These days, it seems like job postings for major gift officers are everywhere. HigherEdJobs.com currently shows over 200 listings. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s website lists 172 major gifts-related jobs posted in just the last 30 days.
The work of a fundraiser is rewarding, demanding, and transformative. At top-tier institutions and organizations, these jobs, especially well-paying ones, are competitive. And for good reason…some gift officers have to maintain hundreds of contacts per year, conduct more than a dozen visits per month, close a certain number of gifts, and personally raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their institution each year (see the detailed metrics breakdown in this article).
To even get an interview, you need to know what you’re talking about and you need to stand out. But if you’ve never done anything like raising six or even seven-figure gifts for an organization, how can you possibly know what it’s like?
Affinaquest has you covered. There are proven strategies and execution steps you can learn to find and cultivate major donors. To help you become a sought-after fundraiser and learn what to expect, we interviewed five high-impact major gift officers to find out exactly how they cultivate top donors and strike a happy work-life balance. In this 2-part Insider’s Guide, we’ll give you specific intel and how-to tips that you won’t find elsewhere, so you can land that dream fundraising job.
Following the framework of the donor cultivation cycle (identification, qualification, engagement, solicitation, and stewardship), here’s what you’ll learn in our 2-part Major Gift Officer Insider’s Guide:
Fundraiser Metrics and Goals Breakdown
Step 1: Use Data to Build a Dream Portfolio
Step 2: Find Winning Strategies Hidden in Plain Sight
Step 3: Craft a Formula for a Perfect Day or Week in the Job
Step 4: Get Ready for Choppy Waters (Strategies for Navigating Challenges)
Step 5: Find Nuggets of Wisdom from Those Who’ve Been There
➜Shumiala Kinnear, Director of Major Gifts at the University of Michigan. Originally studied to become a teacher but ended up in development after multiple mentors, in and outside the field, said she’d be good at it. As a director, Shumiala manages a team of gift officers for the alumni association of one of the largest universities in the country.
➜Alina Nosal, Director of Development, University of Cincinnati Foundation. Originally worked in marketing, became president of the Women’s Club of Cincinnati, where she was introduced to gala events and fundraising and then recruited into development. Even though she’s new to the field, Alina achieved all of her metrics (and even went above on 70% of them). She’s especially proud of her success since her son was just four months old when she started in this role.
➜Ana Conant, Development Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts. Used to work in stewardship events and did donor and scholarship fund reporting. She applied for her current position because she wanted to move to the next phase in her career. With the help of a faculty member, Ana submitted a grant request to a new funder, who recently awarded them $50K to develop a new studio.
➜Jared Taylor, Major Gift Officer at Elmhurst College. After college, he worked for the Boy Scouts of America, where he did some fundraising, transitioned to corporate relations, and later became a major gift officer. Secured his first major gift of $50,000 for an endowed scholarship this year.
➜Todd Pridemore, Advancement Officer at the University of Missouri. Started in ministry, worked at a food bank doing fundraising, and then moved to fundraising in higher education. Todd surpassed all of his goals for the 2019 fiscal year, including raising $1,143,000, which was 381 times his goal of $300,000!
Note: This post is part 1 of our 2-part Major Gift Officer Insider’s Guide. You can find Part 2 here.
Fundraiser Metrics and Goals Breakdown
First, let’s start with the numbers…here are all the metrics and goals that the fundraisers we spoke to are expected to meet. For the sake of privacy, I’ve removed the names of the fundraisers, but have shared the metrics here. Please note, the level of detail in what was disclosed varied. In addition, metrics typically go up within the same institution as the fundraiser becomes more experienced.
➜In the age of ROI and high fundraiser turnover, metrics shape a gift officer’s weekly tasks and can either set them up for success or hinder them. Gift officers and their supervisors should have frank conversations about what these metrics are meant to measure and if they’re effectively growing the institution.
➜One fundraiser shared this piece of advice that continues to ring true: “Raise at least 7-10 times your salary annually to demonstrate your worth to the organization.”
Step 1: Use Data to Build a Dream Portfolio
What are the ingredients of a strong prospect portfolio? What role does data play in your work as a major gift officer?
Find a formula that works for you early on and refine it regularly.
Jared Taylor’s formula for finding donors: “I spend a lot of time making cold calls, so I look for people with a 1) high wealth score, 2) consistent giving over time, and 3) interactions with the college, like visits and volunteering.” Jared noted that even lower gifts of $100-200, if made consistently and repeatedly, are a good indicator. When doing research on potential donors, along with his school’s CRM, Jared occasionally uses LinkedIn Sales Navigator. But, as he said, “I view all of these technologies as tools. None are an end-all, be-all solution.”
Using data to determine what NOT to do is just as important as using data to figure out what to do.
Regarding data, Ana Conant’s department is very numbers-driven, especially for evaluating programs, prospects, and staff. Fundraisers have monthly contact and performance goals, planned gift goals, etc. which used to be a little less structured and now are more so. Ana explained, “[Our department] just finished a seven-year $200 million campaign during which the expectations for major gift successes were increased. We now have a ‘new normal’ to which we are accountable. We are using data to help us develop strategic plans for success.” Ana also uses data to help remove people from her portfolio who aren’t good prospects and to get her portfolio down to a manageable size.
Make updating CRMs a daily habit.
Todd Pridemore: “CRMs are only as good as the content development staff put into them.”
Use data to engage donors.
Alina Nosal is often asked by donors to provide a lot of university-wide statistics, like data on demographics and diversity of students or faculty in a certain department. Among public universities, the University of Cincinnati is currently No. 1 for co-ops and internships. Alina said, “Prospects and donors in certain workforces often want to know how many cooperative education programs (co-ops) they currently have with us and how many they have employed over the years. I usually give [the prospects or donors] placement numbers over the course of a calendar year. If they do not have a co-op partnership with us, I bring our university partners in experiential learning to the table. Our latest news about co-op and rankings can be found here.”
Know the struggles of inheriting a portfolio.
Alina also knows the challenges of taking over a portfolio from a previous gift officer, which is common because of the high turnover in the field. She once had a donor who would text his previous major gift officer, because that gift officer created a scholarship with the donor during a very emotional time, on the deathbed of the donor’s late husband. Alina’s advice for how to navigate this? “My suggestion would be to constantly show that you care for [the donor] and interact anytime you can—by sending a birthday card, inviting them to an event, […] sharing a piece of news that is of interest to them, etc. Always be in front of them. And if you happen to know the previous [gift officer] and have a good relationship with [the donor], make sure you mention the [gift officer] and say that they said hello, but always listen to what the donor has to say about the previous person they worked with.”
Cultivate self reliance and intradepartmental reliance.
Shumiala Kinnear’s institution has a huge database of alumni, friends, and fans who have strong annual giving records. The robust technical resources at the University of Michigan allow her advancement department within the alumni association to do their own prospect identification without heavy reliance on the central prospect research team.
If institutions don’t have extensive resources, brainstorming ways to maximize the time of staff doing prospect research—through frank conversations, collaboration, and delegating tasks—is essential, especially if it’s the gift officer themselves doing a considerable amount of research.
➜It can be challenging to inherit a portfolio or build one from scratch, so having reliable data is essential. A recent survey sponsored by The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that “39% of current fundraisers are dissatisfied with the data or data analyses they receive about donors.”
➜That’s why Affinaquest offers robust data solutions for advancement. Through Data Enrichment, we help your school build holistic profiles of your constituents. Our Predictive Analytics tools then help you to identify and prioritize prospects from among those constituents.
Step 2: Find Winning Strategies Hidden in Plain Sight
Considering all the different types of donors and projects, how do major gift officers develop a strategy for this work?
Transactional or relational? Both are necessary from the very start.
Jared Taylor is direct with prospects about the fact that he’s a fundraiser. He tells them he’ll be looking to discuss their relationship with the college in the future, which could include him asking them to make a gift. As Jared explained, “This helps me save my time and the prospect’s time.”
Jared’s approach to building trust is working—he recently secured his first major gift of $50,000 for an endowed scholarship. He explained, “It was very moving to be part of this process to honor the legacy of an alumna who passed away in the 1980s. Her husband, also an alumnus, was very appreciative of the lengths to which I went to recognize his late wife (she was an award recipient from the college and I simply had a new award made as the family lost it over the years). A simple $100 custom award helped to bring in this gift—and it is just so moving to see the impact that our respective institutions have on the families and lives of donors.”
Focus on one goal or action.
In regards to moving prospects through cultivation, Todd Pridemore says, “every time I go into a visit, I have one specific goal in mind, something that I want to get the donor to do or a question I’d like them to respond to.” What happens between the visits is where he sees potential for growth, like how to stay in touch without being overbearing, and how to provide prospects with thoughtful touches, like personal thank yous and invitations to volunteer.
Tips from Todd on how to do this: “The most straightforward way to stay in touch between visits is when there is an ‘action item’ that I can work on for a prospective donor and they are expecting to receive that information from me prior to my next visit. For example, I often suggest the possibility of drafting an initial endowment agreement for some donors who aren’t quite ready to move forward with a gift. Once I have a first draft of the endowment agreement in hand, then I can share that with them between visits – or use it as a reason to meet again in the future. But most of the time, I have to find a reason to provide follow-up information between visits. That usually involves coming across a news article and an organizational press release that speaks to a specific passion or interest that the prospective donor has mentioned.”
Use statistics and institutional achievements.
Ana Conant turns to data for her strategy. She shares information about the institution and the School of Arts, including very specific points of pride and recent achievements. Most importantly, she listens to what the prospects want to know and allows that to drive the conversation. Ana explained, “I have shared a variety of information/achievements—typically, these are centered around departmental information (i.e., our enrollment is at an all-time high of xxx) or alumni achievements (i.e., alumnus xx produced a film that was awarded the gold prize at the Cannes film festival).” Ana gets this information by working with her partners in enrollment and academic partners in each department.
➜One tip we recommend is keeping an on-hand (at your desk and with you when you travel) reference sheet of recent institutional and departmental achievements with specific numbers and names.
➜Two questions all higher education gift officers should be able to answer (but often aren’t!):
1-What percentage of their total institutional budget goes to financial aid?
2-What percentage of the financial aid their institution provides comes from their fundraising department?
When it comes to data in the age of digital disruption, how do you cut through the noise to identify which major technological trends will have staying power? Check out our tips.
Craft a donor development plan.
For Shumiala Kinnear, if she gets a referral or finds a prospect through data mining who looks strong on paper, she does a discovery visit or meets with them when she’s already in their region. Next: “I figure out if I’m going to move forward with them or keep them on my radar if they’re not capable of making a gift at that time. If they are capable of a gift, I develop a donor plan based on how the prospect wants to be involved, their capacity, and how far along the relationship has developed.”
Quick tip for learning a prospect’s story: When Shumiala finds a top prospect who is very accomplished, her first outreach to them is as follows: “We’re so excited to find that you’re an alum doing these amazing things [with your company or in philanthropy]. I’d love to visit you to hear more about your story [your career path, family, etc.] and how it can be shared with our students and faculty. I’d also like to discuss how we can get you more involved with the university in ways that are meaningful to you.”
When in doubt, workshop it.
For Alina Nosal, since she’s new to her position and is currently working on her first seven-figure proposals, building a strategy is still a learning process, so she takes a workshop approach with her supervisor. She said, “I try to really listen to what [the donor’s] needs are. Then I often have a strategy meeting with my direct supervisor, where I lay out the data and develop a plan for this donor and my supervisor can give feedback.”
Though she’s new to the field, Alina has already seen success: “For me, the fact that I achieved my goals (and even went above on 70% of them) with zero experience in the field of fundraising and having just started with the company, it is a success. Also, I started this role when my son was just four months old, so balancing a work life (while my husband is also working) with no family around, just daycare (which is a lifesaver in our situation), is a huge win!”
➜In this work, no single approach can work for all donors, but successful gift officers build the scaffolding of a personal strategy that they can customize based on the donor.
Caitlin Scarano is the Senior Marketing Director at Affinaquest. At ALUMinate, now part of Affinaquest, she oversaw the Research Consortium, a free association for alumni relations and advancements professionals interested in tools and resources to better engaging alumni and donors. Caitlin holds a PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University.
Esther Choy was the Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder of ALUMinate. Her debut book Let the Story Do the Work (HarperCollins AMACOM 2017) was the #1 New Release on Amazon and was hailed as one of the 10 Best Books for entrepreneurs. In addition to being a mother of two young children, Esther is actively involved with her own alma mater, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and is a board member of the school’s Alumni Council. She holds degrees from University of California Santa Barbara, Texas A&M and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.