I was at a career crossroads, reflecting on Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” “Two roads diverged in a wood – and I….” How would I finish that line, “and I…?”
Having held positions as a Director of Development overseeing teams and strategies for all fundraising avenues, I was considering a Major Gifts Officer (MGO) position. Discovering some rewards around major gift work, I wanted the time to focus on securing more significant gifts from individuals and foundations – even if it meant giving up other leadership roles. As I shared my thoughts with my friend and peer, Amy, she surprised me with her response, “Major gifts officer might be the best job in development.”
Now, three years in, I think she might be right. From Amy’s point of view, you could put aside managerial supervision and departmental responsibilities and focus on the one thing most of us enjoy the most: relationships. I have experienced the sweet reward of relationship-based fundraising – and I have to say I am addicted.
An MGO is a controversial position. Development leaders often debate whether to prioritize major gifts and if the role is necessary. They may want to steward these donors themselves. There is also high turnover in these positions. If you can prove a successful track record of bringing in revenue, you can quickly be snatched up by the next organization that can pay more or offers a benefit not available in the current role. MGOs are also likely to be promoted, stepping into a managerial role, which leaves them limited time to steward a portfolio.
Regardless of why they step out of the role, many MGOs never get to experience the reward of their time and commitment to a portfolio. If they leave before two years, they may not see the fruit of their labor. Or worse, they may be walking away from the planted seeds without providing the care they need to grow. Some seeds may even shrivel up and die. Okay, enough with the gardening metaphors. But I hope it elaborates my point that many MGOs leave too soon.
My advice to MGOs considering leaving before a two-year term is to give it another year or two. Why? Time. The more time you invest in a relationship with a donor, the more it will grow in trust and value.
No Longer a Stranger
The volume of marketing media we encounter daily makes it hard to stand out. So what do MGOs have that mass email doesn’t? A name. As an MGO, you can communicate on a personal level. You can offer donors a human connection to your mission. With consistency, donors start to warm up to your outreach attempts, and when the time is right, they will respond.
Have you told someone a story or a fact about yourself, and three months go by, and they remember this detail about your life? “I thought about you when I saw this great chili recipe,” or “How was that vacation you planned?” These are little investments. And over time, little investments help someone feel heard and valued. MGOs have the time to make these little investments over and over, so when the time comes to take the next step of an engagement or special “ask,” the donor will be more open.
Where the magic happens
When an MGO has an open door with a donor, this is where the fun begins. Their ability to relate to the donor personally allows them to invite the donor to engage in the organization’s mission.
MGOs receive a window into the donor’s concerns, resources, capacity, desires, etc. This window helps determine if there is a match between the donor’s desire and ability to give, and the organization’s need for support. This is the moment where my adrenaline kicks in because I know there is an opportunity to make an ask. I just need to be brave enough to do it.
Making an ask will likely look different each time. Still, the confidence behind it will come from having stewarded the relationship, which helps to navigate approaching a donor with the right opportunity to support the organization. In response, the donor will feel safe and transparent about the right time, opportunity, or amount to make a gift.
And when a moment comes together that matches the organization’s need and the donor’s desire, it’s a beautiful collaboration to witness and facilitate. The biggest winner will be the population or environment you serve.
If you are considering an MGO position and love relationship-based fundraising, go for it. If you are an MGO and wonder if your relationship-based fundraising will pay off, wait for it. You won’t regret seeing the power of investing in relationships.
I stand with Amy. It’s the best job in development.
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."