Finding a Great Major Gifts Officer

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of nurturing the growth of advancement professionals at early stages of their careers.  To watch many of them develop into major gift rock stars has been deeply meaningful to me. 

I’m often asked, especially these days, “What exactly makes a great major gifts fundraiser?”  I’ve seen it happen, first-hand, many times over the last 45 years.  It is not luck.  It’s specific path.

Let’s begin with a story.

I was the chief advancement officer for our organization.  The president and the Board expressed to me their expectation that, two years hence, we would commence a Capital Campaign for $20 million.

It was my job to build the program and build the team to make that happen.

There was one little problem.  Aside from myself, and an uber-talented associate director, we had no major gifts officers. 


I picked up the phone and called a friend of mine who was the Senior Vice President for Development at a major university.  After we chatted for a minute I got to the point.

“Can you give me the name of someone I can recruit to do major gifts?”  I was expecting, literally, that he would go to his rolodex and pluck out the card of an All-Star and hand that name to me over the phone.  All would be well and my problem would be solved.

He shocked me.

“Rob, I can’t do that.  You need to grow your own.”

Honestly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  “Are you sure?  You don’t have anyone to recommend?”

My friend told me again, “That’s not what will help you the most.  You really need to grow your own.”

If you want to know the truth, I was a little pissed.  My friend was no help at all.

How wrong I was.  His answer shaped my view about the development of major gift officers to this day. 

He was right.  I needed to “grow my own.”

So I did.

We hired three people, actually.  Three people who, between them, had ZERO major gifts experience.

By the end of the Campaign each person had, on their own, closed a $50,000 gift.  Today, each of these three women is a chief development officer.

What did I learn? Major gifts experience doesn’t matter. 

Does that shock you?  Do you think I’ve lost it? 

It’s true.  Experience is not the sole, or even the lead, determining factor for major gifts success. 

Don’t believe me?  I can think of an American university that has completed multiple billion dollar campaigns.  Neither the current chief advancement officer, nor this person’s predecessor had any formal fundraising training to speak of.

Listen.  If you have a major gifts officer on your team with solid experience who makes an important contribution to your team, count your lucky stars.  If you are that person, I tip my cap to you.

But over four decades I’ve seen nonprofits look only for someone with experience on their resume. They bring that person on board, count on them to produce and too often find that experience and performance was misrepresented or exaggerated.

If you ask me, the surest path to developing major gift talent is to grow your own.

What does that mean?  What did my three “success-stories” have in common?  First, we looked for the TRANSFERABLE SKILLS a major gifts officer needs to have.

He or she needs to be organized, personable, have good manners, and be sharp.  Do you know what it means to look for someone who is sharp?  Yes, you do.

“Okay,” you say, “that’s fine.  We’ll look for people who are organized, personable, with good manners and who are sharp.  What else?”

I have seen there are four critical elements to finding and nurturing a major gifts success story.  If you are looking for that person who can grow into a major gifts star, it is up to you to find these four skill sets.

One, the person has to understand, and embrace, what their job is.  That means they want to be out making visits, they aren’t afraid to ask and honestly, they want to win.  That person needs to have a little competitive, feisty streak in them.

The three people who contributed so much to the success of our Campaign?  Who each closed a gift of $50,000 on their own?

One of them closed that gift on her last day.  She left her good-bye party to close that gift.

Do you think she was going to leave without getting that gift?  No way.

To me, that says it all.

Okay, what else?  The nascent major gift officer needs to be able to form and grow relationships.  How to listen.  How to stay in touch with the donor.  How to express a genuine thank you.  To understand it’s about the donor, not them.  It is your job to know, quickly, whether the person has those skills.

Does the person wear their pride and enthusiasm for the organization on their sleeve?  I don’t care how you ask for the gift.  You know that.  I think it is more important to be great at saying thank you than it is to be great at asking for the gift.  Anyone can ask.  A precious few understand how to say thank you.

If the fundraiser truly cares about what they represent (and trust me, the donor can tell), that’s all that matters.  Get the words out.  Invite the investment.  Don’t ask for money, invite the donor to make something great happen.  Be proud to make that ask.  That’s what works.

But there’s one more thing.  And I believe it’s the most important element of all.

Quiet confidence.

If you aspire to be a great major gifts fundraiser, you have to believe in yourself.  Believe that you can do this.  Banish the mean voices.  Have a humble belief in the importance of your message, to your organization and to the donor.  Go in with a smile and with your head held high. 

And if you’re lucky, have someone who believes in you. Like me.

Diversity in our profession begins with the earnest search for people of color to join us. But diversity should also embrace a respect of different approaches to our work, that people of all ages and experiences, with appropriate skills can enrich our organizations and our profession.