ask an expert

Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a major gift fundraiser who isn’t sure how to persuade their boss to excuse them from tasks (like events) that aren’t priorities in their job description.

Dear Charity Clairity,

I am a new major gift officer. We’re planning a big virtual event, and I’ve been asked to take on a significant role in the planning and implementation. I understand how important it may be to use the event to cultivate major donors, but event planning and digital platforms are not my areas of expertise. I fear this will draw my time away from attending to my portfolio of major donor prospects. How can I persuade my boss to excuse me from tasks that are not priorities in my job description?

— Can’t Do it All

Dear Can’t Do it All,

You are right to be concerned. Any time a major gifts officer spends on tasks not focused on qualifying, cultivating, soliciting and stewarding major donor prospects is time that will result in diminished dollars. You may be able to do it all, but you won’t be able to do it all well.

To avoid falling into the trap of becoming a “major gifts officer in name only,’ share with your boss how your time will be best spent to contribute to the bottom line. 

There are only so many hours in a day and days in a year. If you do the math, out of 365 total days less weekends, holidays, vacations and internal meetings, you’re likely to have just 18 days a month to be with donors. Assuming you spend the majority of your time with your top tier prospects, and somewhat less time with lower tiers, this nets out to a maximum caseload of 150 donors per major gifts officer. You need every bit of your 18 days/month to focus on your caseload. Sure, you’ll be able to cultivate some of your prospects through the vehicle of a special event. You can message them before and after and connect with them in real time (e.g., use a break-out room or chat box on Zoom). But you need other folks to do the planning.

If you have more than 150 prospects on your caseload, you’re already in a hole because you’ll only be able to do a mediocre job with most of them. Most will end up giving less than they would have if you’d spent more time with them. 

If you have less than 150 prospects on your caseload you can carve out time for other activities. But do the math! If you have just 75 prospects, you can spend half your time on other projects. If you have 100 prospects, you can spend only a third of your time on other projects. And so on.

Your caseload is not just the folks you will ask personally. Be clear that in some cases your CEO, VIP program director, Board President or other board member will take on the ultimate ask. Many times the right person to ask is the person the donor knows best or who they will perceive as most important or most friendly; this may not be the MGO. Just because you won’t be the one to make the solicitation however does not mean this prospect is not included in your major gifts ‘moves management’ portfolio.  Your job is to manage the process, assuring the appropriate touches and moves are made every step of the way along each major donor prospect’s journey towards making a passionate gift. You will probably qualify the prospect through a series of touches and moves, make the assignment to the appropriate solicitor, set up the visit, and hold the solicitor’s feet to the fire to follow through. In this regard, you may staff a major gifts committee comprised of board members and donors who are willing to be engaged in this process. You’ll also make sure there is appropriate follow-up after the solicitation has been made. This all takes time. 

If you allow important major gifts management tasks to slip through the cracks, you end up with the functional equivalent of these prospects being on no one’s portfolio. In other words, if they’re just on a list for the CEO to ask, but they never get around to it without you pushing them to do so, what does that accomplish?

Your focus must be on major donors and major donor prospects, not events, grants, mailings, appeal writing (except for major donor proposals), public relations or social media. All these tasks take you away from your major focus. And since major gifts often account for 70 – 90% or more of an organization’s philanthropic revenue, this makes little bottom line sense.

A good way I’ve found to persuade leadership is to establish realistic stretch targets for every donor on your caseload. This is really the heart of a major gift officer’s work. Everything you do should be designed to nurture your donor’s best possible gift. When your boss sees how much money is at stake, they may be more likely to help you protect your time.

Effective major gifts development is a team sport. You can’t do this alone. You need outcome information and programs to sell (the purview of program staff)… donors to sell them to (the purview of donor acquisition/annual giving staff)… a supportive infrastructure (the purview of database and tech staff)… and a pervasive, organization-wide culture of philanthropy focused on donors, not dollars (the purview of leadership).

I hope this helps, and you’re able to move forward doing what you do best!

— Charity Clairity

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Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad