Hiring Non-Traditional Candidates for Your MGO Team: Navigating the Opportunity and the Risk

Looking Beyond Our Borders, Hiring Staff From Outside Higher Ed: Image shows a telescope pointed at the horizon
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To find your talented next major gift officer, look beyond your borders and deepen your candidate pool by searching for non-traditional candidates who have the right combination of skills and personality traits to succeed. But also recognize that candidates who are new to university advancement or to higher education will need onboarding and support.

by Dr. Joshua Jacobs, Vice President for Advancement, Central Methodist University

The recruitment and retention of our best talent in higher education is fraught with challenge. In institutional advancement, the average tenure of an MGO, by some estimates, is just above 18 months, levying a high cost on the institution in repeated searches, lost philanthropic momentum, and severed relationships. Not only is the length of tenure brief, the search costs to replace MGOs are high. Because the central pillar of successful fundraising is the relationship with the donor, and because each representative of the institution must establish credibility and trust with the donor before the best gift can be secured, replacing one MGO with another is not a simple plug-and-play process.

It's a position -- like many in higher education -- that requires specific talent, and the competition for that talent is fierce. Recently, I recommended that leaders in advancement boost their odds of finding the right talent by broadening their hiring pool, searching for criteria beyond years of experience to find non-traditional candidates who have the right combination of skills and personality traits to be successful in your organization. Often, non-traditional candidates with transferable skills yield excellent MGOs.

Digging deeper into your candidate pool in this way presents a powerful opportunity -- and new challenges, as well. When you do this, there are more talented people available to you...but you will need to be more intentional about how you hire, onboard, and support them. This is critical. Non-traditional candidates may arrive with passion and transferable skills, but the unique characteristics of an advancement operation in higher ed may take them surprise. They may be new to the work of institutional fundraising, or even to the culture and unique dynamics of a college or university environment. They will need training and development that your more traditional MGO hires didn't. But that doesn't mean they can't have a powerful impact.

Hiring Beyond the Traditional Candidate Pool: Examples

To get started, explore your own personal interactions to find types of careers or classifications of professionals that demonstrate the philosophies and customer service that you seek. Consider recruiting relationship-builders from non-academic environments that recognize the value of customer retention year over year. Consider brand managers, communicators, pastors, lobbyists, etc. The task-based skills of advancement (lingo, ask arrays, integrations of academics, etc.) can be taught. The tougher skill set to find and develop is the ability to build relationships. Locate candidates who have transferable relationship development skills.

Some examples of successful non-traditional MGO candidates might include:

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Image Credit: Photo above by Kyler Boone on Unsplash.

Read more from Dr. Joshua Jacobs: Recruiting the Right Major Gift Officers