What I Wish I Knew About Major Gift Fundraising
I was just a decent major gift officer. I’ve always been more drawn to the data and strategy side, and while I value my years working directly with big donors and had inspiring experiences, I learned pretty quickly that it would not be a lifelong pursuit. I now spend my days more “gift officer adjacent,” and I’ve had an opportunity to interview and survey over 5,000 fundraising leaders over the past few years to learn about your key challenges, opportunities and emerging trends in the field.
I’ve become critical of our standard fundraising “wisdom.” Here are the five things I wish I had known when I started as a gift officer and my advice for you to avoid the pitfalls, time sucks and big misses with identifying and cultivating donors that come with them.
1. Moves Management Is a Mirage
Okay, I’m not saying scrap your moves management system. This methodology—where you move donors through a cycle of education, involvement, engagement and personal discovery prior to making a big request for support is logical and contains most of the key steps you’ll need to be successful.
But it’s a system mostly focused on fundraisers, not donors. And the biggest barrier I heard from fundraisers wasn’t what to do in cultivating donors. It was actually getting the meetings and spending time engaging the right prospects that came up as the biggest barriers. Gift officers told me that on average, they feel that only one-third of their assigned prospects were truly qualified to make a major gift. And the top reason for this was that donors were being put into their pools out of tradition, “in bulk” or because someone at the organization thought they knew best. For the most part, gift officers feel like they’re following metrics that just don’t matter.
It does not take “three to five significant contacts” to prepare a donor for “the ask.” It takes a focus on donors who are telling you they are ready to engage right now. It takes the donor to become aware of need, potential for impact and for you to listen for what’s most important to them. That will take what time it takes, but it’s probably quicker than you think if you focus on listening.
Your cause needs money now, or you wouldn’t be out fundraising. And the world is moving faster than when these systems were invented. Donors come to the table with a ton of information and may be ready to commit very quickly.
Don’t annoy them by subscribing to an arbitrary system—just listen closely and, perhaps, try out some immediate requests. Focus on donors. When you spend most of your time in a system focused on what you’re doing as a fundraiser, you can miss opportunities to discover great prospects—and it may even move too slow for them.
2. Listening Is Your No. 1 Job — With More Than Your Ears
On the same theme of focusing more on donors than on fundraising traditions, when I asked gift officers where they wanted to spend more time, it was a not-surprising tie between spending more time meeting directly with donors and using data better.
Very few fundraisers feel like they are maximizing their ability to listen, whether it’s directly to donors in meetings or listening digitally to what donors are clicking on, reading or choosing as a preference. In the 21st century, we have a tremendous opportunity to track what donors are doing and how they are engaging, and we all expect this to happen based on our experiences in the commercial world.
If you’re only speaking with half or less of your assigned prospects each year, it’s time to either focus your efforts or try out some new tactics to get time with them. Talk to your data team about how to get actionable intelligence on the donors who are showing the best interest right now.
This includes everything from what they’re reading in your newsletters to actually engaging them in surveys and through volunteer or student philanthropy engagement (what we used to call the “phonathon”). Go into your meetings focused on where your donors are expending their energy.
3. The Annual Giving and Major Giving Conflict Is Nonsense
The worst thing you can do is build a donor up through channels like direct mail, phone and digital. When a donor is increasing, suck them out of those pools and put them in a gift officer’s prospect pool for “a visit.” This often means they stop getting appeals and are often ignored, because we just can’t get to everyone personally. This is the equivalent of saying, “Thank you for doing what we asked. Now do it differently.”
Or we see that gift officers fear asking for a planned gift, because their organization relies heavily on leadership annual giving, and they are afraid it will stop. Major studies of planned giving and annual giving donors have shown not only do big donors continue to give to the annual fund, but even increase.
Your donors who make big commitments will continue to fuel your ongoing efforts, perhaps after a brief period of recalibration. Wealthy donors don’t buy a new car and then refuse to fill the tank with gas. This comes down primarily to fundraiser fear, internal politics and misconceptions about the priorities of donors.
It’s now increasingly common to ask a donor to create a scholarship endowment in higher education and also fund immediate implementation of the scholarship with an annual commitment, for example. And better yet, these committed major/annual donors will be seeing immediate impact, telling their friends and becoming your best ambassadors.
You can ask for both major and annual gifts at the same time, and from any channel. Donors know the difference, and they’re more than willing to give to both. Annual giving doesn’t decline after major giving.
4. Friendraising Is an Illusion
There’s nothing that gets me animated more than hearing the word “friendraising” uttered by someone who works with donors. It’s a term with huge pitfalls. It assumes you have to wine and dine every donor to make an ask. Many of them just want to talk to you now about their charitable plans.
It also assumes that you can’t make friends with someone through transformative giving. The term has become a crutch for people who are perhaps afraid to ask for money, which is okay; but when friendraising gets in the way of fundraising, it’s a real problem.
You will definitely have people in your organization who are more comfortable being seen as “fundraisers.” But everyone shares to some degree in the cultivation, stewardship and general engagement of your prospect base, and can help move potential donors toward greater connection with you and passion for your mission.
Everything, every contact, message, email, event, thank you, even the way your organization’s food tastes and the way your grounds are maintained, is fundraising.
And in the fast-paced and attention-scarce world we’re in right now, you’re very likely moving too slowly by hiding behind “friendraising.” Put simply: Wealthy people often got there through decisive, direct decision-making. Sure, they want a good relationship, but asking them about their passions, and then asking for a clear, immediate response on support is more important than taking them to lunch.
Get the giving conversation done, then work out the details over drinks.
5. Don’t Forget to Ask: Does This Matter to Donors?
To reiterate my primary lesson as a gift officer and now as a researcher, so much of our time is spent on what I call “fundraiser-facing” issues. Like pushing priorities a donor’s not interested in.
Or spending too much time with internal meetings and bureaucracy rather than out listening to donors. And very commonly, putting barriers in front of donors that make it hard to give.
The most important thing we need to do is reduce the friction to making a commitment and maximize the joy of giving. Very few of our core fundraising practices focus on these things. It’s time to make a change.
Consider the big things that are taking up your time and emotional energy, or constricting your time with donors. Do these things really matter to a donor?
If not, kick them as far to the curb as you can. Just stop doing them or hand them off, and spend more time and energy listening to donors. Their giving will grow exponentially.
Brian Gawor serves as VP and is a member of the RNL Fundraising Consulting team. Brian’s focus is research and strategy to help propel the results of RNL clients. He also hosts the popular Fundraising Voices podcast and produces RNL’s research reports. He regularly conducts experiments with RNL partners to find new ways to engage contributors with donor-centric communications.
Brian has 14+ years of higher education experience in student affairs, enrollment management, and development. He began his career directing the student ambassador and campus tour programs of Knox College, his alma mater. His efforts supported the achievement of record enrollment at Knox which continues today. He then joined the college’s $3 million Knox Fund and, with the help of RNL, set an institutional record for alumni donors during a tough economy. Brian also served for four years as director of development for the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University where he grew giving by over 100% in the first year. He has an extensive knowledge of annual giving, major gifts, and alumni relations.