A Checklist for Nonprofits Starting a Major Gift Program
It is always amazing to me to hear managers and leaders who want to start or rebuild a major gift program say, “We will just hire some major gift officers and get going,” or something like that. It’s as if this MGO will arrive on the scene and suddenly, money will be pouring into the organization.
It’s like a comment I heard where one unenlightened manager in a Southeastern nonprofit said: “Unless we hire a MGO right now, we will face a huge financial crisis.” Now, there is an element of truth to the statement in that someone needs to be out there talking to the organization’s donors. But putting the entire organization’s financial stability on one position is a bit out there.
It is true that a lot of magical and wonderful things can happen with the right MGO in place. Jeff and I have seen that happen quite often. But there are other organizational things that must be in place for major gifts to fire on all cylinders. That is why I wanted to share a short checklist on what, in our opinion, must be in place in your organization for the major gifts program to work like it should. The organization must have:
1. A Meritorious product (Program)
This is one of the most basic and often overlooked points in major gifts. A MGO, like a good salesperson, needs a good product to sell. But a good product (program) is not easy for many nonprofit managers to deliver. In some of the largest nonprofits in the country that we work with, we still encounter managers who say to their MGOs, “Just get out there, and tell those donors what we are doing!” As if that is all it takes.
And the MGO flops around, saying general things and unable to present the donor with enough specifics on programs, outcomes and costs. Program is the fuel of the major gift engine. Without it, the MGO cannot succeed. Does your organization have a real program plan that casts a vision for what needs to be done, how you are going to do it, when you are going to do it, how much it will cost and what the outcomes are?
If not, don’t expect to raise money. It won’t happen. And I use the word real to mean that there is a real societal or planet need the organization is addressing, with a real workable and believable solution to that need. This is not some conceptual pie in the sky dream. This is feet on the ground, boots on, in the trench, getting the work done content that the donor can hear about and say: “Now that is something that needs to happen, and I want to get on board with it.”
Sadly, there are not many organizations that have this tied down tight, which is why the major gift program, or fundraising in general, does not work.
2. A Donor-Centered Culture
We have written quite a bit about this topic. Donors need to be at the center of your mission and work. Donors need to be partners, not sources of cash. Donors need to be valued and respected. If you don’t have a donor-centered culture, then it will be difficult to have a successful major gift program.
3. A Leadership Culture That Understands Major Gifts
One of the core misunderstandings that leaders have about major gifts is how much time it takes to (a) get a major gift program started, and (b) build a relationship with a major donor. We had one situation where the manager was trying to “hurry up” the development of a relationship with a donor so that the ask could be made in time to reach fiscal year end goals.
What? This is insane. You really can’t “hurry up” a relationship. Try that in your marriage or your relationship to a significant other. Try that in your job. Try that anywhere, and see what happens. It will get awfully messy and dirty really quick. And then you will see what your impatience and ulterior motives got you.
It will get you nothing. And it will do damage. Leaders who truly understand the nature of a relationship will value how major gifts needs time.
4. A Finance Department That Understands and Supports Fundraising
I love it when a CFO (a) understands fundraising, and (b) knows how to organize his or her accounting to support fundraising. It is a nightmare when a finance department can’t even get their fingers on the right numbers for fundraising. (I have experienced that more times that you can imagine.)
A truly enlightened and professional finance team understands that their role in the organization is to make sure that the financial underpinnings of program and fundraising are in place. This means all the financial systems help make good program and good fundraising happen—program being the main reason we are here and fundraising being the fuel that helps the program engine run. When the program and fundraising functions are forced to serve finance vs. the other way around, there is trouble just around the corner. More and more professional CFOs and finance people are beginning to understand that donors are the key economic assets of the nonprofit, and these donors must be outrageously served and protected.
5. A Back Office That Values Donors
Jeff and I have talked about this quite often. The backend of fundraising is everything that happens after the gift is received: the receipting, the timing of the receipting, reporting back, etc. You know what it feels like to go into a store or order a product online. You get the product. You love it. Life is good. And then you need to talk to someone in the back office to deal with a situation related to the product. But when you reach out to do that talking you enter a hall of mirrors and a dungeon of horrors.
And all the joy you felt when you took the company up on their promise to bring value to you, if you just bought their product, is suddenly lost, dashed by the manipulations, jargon and shuffling of the back office. Is this what happens to your donors? You promised some great things on the front end, but you treated them like dirt on the backend. You can’t let this happen. The backend—the back office needs to be as good as the front office and your promise.
6. A Program Function That Values Measurable Outcomes
“So, did anything actually happen as a result of my gift?” That, my friend, is the central question all donors are asking. And that is the question you and your program team need to answer. And it can’t be some general statement. Savvy donors are looking for measurable results. And if they don’t get them then they will go away. A good program person does good program and values measurable outcomes. And good program means that something actually happens that is good. And you can measure what happened.
There you have it. Six must-haves for the organization that wants to have a successful major gift program. It’s not easy, I know. But not much that is good in life is. And if you can get all of these points aligned in your organization, you will experience happy and fulfilled program people, donors, finance folks and managers; and you yourself will be happier. Life will be good. I promise.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.