controlcircles 2014-Jan16
There’s quite a bit of noise out there in the major gift world on moves management – what next step to take, how to approach the donor, how to frame the ask, etc.  And still, with all of that information, Jeff and I find hundreds of MGOs frustrated in their jobs.
This started me thinking about the MGO bubble and what’s in it.  I call it a bubble because it is the special world MGOs live in which is largely unknown to those outside of it.  This may sound strange to you, but if you stop and think about it, the way major gifts works and what it needs to thrive in an organization is largely misunderstood.
Week after week, I sit in meetings with managers, leaders, finance people, program people, even development directors, and am amazed at how none of them – NONE – understand (a) what the MGO is doing and (b) what the MGO needs from them to succeed.
No wonder the MGO is about ready to take the poison pill and call it quits!
What is it that folks outside the bubble don’t understand about major gifts?  Here’s my list:

  1. An MGO needs a qualified list of donors to relate to.  You might argue with me on this point and say, “Richard, of course everyone understands that an MGO needs donors to talk to!”  Not really.  Some do, but the finance person wonders why major gifts is taking donors out of the direct mail pool.  So does the direct mail person.  I mean, what do they think they are doing?  You would not believe the conversations I have had with finance folks on this basic subject.  They don’t even understand that to build a caseload you have to start with donors.  And those donors have to come from the donor list.  And that means that someone has to give up donors, but that it will be OK because, in the long run, with MGO care, those donors will attrition less and give more!  This is major gifts 101.  But this is not generally understood.  Believe me, there’s a lot of lip service to this, but not real ownership.
  2. An MGO needs program information to present to donors.  This is still a shocker to me.  Every day I get up and run into this subject.  Sometimes I get really frustrated and angry about it.  Here we have hired a competent MGO, but given her nothing to present to donors.  Even as I write this I feel myself getting uptight about it.  Here’s why:  There is no successful commercial company on the face of the planet that would hire a sales or marketing person without having a product to present to a potential customer!   Try to imagine the following scenario:  A brilliant, competent, success oriented, customer-savvy salesperson is hired in Company X.  His first day on the job, his manger welcomes him to the company, promises him that they will do great things together, goes through the HR rules and regs and then says, “Paul, I’d like to take you back to the warehouse and show you what you will be selling to our customers.”  So they walk back to the warehouse, a huge well-lit building behind the administrative offices.  They walk in and the place is totally empty.  There is not one single product on any shelf in the 40,000 square foot warehouse!  You can imagine Paul’s surprise.  And then he follows with, “Nice warehouse, but what are we selling?”  Exactly!  What are we selling?  Time after time, Jeff and I run into this same question from the MGO: “What are we presenting to donors?”  And often, the manager says something like, “Well, you have the list of the programs.  Go out and visit them.  It’s easy.  You’ll get it.  Just present the program,” as if that will do the trick.  There is total, widespread misunderstanding on this subject by the insiders of most non-profits.  And management and leadership are unwilling to spend the time or money to invest in this area.
  3. The MGO needs administrative support.  OK, let’s do the math.  If the MGO works “regular” hours, there are 2080 of those in one year.  After you take out holidays, vacation, required management meetings and some sick days, by my figuring you end up with somewhere in the vicinity of 15-18 days available each  month to work with donors!  It’s shocking, I know.  But there is precious little time for the MGO to be out there doing the job he was hired to do, which means an MGO needs support.  Because if he is not supported, then more time will be spent in the office researching donors, writing thank-you’s, preparing reports, etc., etc.  Now, I realize that for smaller non-profits, hiring an MGO and an admin person just can’t happen.  Well, how about getting a really good volunteer in this situation?  There are plenty of people who want to give their time and are very skilled.  My point here is that the basic fact that MGOs need support is another misunderstood item in the major gifts world.
  4. This all takes time.  There is a regular conversation that I have had over and over again with managers and leaders across the country.  A manager will ask me, “So, what do you think it will cost to hire an MGO, all costs in?”  I reply, “Anywhere from $80 to $120,000, maybe more.”  (By all costs in, we mean salary, benefits and operating expenses).  He says, “What return will we get on that money and how long will it take?”  I say, “You will begin to see some progress in 18-24 months, maybe longer, and then it will be up from there.”   You hear the manager squirming in his chair.  “18-24 months!  Goodness, we don’t have that much time!”  And so it goes.  As if we’ll hire an MGO, pull out the magic money wand and, presto, the money will just fall out of the sky.  There is a basic lack of understanding and appreciation about how long it takes to develop a relationship.  And this is a telling thing for Jeff and me when we assess an organization’s readiness to start or expand a major gift program.  If they are having a heart attack on this point right at the beginning, we will likely have a lot of problems keeping this program going.

There are probably a lot of other things that are misunderstood about major gifts, but Jeff and I believe these are the big ones.  And all of this brings me to what you, as an MGO, can do about it.  What do you have control over?

  1. You have control over the relationship you can develop with the donors you are given.  Just ignore all the noise about why you have those donors and any of the other conversations everyone wants to have about this subject because they have nothing else to do, and focus on the donor.  That focus and use of time will have a direct and meaningful payoff that, when it comes in, will either eliminate the chatter or substantially slow it down.  I remember one situation where there was a lot of chatter about one MGO who had taken over a caseload for another MGO who had left.  The rest of the staff began talking about how the new MGO was not doing this and not doing that and “how was it going to work?” etc., etc.  I advised the MGO to keep his head down and focus on the donors.  Bam!  In comes a $1 million cash gift. Then $50,000.  Then $100,000.  And the caseload value started rising.  And the chatter died down.  You can’t manage the chatter.  Just ignore it.  Focus on the donors and make something happen there.
  2. You can get some of the program information.  Go to the program manager and get a copy of her budget.  Sit with her and discuss how it works.  Then put together some offers and run it by her and your manager.  Get ready – there will be a lot of push back and angst.  But keep going, always saying, “I need something to present to donors.”  And the more you push and meet (stay nice), the more you will find that most program people and managers will start to turn in your direction on this subject.  But it takes persistence and patience.  I know that some of you reading this will say, “Sorry, Richard, this still doesn’t work for me.”  But if I were to look at your situation, I believe I could discern progress.  The bottom-line on this point is this: if the organization won’t provide this lifeline of information to you, you will have to go out and get it.  It might be less than the best information, but at least it is something.  And, even though it may be unknown to you, you will be influencing the system in the right direction.
  3. Get your own support.  If the organization won’t provide it, find a volunteer or two to help you out.  It can be done, as there are many solid professionals out there who want to have meaningful activity in their lives.   In fact, current research findings on this topic show that there is a growing trend toward professional volunteerism, where gifted, skilled people want to give their time to a good cause.  It is just a matter of finding them.
  4. You have control over your time and how you use it.  This is a huge point.  With so little time for donors and so much expectation on the part of management to not pay attention to donors, it is up to you to make the time-use decisions.  You heard me right – management often, unknowingly, asks you not to spend time with the donors on your caseload.  They will have you organizing events, sitting in meetings, chasing prospects not on your caseload, handling a region because “we need someone there to represent us” or a host of other involvements that have nothing to do with your donors.  To some degree you can control this, always placing your gaze on those good donors on the caseload and not sliding off into ancillary activities.  If management persists in pulling you off the caseload, then maybe you should find another job as, I promise you, in a situation like that, you will not succeed.  This is in your ultimate control – moving somewhere else where your manager has a better understanding of how major gift works.

There is a lot of noise, chatter and confusion in the marketplace about what it takes to make major gifts become a successful part of the organization’s fundraising program.  Jeff and I think that if you can exercise control, discipline and focus in the four areas I have mentioned above, you will be more successful.
All you have to do is take the power you already have and use it.  Try it.