Use this study to scale cultivation strategy development to meet donor expectations within current staff capabilities and time allocation and maximize fundraiser efficiency in higher ed.
Major gift officers (MGOs) often comprise the single largest staff investment within any development team, but chief advancement officers are increasingly questioning whether MGO productivity justifies the cost. Instead of investing in additional frontline fundraisers, advancement teams are increasingly considering how to grow fundraising productivity by helping current staff work more efficiently at every point in the cultivation cycle.
To move beyond fundraisers’ current challenges, advancement teams should focus on three critical areas for improved efficiency. First, advancement leaders should provide MGOs with the tools to implement creative cultivation strategy without rewriting the playbook for every major gift prospect. Second, managers of frontline fundraisers should deploy goal-setting and data tracking to provide targeted, proactive coaching for MGO challenges and skill gaps. Third, advancement should take the lead in rethinking how MGOs spend their time in order to refocus on fundraising.
Section 1: Develop donor strategy at scale
The expectations of major gift donors have become increasingly challenging for gift officers to meet. Today’s top donors, identified as “donor-investors,” share a philanthropic mindset characterized by a desire for transformative impact, hands-on engagement, and bold ideas. Development teams are accustomed to meeting these demands for a handful of individuals at the top of the giving pyramid, but this mindset has expanded down the giving pyramid and beyond advancement teams’ capabilities. Major gifts have become increasingly customized, and annual fund supporters seek an “Amazon experience” with a wide selection of cause-based giving opportunities instead of one-size-fits-all unrestricted gifts.
Practice 1: Pre-Discovery Engagement Plans
One of the top challenges faced by major gift officers is getting prospective donors to respond to development outreach. When prospects ignore emails and phone calls, gift officers struggle to qualify enough prospects to reach their annual goals.
Gift officers’ communication often fails because it does not include content that compels prospects to respond. Emails often feature generic subject lines, broad details, and uninteresting next steps. Prospects who open these messages may be left with unanswered questions about why the meeting is
important, how it is different from other institutionally-sponsored events, and what the agenda will be.
To move beyond generic emails, Furman University ensures that prospects receive compelling content as the first step in cultivation as part of a Pre-Discovery Engagement Plan. Engagement staff at Furman identify opportunities on campus and on the road that are unique and likely to match a prospect’s interests, like a tailgate that is an exclusive networking event for former student athletes. To get these hard-to-reach prospects to respond, Furman’s team uses multiple communications channels to send the message, like peer networking and scripting for student callers.
Practice 2: Entry-Level Gift Customization
Gift officers increasingly struggle to match prospects’ interests with the opportunities for support on campus. Major gift donors increasingly want to support individualized, customized gift destinations. Yet institutions set fundraising priorities to appease stakeholders across campus, leading to broad buckets of giving opportunities that are a far cry from donors’ interests.
Gift cultivation often slows down as MGOs attempt to identify priorities on campus that will excite a prospect, sometimes relying on customized proposals that may be impossible to sustain over time because they are too prescriptive or request too much donor control over how funding is distributed.
To let donors maintain control over their gifts without veering too far from institutional priorities, institutions are clarifying donors’ customization options upfront. Sewanee, the University of the South has designed Entry-Level Gift Customization to give first-time major gift donors the options they seek without making gifts impossible-to-implement or unsustainable over time. Donors can choose to fund a current-use internship or named scholarship, and they can specify the field for which an internship
is designated or can specify broad parameters for scholarship recipients.
Practice 3: Giving Opportunity Interest Map
MGOs often struggle to quickly connect donors to relevant campus priorities because it is challenging to keep track of every giving opportunity that could be of interest. To address this challenge, the University of Denver created a Giving Opportunity Interest Map that helps MGOs pinpoint existing priorities that align with prospects’ interests instead of asking them to wade through information published separately by every campus division.
Practice 4: Turnkey Cultivation Journey Toolkit
To make gains in fundraiser efficiency in higher ed, gift officers need to move prospects from qualification to solicitation as quickly as possible, yet MGOs often struggle to maintain momentum over time. Most donor cultivation cycles start with a promising launch. Introductory visits are attached to strong talking points and clear next steps. However, MGOs’ cultivation plans often stall after the early stages. Often, cultivation enters a “murky middle” period where MGOs lack clear reasons to meet, interesting collateral to build excitement, or tangible next steps. As a result, planned solicitation dates are pushed farther into the future or postponed indefinitely.
To avoid stalling during cultivation, gift officers need a strong toolkit with ready-to-use resources that will move prospect strategy forward. To achieve this goal, Clemson University created a Turnkey Cultivation Journey Toolkit that guides MGOs from qualification to gift with clear to-do items at every
stage. The toolkit provides a plug-and-plan strategy for every prospect and removes MGO decision making from cultivation planning so that they can focus on customizing the templated steps for each prospect.
Sample Toolkit Components for Cultivation
- Is my plan right for the donor?
- Is my ask at the right level?
- Is now the right time for an ask?
- Do I know what my next steps will be?
- Meet with a scholarship recipient
- Visit financial aid office
- Attend donor appreciation event
- Attend day of gratitude
- Financial condition impacts ability to give
- Donor writes a check for a different amount than discussed
- Academic leader shares priorities but doesn’t mention scholarships
Practice 5: Crowdsourced Strategy Library
Gift officers lose time creating cultivation strategies from scratch instead of re-using what has worked over time. To encourage MGO strategy sharing, Villanova University is creating a CRM-based Crowdsourced Strategy Library that will allow gift officers to copy and paste cultivation steps into their prospects’ records. Development leaders will take the lead in identifying which strategies are strong enough to be included in the library, and MGOs will be able to choose the best-fit strategy for their prospects and adapt it to their interests.
The strategy library has allowed MGOs at Villanova to spend more time acting on strategy and engaging donors instead of brainstorming new cultivation steps at their desks. Tenured gift officers have appreciated the opportunity to gain new ideas from their colleagues, and MGO onboarding will cover the library’s benefits to get new MGOs up to speed more quickly.
Section 2: Enhance intermediate goal accountability
Gift officers often struggle to cover their entire portfolios because they are not accustomed to high-volume project management. Today’s major gift landscape is more complex than ever, as escalating donor demand for customized interactions requires MGOs to think about every prospect as a unique campaign into itself. Planning and carrying out these pursuits requires strong project management skills, but gift officer recruitment often prioritizes donor-facing skills, like experience making the ask, communicating with stakeholders, and staying cool under pressure. As a result, MGOs face a skill mismatch between the skills they bring to the role and the expectations thrust upon them.
Practice 6: Collaborative Weighted Metrics
The first step to increasing manager effectiveness is instilling responsibility for collaboratively setting goals with staff. To ensure that managers design goals to support their staff members’ tenure and unit context, the University of Wisconsin-Madison implemented Collaborative Weighted Metrics. All fundraisers are assessed based on the same metrics categories, but each metric’s weight is determined through annual conversations between managers and MGOs.
For example, if one unit’s fundraisers recently finished a new building campaign, their metrics for the following year may prioritize qualifying new donors, with solicitation weighted lower.
Collaborative Weighted Metrics has increased fundraiser buy-in for performance metrics, because staff understand why and how individual metrics are determined. For managers, the CRM generates an overall score for every fundraiser, enabling apples-to-apples performance comparisons between direct reports, even if they have metrics that are weighted differently.
Practice 7: Portfolio Activity Dashboard
To focus on where fundraisers need to improve, managers need access to updated, easy-to understand data. The University of Cincinnati addressed this challenge by designing a portfolio activity dashboard that gives managers an at-a-glance view of a gift officer’s portfolio. Color-coded indicators show when a prospect hasn’t had a recent visit, has an out-of-date activity plan, or is not on track toward a predicted ask date. MGOs are expected to have 80% of their portfolio defined as “active,” which means that three out of four activity indicators are green on the dashboard.
Since the launch of the Prospect Activity Dashboard, managers have appreciated the ability to quickly see how their direct reports are doing. Managers can now have targeted conversations based on the data instead of relying on gift officers to self-report the challenges in their workflow. To ensure that these conversations take place, managers are expected to regularly consult the dashboard and proactively intervene when an indicator moves in a negative direction, like when as ask is postponed
or a prospect plan is no longer active.
Red Flags Show Where to Spend Check-In Time
“Let’s use our time today to talk about how to get this ask
back on track.”
“The donor recently had a family emergency. How do you suggest that I keep the conversation
“Let’s talk about how to update your strategy and plan a new ask date.”
Practice 8: Root Cause KPIs
To increase the value of performance conversations, managers need to know both where their staff are underperforming and why performance is suffering, so they can coach accordingly. Oregon State University uses 18 Root Cause Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to allow managers to determine where staff are struggling and why.
All gift officers at Oregon State are evaluated based on four broad metrics categories: visits, gifts closed, proposals, and dollars raised. The KPIs are used in ongoing conversations with managers but do not affect overall performance ratings.
To calculate the KPIs, fundraisers are required to enter updated data in the CRM, and data analysts flag troubling patters or red flags for managers. For example, if a gift officer is overperforming on visits but not reaching their goals for dollars raised, managers can consult the KPIs to understand if
the MGO is visiting enough new prospects with capacity to make a major gift.
Standardized definitions for recording and analyzing activities
Supervisors discuss paint points with MGOs
intermediate steps to reach goals
Section 3: Realign time investments
Gift officer productivity is a critical driver of advancement’s return on investment at every institution. Major and principal gift officers represent the largest segment of development staff, and a significant portion of annual budgets is invested in their salaries. While salary figures depend substantially on market competitiveness and tenure, large investments in frontline fundraising mean that advancement teams need to maximize the ROI from staffing investments, including allowing fundraisers to bring in as many new gifts per month as possible.
Practice 9: Time Allocation Predictive Model
Deans frequently underestimate the ROI tradeoffs of distracting their frontline fundraisers. Academic leaders often view fundraisers as the best staff members to take on any externally-facing tasks, so they fill gift officers’ time with managing advisory boards, editing newsletters, and planning events (a practice commonly called “dean creep”). This practice continues because deans may be unable to identify other staff who can manage the growing number of external commitments facing their divisions. As a result, overall fundraising productivity never approaches the unit’s estimated prospect capacity.
To reduce or eliminate dean creep, the University of Miami created an interactive model to show deans the ROI tradeoffs of distracting their fundraisers. The spreadsheet-based model includes sliders that deans can manipulate to estimate their unit’s fundraising based on how much time MGOs can dedicate to prospects and donors. For example, the model will show what a unit can raise if its MGOs spend 50% of their time fundraising compared to a fundraising estimate if MGOs spend 80% of their
time raising gifts.
75% goal for dedicated fundraising time
+25% estimated increase in fundraising potential
Practice 10: Responsibility Identification Matrix
Decisions in higher education, including fundraising, are traditionally made by bringing all stakeholders to the table to provide input, which slows the process and prevents action from being taken quickly. These slow decisions demonstrate the Ringelmann Effect, in which every member of a group becomes less productive as the group gets larger. As major gifts become more complex, more and more stakeholders ask to be involved. While bringing everyone to the table increases buy-in, it can lead to increased frustration and slow gift processes from start to finish.
Because of this culture of inviting everyone to the table, gift officers often get stuck in a never-ending cycle of waiting for approval. To encourage MGOs to take action, North Central College outlined when MGOs need to seek input. Taking a lesson from private sector project management, development leadership created a RACI Matrix for every step in the gift process. For every stage, the matrix lists who should provide insight and who receives updates before a gift officer can move forward.
RACI Matrix Clarifies When to Act
Practice 11: Automated Gift Agreement Workflow
Instead of spending time with prospects, MGOs often lose time to paperwork that must be completed on campus. Staff at Caltech realized that MGOs were spending too long waiting for gift agreements to be approved by stakeholders across campus, so they automated the process.
When a gift agreement is needed, individual MGOs answer a series of questions about what the proposed agreement will include. The automated system generates and fills in one of twelve templates. Once templated, the agreement is automatically sent to anyone who needs to approve it.
Thanks to the automated process, gift agreements at Caltech are approved in 50% less time than before the system was implemented, and MGOs can spend more time engaging donors instead of filing paperwork on campus. Agreements for principal gifts and complex priorities may still require
substantial attention, but turnaround on most standard agreements has been shortened from two months to one month, with some documents being approved within 24 hours of creation.
Practice 12: Portfolio Reduction Initiatives
To make fundraisers more efficient, advancement leaders need to rethink MGOs’ overall scope of responsibility. Currently, gift officers’ jobs stretch them between numerous time-intensive yet low return activities, like conducting qualification calls and drafting stewardship plans.
Many institutions have reduced portfolio size as a first step to help gift officers use their time more efficiently. Inspired by David Lively’s Managing Major Gift Fundraisers: A Contrarian’s Guide, advancement teams have reduced portfolios to no more than 75 prospects per fundraiser to increase
focus, move prospects to a gift faster, and reduce the number of prospects who are held in portfolios but ignored by fundraisers.
The benefits of portfolio shrinking include greater portfolio churn and more efficient prospect cultivation. Queen’s University recently shrank every gift officer’s portfolio to approximately 50 prospects. At the same time, MGO metrics were re-weighted to emphasize critical donor outcomes,
like solicitations and dollars in, while de-emphasizing activities that distract from donor cultivation.
Practice 13: Responsibility Unbundling
While shrinking portfolios offers numerous possibilities for increased gift officer focus and overall ROI, it creates questions about who within the advancement team should take responsibility for parts of the donor lifecycle that are beyond gift officers’ purview. For many advancement teams, smaller portfolios require evaluating which functions can be reassigned to other staff to avoid neglecting donors and prospects who are not actively being cultivated for a major gift.
To increase gift officer focus on donor cultivation and respond to the challenges unearthed by portfolio shrinking efforts, colleges and universities are increasingly pursuing unbundling strategies in which
some MGO responsibilities are reassigned within the advancement division.
Numerous tasks could be included in unbundling initiatives.
Cold calling is one of the lowest-return, highest-volume tasks assigned to MGOs. Despite its value, MGOs often lose time to qualification calls when they should be working with qualified, responsive prospects. Advancement leaders at Gonzaga University realized that prospect research staff could
support cold calling efforts to free MGOs for higher-ROI activities.
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