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Building a High Performing Development Team

Two Extremes of Major Gift Officers

Among the biggest challenges facing a chief development officer is finding, recruiting, and managing a high performing development team.

Typically, there are two extremes of major gift officers. First, there are those that never ask donors for a gift. They seem to think that simply walking beside the high net worth individual, being their friend, and sharing some information about the organization will ultimately move people to give. Because the relationship manager has become the donor's friend, there is no need to ask.

On the other hand, there are major gift officers that believe the right thing to do is to ask for a gift in the first meeting, and then every single meeting afterwards. After all, it's their job to raise money and the people on their caseload have capacity. Unfortunately, this approach makes life hard for the development professional. It will become more difficult to get appointments. And even when gifts are received, they will be smaller and harder to repeat.

By Jeremy Reis

The right mix is for a relationship manager to have a clear understanding of the giver: their core values, their cadence for giving, their capacity, their passion, and their giving history. Then, armed with this information, the development professional crafts a moves management plan that brings the giver into a closer relationship with the organization, with a focus on the donor's values, impact, and needs.

And, at the right time, the relationship manager invites the giver into a more significant stewardship relationship that is mutually rewarding. This produces the potential for a long-term relationship and sustainable gifts from the donor.

Sometimes, underperforming development professionals use "relationship-building" as an excuse for not planning and focusing on results. Yes, fundraisers need to be relational. Yes, they must be successful at earning the trust of the giver.  But, this is better done by doing the right things, living up to your commitments, not wasting the time of the giver, connecting their passion to the impact of the organization, reporting on the results of their investment, thanking effectively, etc.

Hire for Characteristics, not Experience

So, how do you find the right development professional? I have found that the right characteristics are far more important than specific experience. Many people that have been in development for a long time seem to frequently move from one organization to the next, and end up repeating the same unproductive behavior. Those that are successfully cultivating healthy donor relationships move less often and are harder to find.

But, hiring people that have the right patterns and passion will give the CDO the opportunity to invest and grow their development skills in order to be successful long term. Perhaps the most important characteristic is a real, humble desire to learn. Without this, you run the risk of hiring someone that has unproductive habits, inflexible beliefs, and is unlikely to stay for the long term.

One of my best development hires was a former YMCA executive director. He had never formally done major donor development. I only interviewed him because of a friend's recommendation. I really didn’t anticipate it going anywhere.

I was completely wrong. While this man was older and very experienced, he was eager to learn, had a strong work ethic, understood how to connect people to the organization's impact, and wasn’t afraid to ask. During the interview, he told me how he had convinced a developer to donate very valuable real estate for a new YMCA facility, even though the developer didn’t get the contract to build the building. He connected the developer to the value the Y would bring to the community and the value it would have on his other properties in the area.

I hired him and he was a superstar!

I have also found that consultative salespeople for services with a long sales cycle can be effectively trained to be donor development professionals. They generally understand investing in the relationship, planning the strategy, implementing the plan, and at the right time asking for the order.

The best characteristics you can find in high performing relationship managers are:

1.    willingness to learn

2.    strong work ethic

3.    strong listening skills, and

4.    ability to connect givers to the impact of the organization.

Proactively Build Your Gift Officer Prospect Pool

Instead of waiting until the need arises to seek out a major gift officer, I would encourage you to think strategically about the role and carefully determine the most important characteristics that result in a fit for your culture and development needs. Then continuously look out for the person that has the right personality, track record, and passion for your mission. Build a pool of qualified candidates in your network for the day when the need arises. This strategic and proactive building of prospective relationship managers will pay rich rewards in the long run.