On March 20, Lisa Hoffman, social sector coach and consultant, led a conversation at Foundation Center West: A Day in the Life of a Major Gifts Officer. She spoke with two major gifts officers: Shernaz Polad Boga, director of donor engagement at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California; and Leigh Illion, director of leadership gifts at the San Francisco Marin Food Bank. Boga and Illion shared their experiences and best practices for succeeding in their current work cultivating and securing major gifts for their respective organizations. A recording of the event is available here.

Here are our top five takeaways from the conversation:

  1. One size does not fit all: a true donor-centric strategy requires individual customization across the board. Whether the major gifts officer is cultivating a new donor, stewarding an existing one, or determining whether or not to move a donor out of her portfolio, this work requires a lot of critical thinking and planning. And because individual donors are all different and distinct, they each require and respond to different tactics on the part of a major gifts officer. Some prefer face-to-face meetings, some respond better to letters and/or email, and some prefer a combination of the above (or a totally different combination of communication strategies!). Ultimately, it’s up to the major gifts officer to learn what kind of touch points works for each of the donors in her portfolio, and to develop a custom strategy for that donor. And in some cases, major gifts officers have to decide when they need to drop donors from portfolios because they’re no longer worth cultivating. Major gifts officers have to know when to cut their losses: sometimes, no matter what kind of strategy they employ, the donor simply isn’t interested in giving to the organization. And then, it’s time to move on and look for new prospects.
  2. Don’t strategize alone! Both Boga and Illion said that they regularly meet with their colleagues to discuss donor engagement strategy. Having input from team members with different perspectives, and perhaps more objective views of donor relationships, are invaluable to refining their engagement strategies and holding each other accountable.
  3. Don’t underestimate moves management. Moves management refers to the process of cultivating and ultimately soliciting donors on the part of major gifts officers. “Moves” are the action gifts officers take to identify donors, build relationships with them, ask them for gifts, steward them, and solicit gift renewals. Both Boga and Illion have a several-step process of donor engagement — from prospecting, to asking and/or dropping a donor from their portfolios. They also explained that moves management is not always a linear process: depending on the donor and his or her giving inclinations, they might engage with them at different steps of the process, and might mix up the order of the process. Boga also recommended John Thedford’s book, Smart Moves Management: Cultivating World Class People and Profits.
  4. Working at a small organization can be enormously beneficial. Both Boga and Illion mentioned that they have, at one point in their careers, worked for a smaller organization. They said that they were required to wear many hats in these positions — from grant writing to donor stewardship and basic administrative work — and ultimately, they were able to master a variety of skills that have benefitted them greatly in their careers as a major gifts officer.
  5. Calling to say “thank you” makes a big difference. Sometimes, a simple “thank you” call to a donor can make all the difference in securing a gift at the next level. In the age of texting and email, making a phone call is more personal, and all the more effective in reinforcing a relationship with a donor.

If you are a major gifts officer, we’d love to hear about your strategy! How do you approach your work? What are some of your best practices, or lessons learned? Reply in the comments below, or tweet at us, @FCSanFrancisco.

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