Being a gift officer for a college or university is a demanding yet rewarding job. Major gifts are what allow an institution to grow and offer its students something more than a regular budget can provide. Like any job, it’s easy to fall into a rut as a gift officer and develop detrimental habits that hinder performance.
Problems, for the most part, can arise at four key stages in cultivating a relationship with a potential donor. Here are ways to overcome these obstacles.
Stage: Scheduling and preparing for the visit
Pitfall: Preparing too much
It is possible to over-prepare for a visit with a prospect. There’s no need for a three-page report on each person you plan to meet. Meet with your prospect and do the research with your eyes. You’ll get a much better idea of someone’s willingness to donate to your institution by getting to know the potential donor in person.
Be strategic with your top prospects and manage your time well. It’s a waste of everyone’s time to keep meeting with the same people. An effective gift officer gets in front of everyone on his or her list of top 30 prospects to figure out what to propose to each of them and who will receive the next 10 proposals. At Meredith College, all of our in-office meetings are scheduled for Mondays, so our gift officers have roughly three and a half days each week to dedicate to meeting with prospects. Travel, lunch meetings, gatherings over coffee and office visits add up. Over-preparing for one meeting may cause you to fall behind on several others.
Finally, capitalize on planned college events, especially alumni events. When an alumni chapter event is scheduled off campus, call one or two of your top 30 prospects and invite them to attend with you.
Stage: During the visit
Pitfall: Ignoring key social cues
It takes an immense amount of social intelligence and self-awareness to successfully navigate a visit with a prospect. Verbal and nonverbal cues are important; pay attention to them. Notice subtle opportunities to bring up money and don’t talk past them. For example, if a prospect mentions a love for music, seize that opportunity to suggest a music scholarship or new music program.
At the same time, don’t let the prospect dominate and steer the conversation. Prospects know why you’re meeting with them and sometimes they don’t want to talk about money, especially if they are the type who consider talking about money impolite. It’s your job to gently guide them toward the subject.
Stage: Closing the gift
Pitfall: Not making the ask
Hesitation to start the money conversation is the biggest obstacle many gift officers face. There’s this impulse to always do one more thing before you make the ask. But think of the fundraising cycle like a dance: it doesn’t start until you turn on the music. Don’t let cold feet get the best of you. If you scheduled the meeting with the intent to ask for money, then go ahead and ask for money. Don’t leave it for a letter after the meeting. The time to ask is when the person is in front of you. In the moment, you can convey the potential impact that the gift will have on future students and your appreciation of his or her willingness to make that difference.
Pitfall: Not clarifying next steps
It’s a mistake to leave a meeting with a prospect with no clear indication of what happens next. Instead, a gift officer should ask something like, “Can I send you some information about what we discussed?” Or, “Can I call you to set up a visit to campus?” Making that next step clear before you leave keeps the dialogue open and keeps the prospect tuned in.
Once back in the office, it’s tempting to slip back into that paralysis by analysis of paperwork. If you obsess too much over paperwork and written reports of a visit, you waste precious time. Plus, if you add too many embellishments to a report, it can muddy the picture of how the visit really went. You want a concise recording that shows you, at a glance, all the key things to remember for your next interaction with the prospect.
Measuring the effectiveness of major gift officers is one of the most challenging parts of my job. They can do everything right and still not receive the gift they anticipated. On the other end of the spectrum, they can have an eager and willing donor provide a seven-figure gift with next to no effort. Fundraising is a numbers game and the number of prospects, number of visits and number of proposals are paramount to success.
Undoubtedly, every gift officer will struggle from time to time, but following the advice above will ensure more success than failure.
Lennie Barton is vice president for institutional advancement at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.