Retaining Your Major Gift Officers—From Day One

Major Gift Officer Training and Onboarding - Photo of an Open Highway and Long Road Ahead

Retaining major gift officers begins on day one—with how you onboard them and connect them with key networks across the institution. A formal process for major gift officer training is one of the key factors in their success that is also within your control.

In my article “Recruiting the Right Major Gift Officers,” I encouraged managers to define the specific skills they are hiring for—and seek non-traditional candidates for major gift officers. Now I would like to encourage you to rethink how you onboard and support your major gift officers in ways that encourage their success and retention from day one.

Major gift officers, due to their sporadic attendance in the office, need as much clarity as possible, and this is especially true if you are hiring non-traditional candidates who are new to both the work and the institution. This means more than just ensuring that you have a formalized onboarding and training process (one that communicates the unit philosophy, establishes a common foundation of expectations, and outlines options for potential professional development) and clear performance expectations for both input metrics (e.g., contacts, substantive visits, number and value of asks made, and office attitude/collegiality) and output metrics (e.g., dollars raised, dollars received, ask conversion rate, prospects retained from prior year, gift upgrades since prior year, and new prospects that made gifts). To establish a more powerful, effective, and long-lasting relationship with the new MGO, invest more personal time in:

  1. Helping them navigate the “network” (that is, the formal and informal process to “get things done” at your institution), and
  2. Reducing the friction of the day-to-day job that often gets in the way of MGO retention.

Navigating Informal Networks

Each institution has a unique and often hidden set of networks that can either fast-track or slow down efforts. New employees need to be informed about (but not limited to) the variety of networks on your campus. Help them make the obvious connections, as well as the secondary and tertiary connections. Non-traditional candidates will have additional challenges as they learn to navigate the unique networks of an academic, non-profit institution.

Consider the following networks and how they may be active at your institution:

“Relational” Network Who do MGOs need to build relationships with in order to be successful at your institution? Facilitate this process by helping identify and make initial connections with key influencers, other MGOs, community members, faculty, staff, students, alumni, friends, businesses, vendors, etc. (Also, clarify who is literally related to who!)
 “Resource” Network
Where do MGOs go to get the tools necessary to complete their tasks? This could be a person (like an assistant) or it could be a manual of self-help suggestions that would cover travel assistance, credit cards, forms, printed materials, policies, work orders, computers, phones, database access, prospect files, etc.
 “Political” Network
Where is the authority, influence, and power rooted at your institution? This is connected to, but not the same as the “relational” network. It is important to know who has power and authority (and why) because identifying champions and adversaries early is helpful. Be sure to leave the door open for a new MGOs to build relationships with individuals previously believed to be adversaries and with groups where no relationship existed previously, after all, MGOs are relationship focused people.
 “Smart” Network
At whose feet do MGOs need to sit at for an extended period of time in order to get acquainted with, and acclimated to, the institution’s history, culture, and possible future? Stories are often the most powerful communication tool to get MGOs up to speed quickly and ready to hit the road. Also identify resources (blogs, articles, books, conferences, etc.) that will develop and grow the capacity of the MGO over time.
 “Visit” Network
What is unique about your alumni/institution/philosophy/project that needs to be communicated in visits? Despite the abilities of the new MGO and their individual efforts to prepare, the first set of visits can be very difficult. Scripting and curating the first sets of visits to get the MGO into a rhythm can be helpful. Consider having the first visits be with friendly members of your Board in order to get candid feedback on the MGO’s performance as well as provide the MGO with ample opportunity to ask questions of knowledgeable individuals. Co-visits are also an option but are less realistic.
These curated visits can continue after the onboarding process as a way to get valuable feedback on the activity of your MGOs.

Playing in Harmony: Reducing Friction in the Day-to-Day

Here are five ways to combat common tensions of the job and approach the ongoing support of successful MGOs. These strategies can make a difference in how MGOs perceive their day-to-day work and their connection to the institution. Addressing each of the factors outlined below can generate a great return to the individual, the team, and the institution.

1. Visibly appreciate your frontline team.
In order for MGOs to remain engaged, continually clarify expectations and make connections to the unit’s purpose. Doing this affords the MGO, and the whole team, the ability to know when they are winning. It also provides early signals when the team needs to pull together and lift each other up. Some possibilities include:

  • Give the MGO a surprise travel kit before their first road trip; this kit could include favorite items from the other MGOs.
  • Celebrate miles traveled with funny certificates, i.e. “You’ve Been to the Moon for Us” at 225,500 miles traveled.
  • Place a welcome back candy on their desk after an especially hard travel season.

2. Make the job “sticky.”
Unapologetically, do the best you can to keep good people and reward talent across your team. Remember, MGOs will not be successful if the office does not provide the necessary support. It takes the whole team to successfully identify, connect, solicit, secure, and steward large gifts. While advancement teams are excellent at building relationships with external constituents, it is often the team members in the adjacent cubicle or office that we have the most difficulty connecting with, understanding, and appreciating. A happy team in the office provides much better support for a traveling MGO than a disgruntled one; consider strategies to increase:

  • Safety: Team members must feel comfortable expressing questions, ideas, and/or contrary opinions. Remember, there is a difference between not liking the idea and not liking the individual. Start every interaction and discussion with a clean slate; your adversary on the last agenda item may be your ally on the next. Does your team have transparency? Asked another way, as the leader, is there predictability in your next actions/reactions, and are you providing clarity to your team?
  • Trust: I have heard Pat Sanaghan define trust as the “faith and belief in the competence and character” of another. Is your team at that level? When MGOs know their team/boss/institution will support them and will assume the best of their action, that is an empowering position. Trust ‘n Transparency (TNT) is a recipe for explosive growth within a team.
  • Context exposure: Do you have a way of talking in abbreviations that leaves out new team members? How are you helping team members identify opportunities and challenges at the institution or in higher education more broadly? I started an every-Monday-morning email to my entire team that highlights a concept, article, or reflective question that relates to our team values and the mission of the institution in order to create commonality on our team. We also read a book together over a six week period and used the book and a team retreat to set expectations for how we will work as a team and serve our constituents.

3. Maintain on-campus connections for your “road warriors.”
Reinforce connections and relationships with the team and the institution, because significant travel demands place an emotional and physical strain on the MGO, their family, and friends. Make the extra effort to identify multiple connection points and actively reinforce the value the MGO brings to the team. It is easy for an MGO to sit in a hotel room and imagine doing the same thing for a different organization, or to decide the burden of travel is not worth the impact they are making, if leaders are not open and transparent about this dynamic. Consider:

  • Live feed access to broadcasted campus events.
  • Regular face-to-face meetings or video calls from the road.
  • Encourage learning something new on the road (museums, guided tours, etc.) that the MGO could present to the team upon return; this has the additional benefit of generating connection points with local donors.
  • Customized logo gear that will help them achieve their travel in comfort (bag, jacket, umbrella, etc.); let the MGO select the item and then the institution can send it to be embroidered.

4. Leverage the power of professional development.
Use professional development to grow the capacity of your team, and as a reward for high performing MGOs. In fact, a recent Academic Impressions study found that across offices in higher education (including advancement), 71% of staff indicate that they would be more likely to stay with the institution if they were offered increased access to and support for professional development. This support gives MGOs an opportunity to meet peers from outside the institution and grow their network. The reality is that MGOs will likely stop being a road warrior at some point, so the goal is to keep them as long as they are productive and develop them so they can add value in another area of the institution when they are ready for a change.
5. Encourage your MGOs to “recharge.”
The repetitive nature of their work can diminish the excitement of discovering new prospects and building relationships for the institution. Rejuvenate MGOs when they are on campus by providing the opportunity to unplug from the gift cycle and grow professionally or complete “brainless” tasks (like stuffing envelopes) that give them a break. As you get to know your MGOs, you will realize that each will likely use different methods of recharging. Perhaps give them some options to try that are not necessarily recurring, such as: managing a data conversion, editing the webpage, writing stories for the alumni magazine, and even auditing files. Give them an opportunity to tell you how they want to add value in additional ways. This provides opportunity to strengthen their commitment to the institution and build connections with their colleagues. Finally, don’t force them to stick with it if later they want to try something else; the intent is to be flexible and let them recharge, not micromanage their activity.

The retention of quality candidates is difficult. However, while many factors remain outside your control, there are some factors you can control. By helping new MGOs navigate the network and by addressing these five sources of friction in the day-to-day, you can make it easier for your most successful MGOs to stay and continue contributing to the pursuit of your institution’s mission.

Best of luck!


Image Credit: Photo above by Kevin Horstmann on Unsplash.


Relevant Training from Academic Impressions

Frontline Fundraising: Essentials of Gift Solicitation | Conference
Send your MGOs and others from your team to this conference to practice and improve their solicitation skills.
Effectively Onboard Major Gift Officers with a 90-Day Plan | Recorded Webcast
Set your new major gifts officers up for success with an effective onboarding plan.