What Do You Control in Major Gifts?
There’s quite a bit of noise out there in the major gift world on management—what next step to take, how to approach the donor, how to frame the ask, etc. And still, with all of that information, Jeff and I find hundreds of major gift officers frustrated in their jobs.
This got me thinking about the MGO bubble and what’s in it. I call it a bubble because it is the special world MGOs live in, which is largely unknown to those outside of it. This may sound strange to you, but if you stop and think about it, how major gifts works and what it needs to thrive in an organization is largely misunderstood.
I amazed how week after week, I sit in meetings with managers, leaders, finance people, program people and even development directors and none of them—NONE—understand (A) what the MGO is doing and (B) what the MGO needs from them to succeed.
No wonder the MGO is about ready to take the poison pill and call it quits!
What is it that folks outside the bubble don’t understand about major gifts? Here’s my list:
1. That a MGO needs a qualified list of donors to relate to.
You might argue with me on this point and say: “Richard, of course everyone understands that a MGO needs donors to talk to!” Not really. Some do, but the finance person wonders why major gifts are taking donors out of the direct mail pool. So is the direct mail person. Like, what do they think they are doing? You would not believe the conversations I have had with finance folks on this basic subject. They don’t even understand that to build a caseload, you have to start with donors. And those donors have to come from the donor list. And that means that someone has to give up donors, but that it will be OK because in the long run, with MGO care, those donors will attrition less and give more! This is major gifts 101, but this is not generally understood. Believe me, there’s a lot of lip service to this, but not real ownership.
2. That a MGO needs program information to present to donors.
This is still a shocker to me. Every day, I get up and run into this subject. Sometimes I get really frustrated and angry about it. Here we have hired a competent MGO, but given them nothing to present to donors. Even as I write this, I feel myself getting uptight about it. Here’s why: There is no successful commercial company on the face of the planet that would hire a sales or marketing person without having a product to present to a potential customer! Can you imagine the following scenario? A brilliant, competent, success-oriented, customer-savvy salesperson is hired in Company X. On his first day on the job, their manger welcomes him to the company, promises him that they will do great things together, goes through the HR rules and regulations and says: “Paul, I’d like to take you back to the warehouse and show you what you will be selling to our customers.”
So they walk back to the warehouse, a huge well-lit building behind the administrative offices. They walk in, and the place is totally empty. There is not one single product on any shelf in the 40,000-square-foot warehouse! You can imagine Paul’s surprise. Then he asks the question: “Nice warehouse. But what are we selling?”
Exactly! What are we selling? Time after time, Jeff and I run into this question from the MGO: “What are we presenting to donors?” And often, the manager says something like: “Well, you have the list of the programs. Go out and visit them. It’s easy. You’ll get it. Just present the program.” Like that will do the trick. There is total widespread misunderstanding on this subject by the insiders of most nonprofits. And management and leadership are unwilling to spend the time or money to invest in this area.
3. That the MGO needs administrative support.
OK, let’s do the math. If the MGO works “regular” hours, there are 2,080 of those in one year, minus vacation and holidays. But after you take out holidays, vacation, required management meetings and some sick days, I figure you end up with somewhere in the vicinity of 15 to 18 days available to work with donors a month! It’s shocking, I know. But there is precious little time for the MGO to be out there doing the job they were hired to do, which means a MGO needs support. Because, if they are not supported, more time will be spent in the office researching donors, writing thank yous, preparing reports, etc. Now, I realize that for smaller nonprofits, hiring a MGO and an administrative person just can’t happen.
Well, how about getting a really good volunteer in this situation? There are plenty of very skilled people who want to give their time. My point here is the basic fact that MGOs need support is another misunderstood item in the major gifts world.
4. That this all takes time.
It has been a regular conversation that I have had over and over again with managers and leaders across the country. It goes something like this: “So, what do you think it will cost to hire a MGO, all costs in?” I reply: “Anywhere from $80 to $120,000. Maybe more.” (By all costs in, we mean salary, benefits and operating expenses.)
They say: “What return will we get on that money, and how long will it take?” I say: “You will begin to see some progress in 18 to 24 months, maybe longer, then it will be up from there.” You hear the person squirming in their chair. “Eighteen to 14 months! Goodness, we don’t have that much time!” And so it goes.
Like we’ll hire a MGO, pull out the magic money wand, and presto, the money will just fall out of the sky.
There is a basic lack of understanding and appreciation of how long it takes to develop a relationship. And this is a telling thing for Jeff and me when we assess an organization’s readiness to start or expand a major gift program. If they are having a heart attack on this point right at the beginning, we will likely have a lot of problems keeping this program going.
There are probably a lot of other things that are misunderstood about major gifts, but Jeff and I think these are the big ones. And all of this brings me to what you, as a MGO, can do about it. What do you have control over?
1. You have control over the relationship you develop with the donors you are given.
Just ignore all the noise about why you have those donors and any of the other conversations everyone wants to have about this subject because they have nothing else to do and focus on the donor. That focus and use of time will have a direct and meaningful payoff that will either eliminate the chatter or substantially slow it down when it comes in.
I had one situation where there was a bunch of chatter about one MGO who had taken over a caseload for another MGO who had left. Everyone was not minding their own business and started talking about how the new MGO was not doing this and not doing that and how was it going to work, etc. I advised the new MGO to keep his head down and focus on the donors. Bam! In comes a $1 million cash gift, then $50,000, then $100,000. The caseload value started rising, and the chatter died down. You can’t manage the chatter. Just ignore it. Focus on the donors and make something happen there.
2. You can get some of the program information.
Go to the program manager and get a copy of their budget. Sit with them and discuss how it works. Then put together some offers and run it by them and your manager. Get ready, there will be a lot of push back and angst. But keep going, always saying: “I need something to present to donors.” And the more you push and meet (stay nice), you will find that most program people and managers will start to turn your direction on this subject. But it takes persistence and patience.
I know that some who will read this will say: “Sorry, Richard, this still doesn’t work for me.” But if I were to look at your situation, I could discern progress.
The bottom line on this point is this: If the organization won’t provide this lifeline of information to you, you will have to go out and get it. And it might be less than the best information, but at least it is something. And, likely unknown to you, you will be influencing the system in the right direction.
3. Get your own support.
If the organization won’t provide it, find a volunteer or two to help you out. It can be done, as there are many solid professionals out there who want to have meaningful activity in their lives. In fact, current research findings on this topic show that there is a growing trend toward professional volunteerism, where gifted, skilled people want to give their time to a good cause. It is just a matter of finding them.
4. You have control over your time and how you use it.
This is a huge point. With so little time for donors and so much expectation on the part of management to not pay attention to donors, it is up to you to make the time use decisions. You heard right. Management often, unknowingly, asks you not to spend time with the donors on your caseload. They will have you organize events, sit in meetings, chase prospects not on your caseload, handle a region because “we need someone there to represent us” or hand over a host of other involvements that have nothing to do with your donors. To some degree, you can control this, always placing your gaze on those good donors on the caseload and not sliding off into ancillary activities. If management persists in pulling you off the caseload, then maybe you should find another job as (I promise you) in a situation like that, you will not succeed.
This is your ultimate control—moving somewhere else where your manager has a better understanding of how major gift works.
There is a lot of noise, chatter and confusion in the marketplace of what it takes to make major gifts become a successful part of the organizations fundraising program. Jeff and I think that if you can exercise control, discipline and focus in the four areas I have mentioned about, you will be more successful.
All you have to do is take the power you already have and use it. Try it.
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.