.  These stories and pictures should cause you to feel the hurt, pain and hopelessness of the situation.  Then gather stories about the unbelievable joy of the need met.  These stories should make you jump out of your chair and yell,  “YES!  That is so good.  I just can’t believe it!  Yes! Wow!!”  Dear friend, you may be reading this and find it a tad uncomfortable.  That’s OK.  Sit with it awhile and ponder why you feel that way.  It will be a good journey for you to take.

The program of a non-profit is at the center of this whole thing we call major gift fundraising.  It is the embodiment of the donor’s passions, values and interests.  That’s why the donor is with you.  Because they see a bit of themselves in your cause and they are drawn close.  So, embark on a journey to get right in the middle of your organization’s programs.  Then stay there, constantly soaking it in, so you can always be a faithful and true representative of all of it to your good donor.