I received zero training in my first MGO job. Or support for that matter. My boss showed me the donor files, made sure I got into the database, and then said, “OK, go raise some money!”
I was scared to death.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what I spent that first year doing. I think I just went with the flow of things. I remember focusing on events. Events made sense. They came with deadlines, timelines, “to do” lists. It felt productive. Or at least it did to someone who didn’t know any better.
And now that I think about it, I don’t think I even had a fundraising goal. I just had this nagging feeling that I should be bringing in so-called “major” gifts.
Well, I’ve come to realize that I didn’t invent this problem. It plagues our sector.
Not long ago, a friend was telling me about her first MGO job. It was a familiar “go get ’em kid” story—no training, unclear expectations—and she spent the first three months reading files. She sat in her office reading donor files. For three months.
This is a problem because habits get ingrained.
The way someone start a job sets the tone—for their entire tenure. Beware the sluggish start. Pretty soon you have an MGO who is just dead weight. They might appear busy with low-value activity, but they’ll never reach their full potential.
This dynamic is terrible for retention too.
A sluggish start makes it hard for a new MGO to gain any traction. Without some early wins or at least some sense of momentum, the work is a drag. And the new job honeymoon period doesn’t last forever. People want to take pride in their work; they want to feel valued. If they’re not finding it where they are, they’ll go somewhere else.
All this week we’re going to talk about major gifts work and how we can best support MGOs, particularly those who are new and just learning the ropes.
Yes, major gifts work is more art than science, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t best practices. Better still, there are proven systems, processes, and habits that MGOs can learn.
We don’t have to leave everything up to chance. And maybe if we get this right, we can prevent some of the burnout and constant job hopping that plague our industry.
After my rough start, I committed to learning—learning everything I could. And with an eye toward teaching. I knew that someday I would be in a position to get help others off to better starts.
So, after more than a decade of teaching others how to fundraise, here are three essential keys to supporting your MGOs:
Set the Stage
A new employee’s first 100 days will set the tone for their entire tenure at your organization. So, even if they’re seasoned, carve out some time on the front end to make sure they get what they need.
For MGOs, the stakes are even higher. MGOs should eventually raise 5-6 times their salary + benefits every year. That’s outstanding ROI—make sure you’re maximizing this potential.
So, how are you going to set the stage for your new MGO? Here’s what I recommend:
Metrics, Goals, and Success
There should be no ambiguity for your MGOs about what success looks like.
Major gifts work is quantitative, so define it. Make sure they know how success will be measured, and why those metrics are important.
I’ll give you an example here: I don’t even care about dollars raised, or proposals delivered during an MGO’s first 6-9 months, especially if they’re hired before a campaign really gets rolling. The metric that matters most to me early on is number of face-to-face visits. Are they meeting as many people as possible, initiating relationships, and getting comfortable talking about our organization?
You can focus on number/value of proposals delivered and dollars raised later on. For the better part of an MGO’s first year, emphasize building relationships.
Relationship-based fundraising is a different skillset that requires a different mindset.
Like most new MGOs, I had come from the world of annual giving, alumni relations, and events. And when I got started, I brought the arms-length approach to my major gifts work that’s more typical of those other disciplines. It took a while before I truly grasped that it’s all about relationships. One lunch can be more impactful than 1,000 appeal letters.
MGOs need to understand the people who invest in your organization. They need to get to know your donors and their motivations. You can’t do this sitting in an office. You have to get out and talk to people.
And getting in front of people takes WORK! It’s harder than you’d expect to establish a new relationship—especially now. Make sure your MGOs are clear that this is the work.
For many new MGOs, this will require a new mindset. Help them get there. When you meet one-on-one, make sure that you’re talking to them about people, relationships, and how to make contact. They’ll focus on what you focus on with them.
Culture and Connections
Every organization’s philanthropic culture is unique. And it impacts how fundraisers go about their work. It can take a new employee a while to figure out new norms and ways of doing business. So, go on a couple visits with them. Help them meet donors and make some early connections. Make introductions. This will get them off to a way better start than three months of reading files.
Provide Training and Proven Systems
With the stage set, it’s time to make sure your MGO is ready to engage in the day-to-day of the work. What will they do day-to-day and week-to-week to make sure they hit their goals? Do they have a gameplan? If not, they’re going to need your help.
It’s hard to teach the art of relationships. It’s best to identify and hire MGOs who just have that “special something” you can’t teach. Usually you can spot it during an interview process.
But on the science side of the work, there’s a whole body of best-practice out there that can be taught.
Your MGOs, especially if they’re new, will need to know how to do at least three key things: 1) organize and work through a portfolio; 2) structure their prospecting and outreach so that they’re sure to get plenty of donor meetings; and 3) build trust relationships from scratch. How will the get it done without proven workflows, systems, frameworks, and repeatable process?
Short answer: they won’t. Without good systems and processes, your MGOs will be left to operate on instinct alone. And they won’t be as productive.
So, make sure they have the know-how and tools needed to optimize the science side of fundraising. It will help them build good habits early on, which will pay huge dividends over time.
And, of course, it goes without saying that they need to have technology tools (like a decent CRM) and other resources required to be successful in this work: an expense account for travel and meals with donors, a phone and computer, and perhaps even some logistical or administrative support back in the home office. These things are all important, sure. But they’re not nearly as important as good habits, workflows, and processes that ultimately lead to new and deeper donor relationships.
Clear the Runway
Once you’re confident your MGOs have the skills and other resources they need, it’s time to get out of the way.
And more than that, remove obstacles and barriers wherever you can. Make sure you’re not cluttering their plates with distractions and low value tasks. Is your MGO really the best person to write the next appeal letter or produce the next event?
Relationship-building and donor cultivation is high-value work, but again, it requires time and space—perhaps more than you’d expect. Make sure your MGOs have it.
And again, this is particularly important for new MGOs. I want my new gift officers focused on one thing: initiating as many new relationships as possible.
In summary: make sure your MGOs’ goals are clear, get them the tools and resources they need, and then clear the runway so they can get after it.
So, those are the things I wish someone would have done for me early on. None of it is rocket science. But it sure would have pointed me in the right direction early. I would have known what I was aiming at. I would have had help in designing workflows and process that would have better-positioned me to reach my goals. And I would have had the time and space to focus on just that important work.
Good onboarding is critical to an MGO’s success. Invest time and energy during their first 100 days and it will pay you back over time. And it will make it more likely that they stay. There’s nothing more crippling than a revolving door of MGOs every 2-3 years.
Leave a comment below. What’s something you wish someone would have told you when you first started out as a frontline fundraiser? Is there some training you wish you would have received but didn’t?
Mike J. says
What are some good resources you can recommend on the “science side” of the work, i.e. proven training and proven systems? Thanks!
K. Michael says
I’m glad you asked, Mike. Check out my course on the topic, The Systems of Success.
Loren Carlson says
I feel confident in the process of MG fundraising, I have the equipment and staff support that I need, but I am having trouble initiating face-to-face meetings because I am not educated enough on what I am raising money for. I am an MGO for the school of medicine at a large university and I am over several departments. I was never given a crash course on what any of these medical practices mean, their accomplishments, goals, and needs. I would feel more confident meeting alums, current donors, and new prospects if I could talk about where their dollars are going, how they can be more impactful with larger gifts, their opinions on new projects, and new initiatives I think they would be interested in. I am setting up meetings with department chairs but that is not a good place to learn detailed info like this. They want me in and out and get them the funds they need for fellowships and endowed chairs.
I’ve asked my supervisor but the answer is “get to know the department chairs”. Should I be asking my (extremely new and very small) communications team about materials they are putting out to the public?
K. Michael says
Thanks for the question, Loren. Sounds like a challenging situation indeed! Go ahead and reach out to me directly at email@example.com. I’d be happy to share some thoughts about how you might find a path forward.