My area of focus – in work and writing – is generally those people who give less than $1,000 annually to organizations. The smaller donors. Grassroots movements. “Annual fund” type of stuff. So when I get asked about major gifts or enter in the world of many zeroes, I get a bit overwhelmed. This lack of knowledge is one of the reasons I like the Veritus Group blog. While they are focused on training Major Gift Officers and know that world inside and out, their blog is quite easy to digest and provides some great lessons for all fundraisers – not just Major Gift Officers.

I saw that they had a Major Gift Academy – an online training module for major gift training – I was intrigued, reached out to them and was able to chat with Richard Perry to hear a bit more about Veritus, MGA, and major gifts. From that conversation, here are…

3 Things We Can All Learn From Major Gift Officers

1. Only 1 out of 3 Major Donor Prospects Actually Wants To Talk To A Major Gift Officer

Shocking? It really shouldn’t be. We think that everyone loves us and wants that special touch, especially as donations get bigger, but people are still people. They are busy. They don’t want to waste your time or have theirs wasted. Sometimes more so with larger donors. And not all donors want all the communications, updates, and touch points either.I’ve only spent a few years of my career managing a portfolio of donors but this was definitely true for me. And when you look at email open rates, direct mail response rates, and ‘engagement’ on social media and we know this to be true in the digital world as well.

So the key then, for major gift officers, fundraisers, and marketers, is to quickly discover who that 1 out of the 3 is, or those people who are most engaged and ensure you are meeting their needs. There are donors who really don’t care and there’s very little you can do to get them to. So make sure you honour them, still make them the hero of the story, but don’t waste too much time trying to win them over.

Focus on the donors you’ve already won over to keep them happy and focus on that next group that can move from somewhat engaged to very connected.

2. The goal is retention and the strategy is stewardship

I’m well aware of donor retention and its value to fundraising programs but when Richard mentioned this was a major issue for major gift programs. I, mistakenly, assumed that with the high touch and personal focus of those programs they would do a much better job at keeping donors engaged and around. Apparently not. As many programs are hemorrhaging donors and money. Every year.

Richard talked about how they track major donors by putting them into ‘class years’ and tracking their giving over time. And time and time again you can see the donors and revenue – in the millions of dollars – walk out the door over the course of a donor’s lifetime. Largely due to lack of stewardship plans, practices, and processes.

Donor retention in the world of fundraising is around 40% to 45%. Meaning you are losing 6 out of 10 donors, and their donations, every year. Because the dedicated and long-term supporters give so much more per donor the impact of poor donor retention can often be masked in the short-term. But over time, a lack of new donors and a shrinking donor pool are ingredients for a disaster.

Stewardship warrants its own discussion but here’s the simple summary: thank them and update them. A lot. I’m sure you can thank a donor too much and provide too many updates on how they are making a difference through you but it sure would be a great problem to create.

3. Technical Masters Versus Managerial Motivators

This is a bit less about major gifts and more about wisdom from Richard and his many years of experience but he talked about how many great major gift fundraisers get promoted into management. And are terrible. I’m sure you’ve had those bosses that crushed it when they were in your role or similar but just seem like the worst bosses and managers around. Richard discussed how there are essentially two types of people:

  1. Technical People – want to be masters of their craft and deliver results largely because of themselves and their individual effort
  2. Managerial People – want to be motivators of people and deliver results largely because of their teams and their collective effort

Neither one is better than the other. There is a tendency to over value the ‘boss’ or the managerial type as that’s a traditional leadership role that carries a higher salary and more “value” but increasingly masters of their crafts are getting their dues and being recognized for the value that they bring as well.

You may be or have a great social media manager, direct mail whiz, or face to face fundraiser. Great. Let them go deeper and drive more results for you – and for them – there. Don’t make them the digital marketer, annual fund manager or director of development just because they are good at what they do. Because they may lack the managerial skills and motivation to be any good at it. So you’ve replaced a great worker with a bad manager. Two wrongs don’t make a right here.


Great ‘annual funds’ are really just great major gift programs at scale. Major Gift Officers are trained to get to know their prospects, meet regularly with them, provide them special and custom updates on the organization’s work and the donors impact. And oh yeah, close big donations.

But that’s exactly what online giving, direct mail, and monthly giving should be doing as well. The donations are smaller, but there are more of them, and the communication should feel personal and relevant – it’s just delivered just through emails, newsletters, and letters. So as you think about your next campaign or communication piece, think about what a great Major Gift Officer would do and try to infuse your idea with a bit of it. Good luck!

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