Words create pictures in our minds. The challenge in communication is determining if the picture in our mind matches the picture in the mind of the person speaking and vice versa. One of the coaching exercises I use to illustrate this point is to ask what someone means when they say, “Let’s go grab some coffee.” 

I’ve learned this valuable lesson with two of my friends. If one friend is asking, I already know it’s a minimum two-hour trip (or if it starts in the late afternoon, there’s a good chance we’ll be there when Starbucks closes for the night). But if another friend asks, I know she means a fifteen-minute walk to the coffee shop and back. Same phrase, different meanings.

This is illustrative of what happens when people talk to us about mid-level fundraising. The recent focus on mid-level has created a lot of attention and increased use of the term. Still, it has myriad meaning based on who is saying it, and the audience. 

At Veritus, when we’re talking about or teaching about mid-level fundraising, we mean a direct, relationship-driven fundraising strategy. One way I like to explain it is that Mid-Level Officers are Major Gift Officers who don’t travel (although that’s a generalized statement; we know some Mid-Level Officers do have in-person donor visits). There is a great deal of symbiosis between the roles and the purposes. 

The challenge in our industry is when others refer to “mid-level fundraising,” they’re often referring to a high-touch direct response program. This is more about sending special, high-end appeals, or perhaps reaching out to a large group of donors by phone. 

There is no “right” or “wrong” here. Just different. It’s therefore important to know the differences.

At Veritus, a relationship-based mid-level program has a few key features:

A manageable caseload size. In the same way that we encourage Major Gift Officers to limit their caseload size to 150 for maximum effect, we also encourage Mid-Level Officers to limit their caseloads to 500-700 donors. That’s really what can be effectively managed, and still allow for meaningful relationships. 

A communication plan based on key interest areas and reporting back. In Major Gifts, we encourage fundraisers to create a personalized plan based on donor interest and communication preferences. In mid-level, our job is to work to start building a relationship. To do this, we reach out every 45-60 days using different methods, combining phone, email and mailed touch points (until or unless we know the donor’s communication preference). We’re also trying to discover passions and interests. Until we know this, we may vary the information we’re sharing to see which elicits a response (and therefore we may learn a passion point).

Meaningful and relevant touch points. In both major gifts and mid-level, we recommend that donors stay in the direct response stream until or unless they ask to be removed. The touch points we’re sending to donors are meaningful, relevant, and speak to the impact or interest of the donor. We may use the direct response plans and partner with them on impact pieces one or two times a year. But they are not our sole communication pieces. Why? The key to touch points sent by a Mid-Level Officer is that they are one-to-some; they’re tailored to the donor in a one-to-some fashion.

Relationship-based Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The performance metrics for a Mid-Level Officer are similar to an MGO’s: we have a plan, and we want to see the MLO working the plan, communicating with donors. Stated concisely, the KPIs for mid-level can be summed up as “keep, lift, move.” We’re working to retain donors, limiting any value attrition. We’re also asking donors to increase their giving. And we’re moving donors through the pipeline by qualifying them for major gifts, coordinating their movement to a Major Gift Officer. Without this type of mid-level program, we see about .02% of donors moving to the major giving level. With it, it’s more like 3-3.5%. 

It’s been interesting to see the way ideas and definitions of mid-level become confused. Even those in our courses and our client partners can occasionally confuse the two.

The following are key elements that are not part of a relationship-based mid-level program, followed by ways you can actually turn a program into relationship-based one:

An unwieldy caseload. Someone asked recently how to tier a caseload of 1,200. The short answer is: please don’t have a caseload that large. Even with tiering, that’s too many people to form relationships with. The ability to connect and learn passions and interests, or report back on impact are severely limited. Instead, pick your top 500-700 donors and put systems in place to touch the remaining donors in a one-to-many approach, that appears to be one-to-some. 

A high-touch mail program. This is segmentation of the donor file. This is a great direct response idea. It has its place. The idea is to elevate donors who are giving more, or have potential to give more, by sending then additional or more expansive mailers that appear to be one-to-some but are still very much one-to-many. Instead, partner with direct response on two mailers a year using those them as a reason to either call in advance to let the donor know of a special piece is coming in the mail. Or follow-up afterward to see if they received the mailing. The year-end solicitation is a great example of when this works well).  Remember, the biggest impact you can have in mid-level is to focus on relationship building. 

A high-volume call program. This is a version of a high-touch program. Perhaps someone could work hard to make phone calls and thank donors, but again, the ability to connect with donors in a meaningful way is limited. Instead, build the caseload of 500-700. Then, build a threshold just below the mid-level giving threshold (maybe it’s your $750-$1,000 level donors) and call to thank them for their gifts. You’ll see your mid-level pipeline grow exponentially!

Volume-based metrics. The value of a high-touch (direct response) mid-level program is volume. If 1,200 donors are segmented into a high-touch system, there will be growth. We love direct mail and there is a place for this. But before getting too excited about large growth numbers that are advertised, consider whether the percentage of growth is reflective of volume or substance, and whether there is sustainable development of the pipeline to major gifts. Instead, put metrics in place surrounding the three KPI’s – Keep, Lift and Move

There it is: the same hyphenated, complex word (mid-level) with very different meanings. I love relationship-based mid-level fundraising. And, by the way, I like grabbing a cup of coffee, too. I just know now to challenge my assumptions (and maybe block my calendar) when someone asks.


Lisa Robertson is Director of Client Services at Veritus Group. She has over 25 years of experience in non-profit leadership, serving as an executive, program director, and special event coordinator. Lisa has been responsible for fundraising, donor/constituent relations, marketing, and internal communications. She has a dual degree in Communications and Political Science from the University of Washington and worked as a sports reporter and editor before entering the non-profit sector.