Major gifts work is at the heart of fundraising and has the potential to catapult your organization to the next level. Nonprofit leaders often ask me what it takes to be successful in major gifts – what are the skills and personal qualities that characterize successful major gifts fundraisers?
Below are five key traits that the strong major gifts officers I’ve known have in common. I hope these observations will help you articulate what you’re seeking when filling a major gifts position, or help you assess if a career in major gifts is right for you.
A great major gifts officer is…
1. Passionate About Their Organization’s Mission
This may seem obvious, but I write it as a reminder to really probe a potential candidate’s - or your own - passion for your mission. I have NEVER seen a major gifts officer find success raising funds for an organization they weren’t personally very excited about. Fundraising is challenging work. And it gets even more challenging when someone is trying to manufacture a passion for your organization that isn’t really there.
2. Genuinely Curious About Other People
Major gift officers should enjoy spending A LOT of time getting to know and building relationships with donors. They should prefer to be out of the office and attending meetings, coffees, visits to people’s homes, lunches, etc. Some people find other human beings endlessly fascinating and they truly enjoy the surprises, connections and realizations that can come from getting to know someone. THIS is the person you want. Their curiosity will sustain them and provide the motivation to keep prospecting, cultivating and stewarding. This curiosity should be coupled with strong listening skills because that’s where learning happens.
3. Self-Driven and Self-Disciplined
I once heard that only 20% of humans are intrinsically motivated, meaning that a person enjoys an activity for the satisfaction of learning or having fun. This compares to extrinsically motivated folks who are motivated to learn, achieve or behave a certain way based on an external outcome or reward they might receive. Check out this short article for a further explanation of the differences.
Note to file: Successful major gift fundraisers are intrinsically motivated! They may be hard to find, but your search efforts will be worth it. There is too much rejection and unpredictability in fundraising for it to attract those who need external rewards. Good major gifts officers also tend to be very organized and skilled at keeping themselves on track with their work – how else could they manage a portfolio of 100 (or more) prospects?
4. Appropriately Persistent
I love this term. It’s a quality that all fundraisers should possess, no matter their specialty. Those of us who persist and advance in this profession do not give up easily. While you want your major gifts officer to have enough emotional intelligence to keep from pushing too hard or offending donors, your successful candidate will also have the creativity, optimism and tenacity to find their way around a “no” answer to a more productive “not right now,” “maybe,” or best yet, “yes.”
5. Results Oriented
This one is a big deal. It’s super important to remember that major gifts officers aren’t just professional visitors. Meeting and chatting with donors is certainly part of relationship building, but major gifts fundraisers must also be strategic thinkers who always have their end goal in sight. They must be able to make asks and close gifts. They must steward donors appropriately in preparation for future asks. They must make and execute plans that move all of their donor relationships forward.
Because we’re all complex people, major gifts fundraisers included, here are some other necessary qualities to round out the “portrait” of your perfect candidate. A great major gifts officer should also be:
- Collaborative (team player)
- Emotionally intelligent
- Able to connect the dots
- Able to manage up
As with any job, when you find a person whose natural strengths and interests align with the qualities required to do the job well, you've hit the jackpot.
Tell us about your hiring (or firing?) experiences with major gifts fundraisers in the Comments box below. Where have you found your best people and what other advice can you share?
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