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[ASK AN EXPERT] What To Do When Lead Development Staff Won’t Leave Their Desk

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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 nonprofit employee who wants advice on how to encourage their Development Director to take meetings with major donors.  

Dear Charity Clairity,

Every time I attend a conference or webinar on the subject of major donor development I learn about the importance of meeting with major donors in person. But our head of development is super resistant and will rarely go out and meet people. They’re really good at a lot of other things, but how do we get this person to understand the in-person conversation is key?  

— Fear of Being Held Back

Dear Fear of Being Held Back,

You are right to be concerned about this. The real work of major gift fundraising is relationship building. It’s challenging to do this from behind a desk. This is why the fundraising adage “major gift officers have to get out from behind their desks” has long been accepted wisdom. 

That being said, the fact they should be meeting in person does not mean they can. Sometimes they won’t have the skills. Sometimes they won’t have the support, time and resources. 

There are a few things that may be going on here:

  • You have the right person in this job; they need some training and/or coaching
  • You have the right person in this job; they’ve got wrong things in their portfolio
  • You have the wrong person in this job; their strengths lie elsewhere

Let’s look at these one at a time, and consider some options to ameliorate the situation.

Provide training and/or coaching

Teach your staff to fish: People aren’t born knowing how to build a major donor pipeline and expertly move folks through this pipeline. Unless your staff member has done this effectively before, and was mentored by someone who knew what they were doing, they’re going to naturally be resistant. They’ll do anything else so as not to be unmasked as frauds. Or they’ll dip their toes in the water, only to find a lot of donors aren’t returning their calls. They’ll get discouraged and focus on other tasks — of which there are usually more than enough to fill the day!

It’s important for staff to learn how to fish in the major donor pond. The truth is not everyone will want to build a relationship or be “wined and dined.’ Yet about a third of the folks you initially identify as major donor prospects will be receptive to bonding activities. It’s important for staff to understand this so they persevere. If you have 100 donors giving $1,000+ around 33 of them will agree to meet with you. This needs to happen or you’ll leave money on the table. Executive and development directors, as well as major gift officers, need to understand the need to get out of the office.  Or, if they’re not getting out out, at least they must be front-and-center with their camera and audio turned on so they can connect face-to-face via a digital platform convenient for the donor. 

Take some tasks off this person’s plate

Reassign: If the problem is leadership heaping so many additional activities on this person’s plate (e.g., strategic planning, budgeting, writing appeals, entering data, running events, researching new prospects, etc.) they don’t have time to get out of the office, commit to moving these tasks to someone else’s portfolio. It’s generally accepted wisdom that one full-time major gifts officer, 100% dedicated to donor qualification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship, can handle a portfolio of 150 prospects. Assuming a 40-hour work week, if you have 75 prospective major donors you’ll need to assign 20 hours of someone’s time to this task. If you have just 30 prospects this could potentially be handled by someone else the equivalent of one day a week. And so on.

Make a new hire: If there’s no one else available on staff, consider hiring someone full or part-time exclusively to handle major gifts. While it’s tempting to think “If I hire someone, my first hire will be for program not fundraising,” this is penny-wise and pound-foolish thinking. Because major gifts fundraising can make it possible for you to hire not just one, but perhaps two, three or even more program staff. Major gifts development requires an upfront investment, yet it’s one that should pay off down the line in spades. Major gift fundraising costs, on average, $0.5 to $0.10 per dollar raised compared with $0.50 for events and $1.00 to $1.25 for direct mail donor acquisition. Major gifts from individuals account for the lion’s share of philanthropy, so typically somewhere in the range of 70, 80 or 90 percent of your contribution income will come from 30, 20 or 10 percent of your donors.  

Counsel a poor fit out the door

Call a spade a spade: If the resistance is coming from the staff member clearly assigned to build major donor relationships, they simply must be told this is an essential part of their job. It may be helpful to evaluate together how many prospects you have and how many face-to-face hours may be required. Offer training if you think this will help. Yet if it’s not a good fit for them, either assign them to something else (if possible) or gently let them know this isn’t going to work.

Thanks for this question,

Charity Clairity

P.S. We learned serendipitously over the pandemic period that donors are remarkably receptive to Zoom visits. You can do just about anything you can do in person in terms of active listening and tuning into the donor’s facial expressions and body language. You can even notice things in their personal space to comment on for the introductory small talk (“I love your cuckoo clock. Is there a story behind that?”). Even if they’re using a fake background, it gives you something to comment on. The one thing that may be different on Zoom is timing. It’s somehow more fatiguing for some folks to connect on an hour-long Zoom than an hour-long in-person visit. So prepare to keep the visit to 30 – 45 minutes if you sense this to be the case.

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  • Duke

    As always Claire, you are right on point! I have worked with a number of individuals having dual managing/fundraising responsibilities in a senior fundraising role. As you said, you need to truly understand the talents, abilities and desires of the person in that role. Thank you for your precise "clarification" of different ways to assess this scenario. Duke F. Duke Haddad, Ed.D., CFRE
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