Promoting Your Best Major Gift Officer to Manager—The Biggest Mistake You'll Ever Make
This is where I run a risk of getting in trouble, but I have to write about it because it is a huge problem in many nonprofits that not only hurts the organization but also hurts the people involved. I’m talking about taking your very best major gift officer and making them the manager of the major gift program.
It sounds logical, I know. And it does work sometimes. But most often it doesn’t, and there are very good reasons to explain why it doesn’t. But let’s dive into this subject right where it starts—with some outrageous performance on the part of the MGO.
You’ve seen it or heard about it: The MGO is a star. Everything they touch turns to gold. They have a way with those donors, and it’s very hard to replicate it. As a manager, you have tried to teach what they do to others, but for some reason, it doesn’t work—at least to the degree of excellence that this MGO consistently delivers.
And you and the MGO have been talking. You have a management need. They would like more responsibility. They have respectfully implied she would like a little more money and then it dawns on you, and you say to yourself: “I know what I’ll do. I’ll make them manager. It will solve all of our collective problems!” So, you pull the trigger and off you go.
Little do you know that there is trouble ahead. You can’t see it because you are blinded by the solution you have come up with and the pressing need you have. Plus, it seems only right that if this MGO has performed so well that you should reward them with new responsibilities and the related bump in compensation.
But hang on. Stop for a moment and look at this a little more carefully. Here’s what the situation really is.
Your MGO is a high performing star not only because they have the relationship skillset and major gift experience, but they also, at their core, are wired to get results through their own efforts. They are a technical person, not a manager. In fact, the definition of a technical person is someone who enjoys getting results through their own efforts.
Stop and think about this for a minute. If you examine their work history and ask them to tell you stories about what has brought them joy in all of their jobs, the theme that runs through all of their experiences and stories will be that they loves to get results through her own efforts vs. getting results through others.
She wants to be in the kitchen cooking the meal, at the computer creating the communication, out in the field meeting personally with the donor—they don’t want to manage someone else to do those things. They get their joy and fulfillment by having their hands right in it and personally making it happen.
To be clear, this is not a weakness or a problem. It is a fact that makes everything on the planet happen. Some folks like to fly the plane. Others like to manage the airline company. Two different people. Two different core motivations and wiring. Two very different contributions.
The definition of a true manager is someone who likes to get results through the efforts of others. Their joy and fulfillment comes from seeing others get the results. They are not smarter or better than the self-expressive technical person who wants to be hands on. They are just different. Sadly, though, in our culture, many times, managers are valued more than technical people. And that is a mistake. It takes both types to make a good thing happen.
But here is what usually happens when a technical—get-results-through-their-own-efforts—person is put in a management job.
Everything starts out just fine and it seems like it is going to be smooth sailing. The former MGO, now manager, starts doing the management thing, as best as they can, and some of it seems to work. But then in a meeting with one of their subordinates, they start directing much of the technical detail of the MGO’s job. They offer to analyze the caseload and edit communications. They spend more and more time doing MGO work with a motivation of helping the MGO who reports to them.
And as time passes, the MGO surrenders much of their thinking and initiative to the manager who really can’t help themself. Why is this happening? Very simply because the former MGO turned manager is wired to get results through their own efforts. So, over time, they will bias that way until, left unchecked, they morph back into the MGO job, while holding the manager title and responsibility.
It is a subtle thing that I have seen happen over and over again. And what is sad to me is that the whole situation I described earlier between the manager and the MGO could have taken a different turn. The manager could have given the MGO more MGO responsibilities, like handling a specialized group of very high capacity donors and/or a task of training other MGOs. The manager could have increased their salary to compensate them for the new responsibilities. The manager could have done any number of things that would have this good person expressing their gifts and skills in new and needed ways that matches their core motivation to get results through her own efforts.
But instead, this MGO is promoted upward and the damage to them, plus the collateral damage to those around them, is not readily seen but finds its full expression in about a year.
There are scores of ways to get work done and reward good employees without putting a results through self person into a results through others situation. Look for those ways so you can avoid this mistake and honor the employees in your care.
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.