To bring you the best insight about how to close major gifts, we went to the source and spoke with with five high-impact fundraisers:
➜Shumiala Kinnear, Director of Major Gifts at the University of Michigan
➜Alina Nosal, Director of Development, University of Cincinnati Foundation
➜Ana Conant, Development Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts
➜Jared Taylor, Major Gift Officer at Elmhurst College
➜Todd Pridemore, Advancement Officer at the University of Missouri
Step 3: Craft a Formula for a Perfect Day or Week in the Job
How does a major gift officer spend their time? What are their top priorities?
Get administrative work out of the way to spend more time with donors.
Shumiala Kinnear described her typical week: “Monday is in office—meeting with my team, doing one-on-ones, or going to other campus meetings so I’m free to travel Tuesday through Friday. The rest of the weekdays are direct donor work: going to NY, LA, Miami, or being local and getting work done planning activities with donors, updating the database, planning strategy, that sort of thing.”
Go into the field to gather intel.
Ana Conant grabs lunch or coffee with faculty in her college as a way to learn about new possible donors. Her advice? “I like to bring a short list of highly rated alumni, or alumni who are loyal donors at higher than average levels, for the faculty to respond to. Keep it short, so they are not overwhelmed—ask about who is attending their shows/events.” Ana also attends a diverse array of programs and events to keep a finger on the pulse of the School of the Arts, and get face-time with faculty, students, and donors.
Schedule your workday meals with donors.
Alina Nosal’s typical day: she starts most days meeting a donor or prospect for breakfast, then she takes notes immediately after (sometimes she puts those straight into the CRM). She comes back to her central office and has a team meeting or, since she’s new, training. Lunch is often scheduled with a donor. In the afternoon, she prefers to update her reports and prepare for the next day.
Don’t downplay the importance of post-visit work.
Todd Pridemore spends roughly every third week out of state. He has both out-of-state territories and in-state responsibilities related to his academic units. He is assigned to six states, but mainly focuses on three right now: Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. “I typically spend three to four days on the road getting in as many visits as possible,” he said. “After returning from a trip, there is a lot of post-visit work. […] First and foremost, I make thank you notes a priority. My goal is to write them the same day I make the visits, so I often write and mail [the letters] from my hotel. My organization also has a policy of entering contact reports into our donor database as soon as possible following a visit. If I can’t accomplish that while on the road, it’s the first priority for when I’m back at my desk. But the majority of the post-visit work involves strategizing next steps with my colleagues, based on the information I gathered from the prospective donor during our visit. This involves setting up meetings, talking about funding priorities, discovering new information, and planning next steps that can move the prospect closer to the gift.”
Jared Taylor periodically reviews each gift that comes through in the CRM to make sure donors are being appropriately thanked.
The takeaway? There is no typical day or week for major gift officers. The work is dynamic and requires a blend of meetings, travel, social interactions, and administrative work. Successful fundraisers are donor-centric and prioritize donors as they schedule their time.
Step 4: Get Ready for Choppy Waters: Strategies for Navigating Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of being a major gift officer?
Clarify ALL the ways you can help donors and students.
Ana Conant thinks many people ignore her because “development” is in her title because they assume she’ll just ask for money. She explains to prospects that she is also there to engage them in what’s going on in the arts at the institution, including new programs and first-hand knowledge about challenges students are facing.
They’re more likely to understand you if you can get face time.
Alina Nosal: “The way I’m sometimes seen by a potential donor [is based on] when I first get in touch with them. They recognize my role and because of it they may think the only thing I want to do is collect money from them.” She tries to soften that language when she reaches out to them to show the various ways she can help them connect with the institution, not just monetarily. Alina added, “If I can get that first meeting with a potential donor, things go pretty well from there. I can see if they’re likely to give within the next year or not. I can learn a lot and then try to schedule a second meeting, like a game attendance or volunteer involvement, which starts the cultivation process. I try to adjust to the individual’s needs and be there for them.”
Match the donor with the right opportunity, even if it isn’t with you.
Since Shumiala Kinnear’s institution is so large and decentralized, it is necessary to dedicate time to communicate and collaborate with gift officers outside of her department. She’s seen organizations where gift officers compete or don’t share credit. Thankfully, University of Michigan has created systems that foster collaboration and shared credit. To her, the most important thing she can do as a gift officer is be donor-centered and match the donor to the most fitting giving opportunity, even if the gift does not impact her specific departmental goals.
Get outside of your silo!
Though Jared Taylor is part of a supportive team, sometimes he feels like everyone is working on their individual goals and it can cause them to feel cut off from each other. On-the-road donor visits and individual travel can also contributed to silos. One solution to this is for departments to hold more all-team reflection sessions, where fundraisers can workshop their cultivation ideas together.
Cultivate collaboration—not just for the organization, but for the donor.
Todd Pridemore: “One of the biggest wildcards in my work is when there is a complicated estate gift, when different units on campus are involved. […] The best advice I have in this area is to involve colleagues and collaborate with them as early in the process as possible. No matter how much I think I have all of the information or don’t need anyone else’s assistance, collaborating with my colleagues always leads to better information for the donor and better overall results for our organization. Collaborating also helps build a positive work culture and community.”
The takeaway? Yes, cold calls can be awkward, but the biggest challenge may be getting prospects just to answer your emails or calls. If a gift officer does encounter a reluctant prospect, reminding them early who the money is for can be a good tactic. Do this by centering students. We suggest using the principles of design thinking and honing your storytelling skills to reach new prospects.
Step 5: Find Nuggets of Wisdom from Those Who’ve Been There
Final thoughts from our interviewees…
Todd Pridemore on being misunderstood
“Sometimes people are concerned I might try to talk them into something they don’t want to do. This work, for me, is about meeting people where they are, seeing what they’d like to do, and making it about them (not me or the school).”
Jared Taylor on why coaxing and begging donors isn’t the right approach
“I want donors to give because they care—because they feel there is a need they can help with.”
Alina Nosal on dealing with rejection
“I used to work as a server in a restaurant. Some people would tip me very little and some would give a lot. The ones who tip way more than they’re supposed to balance out those who don’t tip much. This is how I approach fundraising work. There will be a yes for everyone who says no.”
Shumiala Kinnear shared similar advice
“You shouldn’t have to twist anyone’s arm to give.”
Ana Conant on mistaking a donor’s profession for their passion
“We almost lost a significant prospect who was presented several proposals that weren’t centered on his passion. We presumed to know what the prospect’s interests were without doing enough digging.”
How do you discover that passion? Ana said, “You have to get their story. Very successful people like to talk about the challenges they’ve had along the way, which is a way for you to uncover their passion.”
Shumiala Kinnear on inappropriate donor demands
“People [outside the field] think fundraisers have to excessively cater to prospects and donors. But the best kind of philanthropist are genuine, intrinsically motivated, and selflessly seeking transformational impact for the organization with their gift, as opposed to transactional giving. A mission-driven, healthy organization won’t allow fundraisers to cater to excessive demands or put them in a compromised position. If there is a donor who is making inappropriate demands, they aren’t a real philanthropist. This kind of exchange doesn’t lead to real, transformational gifts anyway.”
In addition, Shumiala added, “Being in front of real philanthropists is an honor and a privilege. Gift officers who can put their egos aside and serve the donor’s philanthropic interests are destined for success.”
As you apply for jobs, do you want an insider’s view on how a major gift officer job description is written? We really like this article on Aly Sterling Philanthropy’s blog.
I had a great time talking with all these fundraisers and want to thank each of them for taking the time to share these insights with our readers. As Alina Nosal shared with me, “This work is not for everyone, but it is meaningful to everyone involved.”
What are your tips for success in the major gift officer field? As always, I welcome your thoughts, questions, and research topic requests!