Major Donors

September 15, 2009       Douglas Shaw      

Many development officers and chief executive officers (CEOs) approach major donors with angst. Perhaps they feel inadequate, fear alienating an important donor, or even secretly resent people who are "filthy rich." Understandably, such conflicted people struggle to acquire the money that their organizations need.

There are also nonprofit professionals who seem to have no trepidation. These special people seem to share the same traits: self-confidence, effervescence, self-awareness and a complete lack of fear. They also love their donors more than their gifts.

When it comes to working with major donors, the difference between faith and fear — and success and failure — begins in the heart.

Related to a loving approach to their work, successful major gift officers share another critical trait: They possess a healthy theology of giving. They understand that "it is more blessed to give than receive." This principle is by no means limited to people of religious conviction. People need to give. Some desire to "give back" to the society from which they have benefited.

Others understand the calling to emulate a generous, giving God. Either way, major gift officers know that encouraging people to open themselves up to the many blessings that accrue to those who give is one of the most loving things they can do.

Yet successful major gift officers also know they have to translate their love for people into effective action, and the first step is to acquire the requisite knowledge. True excellence in major donor cultivation, like most things, requires serious, structured training. Whatever training you choose, you must put it into practice, or it will do you no good. All the head knowledge in the world will do your organization no good if you fail to bring it down to street level.

It’s all too easy to return to your office, put your newly acquired notebook on the shelf, hang up your Certificate of Completion and continue business as usual. Acting on what you have learned might require some seasoned guidance to jump-start your major donor program. If you have a qualified major donor cultivation consultant, use that person. This seasoned professional can help you remain focused, encourage you to implement what you’ve learned and hold you accountable. Successful development officers and CEOs aren’t afraid to ask for help.

Neither are they afraid to set realistic expectations with their boards and leadership staffs. And let’s face facts: Unrealistic expectations from higher-ups are the bane of existence for major gift officers, successful or otherwise. Anecdotal evidence suggests that that the average tenure of a development officer in the United States is only 18 months. Too often, if they don’t "produce results," they are shown the door. Many boards and CEOs hire development staff, expecting that these folks will raise all the money the ministry or organization needs. That’s not the way it should work. It’s certainly not a recipe for success.

To avoid almost certain failure and instead lay the groundwork for success, you must help your board, senior staff and colleagues to see exactly what major donor officers can and cannot do. Try as they might, such folks cannot raise all of the money their organization or ministry needs. No one can. Fundraising is a team effort.

Loving major donors requires the involvement of board members, trusted volunteers, program directors and fundraisers. It is the primary job of development officers to identify major donors and prospects, develop specific written strategies that will serve each and make certain these strategies are implemented. Notice that the last sentence didn’t include, "then you go out and raise all of the money."

This is where most expectations go awry. Developing clearly written, communicated and mutually acceptable expectations, from the outset, will enable you to care for your major donors more appropriately — while raising the maximum amount of money for your ministry or organization.

There is a simple axiom: "Money follows ministry." Are you truly ministering to — serving — your major donors? Or, are you going to them out of a sense of fear and obligation? Do you only care about their money? If so, then you can probably expect to see less of it.

The more you love your major donors, through their lean times as well during their times of great generosity, the more you will see long-term, joyful major donors. Truly, "it is more blessed to give than to receive." NPT

***

Douglas Shaw is chairman/CEO of Douglas Shaw & Associates in West Chicago, Ill. His email address is dshaw@douglasshaw.com