Finding the Right Mix: Unraveling the Mystery of Powerful Major Gifts Management
"Great major gifts management comes from the balance of data/research and direct experience of your Major Gifts Officers."
Let’s try to unpack the major factors that make Major Gift’s teams dynamic and powerful. We also shine some light on common mistakes I have seen.
There is no one factor that makes great major gifts teams happen. Think of a music studio, ever see those big complex music boards that mix music? In my years being a Director of Major Gifts or advising Major Gifts Directors I have seen a great leaders "mix" their teams for great results and some folks struggle to find that "mix".
First, let’s define two key roles in this discussion. That of Prospect Research and Prospect Management. At big universities they are staffed by individuals, sometimes whole teams. At smaller institutions with Major Gifts programs, you will see a Prospect Research & Management Officer position. There are still organizations with Major Gifts teams with no Prospect Research! Ouch! In my opinion, any institution running a Major Gifts program needs some form of Prospect Research, full-time staff, part-time or freelancer consultant.
So, like that music board calibrate what I am saying here to your own experience and situation. You may need to put up the volume in one area and lower it in others. Think of what follows as a checklist you can check your own Major Gifts health against.
Power to the Researchers! If this sounds a little militant it’s because I am a fierce advocate for the power of an empowered, well placed and well-supported prospect research team. They are the navigation for the Major Gifts ship. If you have ever worked in a Major Gifts team where Prospect Researchers are engaged fully as fellow fundraisers, then you know how much money can be raised this way. Sadly, this is not the norm. I have seen many Major Gifts teams disconnected from Prospect Research for a range of reasons.
One of the most prevalent is a cultural reason. Major Gifts Officers have healthy egos that make them very effective at their work, and they are aware they are paid more than a Prospect Researcher. Sometimes this creates class/hierarchy issues. And yes, there are those Major Gifts Officers who know little about Prospect Research and Management but think they do! I am a fellow Development Officer so forgive me holding up a mirror. Unless you have been to a few APRA Conferences you probably are not aware of all Prospect Research and Management can do.
Prospect Research and Management teams can make all the difference throughout the entire cycle of philanthropy.
I have seen Major Gifts Officers chafe at “metrics” and “measurement” promoted by Prospect Management. I have seen them dismiss solid research with a glance at a piece of paper. This has to be challenged and changed.
Great major gifts management comes from the balance of data/research and direct experience of your Major Gifts Officers.
If you allow Prospect Research and Management to be disconnected from your Major Gifts Officers you will always be lost. Even if it doesn’t look that way, even if money is coming in the door.
Known vs New
Major Gifts portfolios have a tendency at becoming static. It’s a deadly disease for any Major Gifts program. How do we find that balance between developing known prospects, removing someone from your portfolio and adding new prospects?
People naturally like to stick to what they know. This is exactly where a “Second Opinion” comes into play. I have had lively debates with my Prospect Management Officer. He had data and research and I have my experience and impressions from actually meeting the prospect. We meet in the middle usually, with a good compromise. But the tension and collaboration are actually very healthy. Sometimes my Prospect Researcher served in this role as well.
Yes, two brains are better than one. It's a subtle thing but your Prospect Manager needs the safety to be able to disagree with you. In some places hierarchy, ego and other factors don't let us air healthy differences of opinion.
Another thing people ask me is for a ratio of new vs continuing prospects in a portfolio. There is no stock answer to that question. It depends on your institution's needs and staffing if you're in a campaign and your methods of cultivation.
The key s to guard against the static portfolio. Make sure your Major Gifts Officers are skilled at engaging cold/new prospects. Many have trouble doing just that.
No Walls, But Bridges
Building cross-department and cross revenue area collaboration and support is a tough task. When I have worked at universities, for example, each college, unit is like a little kingdom complete with its own priorities and competitiveness. It's fairly natural but it's a prime issue for a Major Gifts Director.
One important tool here is Donor Intent. What does our donor want? What makes them give, be involved and feel fulfilled? This is the overarching rule of all fundraising, particularly when there is more than one unit or division.
I met once with a top officer at one of the best-known investment banks in the US. He was a Business School grad, so I met him with the Director of Development from the Business School. He had been making relatively small gifts to them, off and on for years. The Business School was trying to get him to do much more. Sitting in his office, I saw that it was covered in valuable contemporary art. I recognized a Hans Hoffman painting and I struck up a conversation about the painter. He had books, prints etc. I could see he was a little uncomfortable as we talked about the business school. I had the opportunity to ask him "Mike, what do you want to give to? What's your priority?” It was like I took a weight off his shoulders. He admitted he wanted to support the business school but his real "passion", his word, was art. I told him about the needs of the university art museum. We had an in-depth talk. He wanted to see their budget and meet the Director of the Museum. Tour their collection.
Of course, the Business school wasn't happy with me. But Mike who had been giving $10,000 in 4 months gave $500,000 to the University Art Museum and a valuable set of prints. Eventually, he was a happy guy and started giving quite a bit more to the Business School too.
If you’re a fair in following Donor Intent, you can build trust across departments. I try to go meet every Dean and every Director of Development and look them in the eye and tell them how I work, that I will be fair and listen. Of course, they want you to bring every new major prospect to their doorstep, but they will settle for fair. It's vital for Major Gifts directors to learn a little about each department, enough to know the needs and challenges each area faces. Working with Deans, when they see you know their area they believe you when you say "fair".
I try to show my face at their major events. Get to know their leaders. Listening is crucial in a profession where we like to talk.
We also need our own Development teams to "play together". I have found great Major Gifts prospects hidden in Planned Giving and perfect textbook Planned Giving donors hidden in Major Gifts! I once had an Annual Donor contribute $1,000 to a Gala. The donor had been guarded by the Gala staff jealously as "theirs". When we finally had a Major Gifts Officer approach that person after lots of internal diplomacy that donor wrote a $50,000 check at the meeting and a year later became a $1,000,000 donor! Operating fairly, so that fundraising is a “two-way street,” can shake up some people, but it’s just smart fundraising.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
The hard-to-see aspect of development teams, especially major gifts teams, are the personalities, egos, and power dynamics each has engrained. Of course, every team is different, but I can talk generally about approaches to what can be a crippling problem.
Because Major Gifts Officers get paid more than other staff, because they bring in the big gifts, there can sometimes be big egos involved. I "grew up" in Development as an Annual Fund Officer at a big university. The Major Gifts Officers were icons to us. Later with experience I learned their strengths and weaknesses. I found myself competing with them for prospects and relationships. Luckily, I wasn't censured but supported. I had a boss that helped us work together and demanded mutual respect. Emphasis on the word, mutual.
I once saw one Major Gifts Officer’s ego greatly harm a Development Team's cohesiveness and morale, because this one Major Gifts Officer loved to take bows for big gifts initiated and cultivated by the Annual Fund Officers. The Annual Fund Officers began to hide new prospects from her. This came out because one of the "hidden" prospects who was a several-thousand-dollar annual donor made a large six-figure gift to a competitor organization! It was a dysfunctional dynamic of walls built up, resentment and distrust. Both sides in this, of course, were at fault.
Helping all sides to understand each other's work is vital. When an Annual Fund Officer appreciates the Major Gifts Officers challenges, stresses, and needs, it's a better world. When we help each other and when we give each other credit and due respect your team can raise more money.
Finally, a hierarchy can help our workflow, but it can also impede cooperation and give some a sense of superiority. A good leader should look for and encourage projects and activities that afford mutual support and respect.
Swinging the Machete in the Jungle
Ok, that sounds pretty dramatic, but it got your attention? This part is about cutting a new path where nobody has gone before. Innovation in Major Gifts work is hard to pull off. Development Offices are conservative institutions, and change and new approaches make them nervous.
In most cities, it's a crowded Development landscape. Face, it, we compete with other institutions for the attention of major donors. So, it's vital to identify new approaches in materials, website, cultivation, events and donor/prospect experiences that will stand out.
Understanding your audience is the crucial first step. What's exciting to them? What's important to know? The unique cultivation opportunities that money cannot buy is one of the key tools that’s overlooked in Major Gifts teams. Doing the same old thing is so much easier.
I worked at an opera company once, and we gave tours of the Opera House to donors all the time. Watching two very wealthy people excitedly walking on an empty stage was like watching kids at a candy store. I got the idea to host a formal Major Gifts dinner on the stage itself, on the set of an opera and have a reception on the side stage. The response was electric. It was a great tool for cultivating major prospects. Simple ideas that excite your prospects and donors.
Look for those experiences that speak to the heart of what makes your institutions unique, meaningful, and fulfilling. Wealth donors these days don't want plaques (ok, some do) but most want to know they made change happen. They want to have an impact. Give them experiences that lay that impact at their feet.
The Helicopter over the Freeway
Having the right oversight tools is vital for any Major Gifts leader. I call it the "helicopter over the freeway". When you run any Development team, it's like being stuck in traffic on the freeway. You can look back and forward a little, but your view is restricted. If you're in a helicopter over the freeway you can see the bottlenecks, who is going slow, fast etc.
Having great Prospect Management is like that. It must be staffed. You have to have someone studying what's going on with your teams and portfolios. This person can also help you with another key role: Prospect Assignment, which includes assigning the right prospect to the right Major Gifts Officer.
Now a lot of University Development people will take Prospect Management as a given. However, outside of Universities and other major development teams in the nonprofit world, the whole concept of Prospect Management is often unknown. You will see Major Gifts Officers, maybe a Prospect Researcher working with them but rarer is a staff person dedicated to Prospect Management. If you have more than three Major Gifts Officers I humbly suggest this is a role anyone responsible for a Major Gifts team must have staffed in some way.
Meet regularly with the person working on Prospect Management, bring them to check-ins with your Major Gifts Officers.
Leading Major Gifts Officers
I was mentored by several great bosses in my career. I had a boss who set a pace for us of new prospects engaged in our pipelines. I forget the amount,
but I remember that he openly set her goal a little higher. I asked her why she did that later on and she said, " I can't ask you to do something I can't do ". So be the first person "out of the door" as they say in the military. Lead by example.
You also have to make tough calls leading major gifts teams and be calm about not being popular sometimes. There is a lot at stake in our work. This is where many Development leaders fail. You can compromise many times, find a middle ground but sometimes you cannot make people happy. You must do what's right for the institution and your donor.
One could literally write a book on this subject. I just wanted to highlight a few observations from my years in our field. I have tried to focus on the more unwritten aspects of Major Gifts work. One could have long chapters on other aspects of this exciting area. I am sure many of you can add more to this article. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. I hope this was helpful! I hope these thoughts will help you find the right calibration for your team and the right mix that will bring your fundraising success!