4 min Read
September 27, 2017

How to build an effective Major Gifts Team: 5 myths, 5 facts, and 5 pieces of advice


Ever since the big data explosion, data analysis has been shooting up the priority lists of fundraisers and marketers across the nonprofit spectrum. Yet this best practice has struggled to gain a foothold in one of the most lucrative forms of fundraising: major giving. Cultivating and converting major donors has historically been a highly personal, emotion-based practice, but in this guest post, Graham-Pelton’s fundraising experts show us that data analysis can play an important role.

Building a high-performing Major Gifts Team is one of the many struggles development organizations face. What will truly make a team more effective? How can we know when we’ve reached our potential? How do we know when we are really doing the best we can?

When it comes to living up to our capabilities – whether it’s simply enjoying a successful and productive workday or improving an organization over time – keeping up with and analyzing increasingly available data can feel tedious. Often in the development field, it may be tempting to stick with what we’ve always been doing – with what seems to work, even though it might not be what’s best.

How much can the data really help us build a fundraising team anyway?

A lot.

Really? But how?

When it comes to building a Major Gifts Team, the data suggests that most of us have been building our teams based primarily on myths and not facts.

You mean we’ve been doing it wrong all these years? What can we do to improve?  

Well, we’ve analyzed that tedious data for you (you’re welcome!). If you want to see big improvements in your Major Gifts Team, here are the top 5 myths debunked, along with the facts and our advice for how to optimize your efforts to reach your full fundraising potential.

MYTH 1: Gift Officers raise more money when they make more visits to donors.

FACT: Officers with more realistic, strategic visits raise more money. Actually, despite goals often set at 120 prospect visits or greater, high-performing gift officers are often making only 80-100 visits a year (and soliciting about 25 major gifts). What is crucial isn’t the number of visits, but strategic portfolio management and individualized goal setting.

ADVICE: Set visit goals individually and strategically based on the composition of a portfolio. Remember: the more attainable and realistic, the better the results!

MYTH 2: Bigger metrics reflect higher gift productivity.

FACT: Some of the most helpful metrics in examining major gifts productivity are Close Rate and Percent of Solicited Dollars Closed. A very high or very low percentage for either of these metrics should generate a red flag. No one should be closing 100% of their gifts! Close Rates of 50%-70% and Percent of Solicited Dollars Closed of 50%-80% are typical for high-performing gift officers.

ADVICE: Examine Close Rates and Percent of Solicited Dollars Closed for each gift officer. Remember, Close Rates that are either too low or too high are both red flags!

MYTH 3: Major Gift Officers should work alone.

FACT: Partner up! When Major Gift Officers partner with Board members, institutional leaders, or Planned Giving Officers, they statistically close more major gifts – and achieve gifts that are closer to their ask amounts.

ADVICE: Encourage gift officers to make visits and solicit in partnership with others. Consider creating a metric to report on partnership activity.

MYTH 4: The best way to keep a good gift officer is to make her or him a manager.

FACT: Many gift officers are ill-suited to management roles, and yet are often promoted without the needed support to ensure success. Further, taking high performers and saddling them with management tasks inevitably tanks productivity and success. Instead, look for career growth opportunities involving exposure to Boards, leaders, and top prospects, along with special development projects, and keep your gift officers on the frontline. Officers spending 80% or more of their time on frontline fundraising will have the greatest returns and highest productivity.

ADVICE: Whether mentoring occurs in-house, is manager-driven, or is delivered by outside counsel, invest in individual coaching for your frontline team and don’t overinvest in low performers at the expense of rising stars.

MYTH 5: A big portfolio allows gift officers to develop lots of relationships and ensure a healthy pipeline.

FACT: Gift officers are not great at portfolio management and shouldn’t have to be. Development managers have been dramatically reducing the size of portfolios to ensure gift officers can focus activity on key prospects in cultivation and solicitation stages – finding new ways to ensure a pipeline of qualified and stewarded prospects without spending gift officer time to do this work. Major gifts portfolio sizes have reduced from what were national averages of more than 160 prospects to averages closer to ~90 prospects.

ADVICE: Review portfolios each year. Are those top 50 prospects closest to solicitation and in need of focused cultivation identified?

Today is the day to start managing your Major Gifts Teams based on facts, not myths – and you have the data to back it up!