PMA Consulting, LLC

The Myth of the Major Gift Officer

By Josh Jacobson, Managing Director

As PMA is growing its work with nonprofits in development staffing searches in response to increased demand, it is easily the most commonly requested attribute:

 “… and we hope the successful candidate will have major gift experience.

Photo Courtesy of avoiceformen.com

This statement typically leads to a deeper conversation about the needs of the organization, which is often looking to increase contributed income in the wake of recent donor erosion.  For PMA, the challenge is to better understand how the organization interprets its need, and more importantly, the solution.  Obviously, increased donor dollars are needed, but how does the organization correlate a candidate’s profile to the likelihood of success?  How is “experience” measured?

PMA’s advice:

  • Adjust your definition of a ‘major gift.’  For many organizations, the bar has been forcibly lowered on what is considered a major gift, with the$10,000 entry-level donor society giving way to $1,000 and $2,500 giving circles. But this shift in expectations should also accompany a shift in culture – the strategies and tactics once employed for the few must now be integrated into relationship-building with the many.  That means determining how best to deploy valuable staff and board resources to cultivate and steward the greatest number.
  • Stop looking for a Rolodex.  Over-reliance on a handful of leveraged relationships is how many organizations found themselves unprepared to weather the economic downturn.  There are no shortcuts to developing relationships with prospective donors, and few development professionals are going to bring special insight into “where the money is.”  In fact, be leery of those who bill themselves as such.
  • Seek to identify skill set.  These days, successful fund development in the major gift space is not that much different than any other facet of fundraising – creative critical thinkers with an eye toward strategy, innovation, and tenacity are far more likely to be successful at cultivating the sort of relationships that yield major gifts.  As detailed in PMA’s blog post from December, these professionals may be recent transplants to your region or else transitioning from the for-profit sector, where tenacious pursuit of success is the norm.

The balance between an academic understanding of major gift development with real world experience is typically where the rubber meets the road, but consider whether years of fundraising success in the past necessarily correlates to a skill set for raising hard-won dollars now and in the near future.  The Major Gift Officer is still a valid position title – it is how one qualifies for that title that has changed.

The deeper you dig into what makes someone successful, the more likely you are to make a staff hire that will be truly transformative for your organization’s bottom line.

Josh Jacobson

Josh Jacobson, Managing Director