How to Create a Highly Successful Major Gifts Program

October 3, 2019 Andy Reeher

The Problem:  

I’ve spent a great deal of my career exploring what it takes to sustain a sort of paradox: a highly profitable fundraising organization.  

No matter where you’re working in the advancement office, you’re probably addressing this central question in some small way every time you come to work. What adjustments can you make that will make finding new donors and acquiring donations just a little bit easier?  

For major giving operations, the pressure is on.  

Creating a pipeline of future donors and managing prospects appropriately throughout their lifetime is the single most important task of fundraising organizations today.  

But, faced with the demands of large capital campaigns and declining donor populations, it’s an uphill battle to meet today’s goals while also nurturing relationships with the next generation of donors. 

Given the demands they’re under, major giving leaders face a very challenging intellectual problem: how do you foster a results-oriented culture at your institution without the stock options, bonuses, or commissions that drive for-profit performers?  

In the absence of material incentivesstrong management strategies drive high performance at institutions. Without management support, gift officers will work with the most accessible donors and then move on—the industry’s high turnover and low visit rate reflects this norm.     

My philosophy has always been that fundraisers feel empowered when they have access to the data, they need to execute their missions. What tools and information are needed to manage a major gifts program most effectively?  


The Solution:  

Where specifically should we focus to encourage high performance at higher education advancement organizations?

1. Prioritize the development of a donor pipeline  

We’ve tracked the shrinking donor pipeline and proposed the lifetime value strategy as a way to engage with donors and correct a trend that threatens the future of higher education fundraising programs.  

High performance institutions have addressed this issue with an organized, transparent approach to donor pipeline management. There’s a shared understanding amongst all stakeholders about the many complicated processes which support the donor pipelineMaintaining this structure is a management priority 

2. So that’s easier said than done…how do we zero in on the activities which support the growth of a donor pipeline?   

Building a donor pipeline is a huge undertaking and requires collaboration across all areas of the institution. However, major giving leadership has a great deal of control in many important areas. The most impactful is rethinking how your team works together within donor stages    

In the past, we’ve all agreed on donor stages 

  • Identification 
  • Qualification 
  • Cultivation 
  • Solicitation 
  • Stewardship 

Prospects and donors have historically circled through these stages many times during their relationship with you. They might be in stewardship phase for one gift at the same time a different officer is cultivating a relationship with them for a new gift. There’s a disconnect here where their past behavior and existing relationships aren’t fully accounted for. Sometimes it gets messy. More often, the team quietly misses an opportunity.  

Your donors deserve a better experience. And I think standardizing a more nuanced workflow around donor stage will help build the donor pipeline and set the stage for high performance.   

How should we approach donor stage 

Once a donor has been identified and qualified, that work doesn’t need to be done again (unless something about their relationship with you changes)To start, let’s track and manage all major gift activity using proposals—including asks that may have failed and concurrent solicitations by different teams.   

With a total picture of the major gift donor relationship on file, gift officer managers can step in to provide the best practice framework to help gift officers propel their relationships forward in a standardized fashion.   

Use proposals to manage cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship  

As it stands, 40% of institutions don’t use proposals in a conventional way. They may use them as donation-recording tool or may use them on too wide a spectrum of gifts. But the power in a proposal is its ability to help you learn about the donor through incomplete or failed initiatives. To help drive pipeline development and high performance, gift officer managers should encouragofficers to use proposals to track donor stage, interests, and relationship activity. When each proposal contains a wealth of information about donor interest, concurrent relationship areas, and previous donations, it’s easier to plan next steps. This clarity drives consensus on the fundraising team and makes it easier to plan successful asks.  

3. Leverage tools to build clarity, accountability, and consensus 

Developing a donor pipeline and implementing a standard proposal process are pretty ideas on paper. But we want to help you actually do it. Part of this is acknowledging that institutions have not yet had the support or the purpose-built tools to truly make these visions a reality. This needs to change  

I truly believe that the future viability of your fundraising operation depends on your ability to build and manage a donor pipeline. Gift officers and their managers will thrive when they’re able to systematize their approach to building a donor pipelineStay tuned for new tools, guidelines, and reporting to help gift officers and their managers improve their donor pipeline using the power of proposals.    

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