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6 Ways to Attract and Retain Major Gift Officers

Retaining your gift officers mean retaining the relationships they've cultivated

December 13, 2019

Good major gift officers are highly paid pros that universities need to drum up necessary funds. They’re also in short supply. The average tenure for a major gifts officer (MGO) is just 18 to 24 monthsand the direct and indirect costs of finding a replacement add up to $127,650. Worse yet, 51% of all fundraisers expect to leave their jobs within the next two years, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

While moving to a different organization isn’t unusual in any career field, it’s more than just a personnel issue when a major gifts officer leaves. “Every time we lose a gift officer, we also lose the years of relationships they brought to the table,” says Travis McDearmon, Development Officer at Butler University. Bringing in a new major gifts officer means having to start from scratch with a donor who may have been supporting the university for a long time.

So how can you attract and retain major gift officers, avoid the high costs of finding a replacement, and hang onto those valuable donor relationships? By following this advice from our go-to experts.

The 6 Keys to Major Gifts Officer Retention

“It’s a ‘buyer’s market’ right now for gift officers,” says McDearmon. You’d think that means you have to offer a big paycheck in order to compete, but that’s not so. Many of the benefits that a major gifts officer would be interested in—and the drawbacks that cause them to leave—go beyond high wages.


1. Have Realistic Expectations of Your Major Gifts Officer

In a survey called UnderDeveloped by CompassPoint and the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, one-third of fundraisers reported that they’re burdened with unrealistic performance goals. This is a major reason why gift officers leave an organization.

It doesn't matter whether a person has one year or ten years of experience in the field; if it’s their first year as a major gifts officer in your organization, they need some ramp-up time before being hit with large fundraising goals.

“If they're relatively new to fundraising, that ramp-up period could be three to six months to understand internally how things work, how to use the database, and how to use the processes and procedures in that university,” says James Rygg, Director of Prospect Development at Azusa Pacific University. Developing relationships with donors also takes time for new gift officers—even with long-time donors.

If your university’s expectations are too high, your new major gifts officer won’t be able to meet those expectations, and they’ll move on. On the other hand, successful MGOs tend to stick around. “Really successful fundraisers usually stay at an organization a long time because they have an infrastructure that helps them be successful,” says Rygg. “They have a good portfolio, they have a good pipeline, they have all the components there to help them succeed.” 


2. Let Them Do Their Jobs

Seasoned gift officers want to be able to do their job as they see fit. A major gifts officer with five or more years of experience has a pretty good handle on how to do their job. As they consider working with a new university, they’re looking for the flexibility to evaluate the area they’re assigned to—and to not feel micromanaged or boxed into metrics that don’t make sense.

Major gift officers also want to work on the high-priority activities that use their skills and training. The bad news is that 20% of fundraisers whose main responsibility is major giving aren’t spending much time on actual fundraising. Instead, they’re bogged down in administrative tasks, attending internal meetings, managing staff, and running galas and events.

Give gift officers the leeway to do their jobs, and they’ll be more likely to stick with you for the long term.


3. Include  Major Gift Officers in Important Decisions

Surprisingly, when a university is planning its development program, MGOs are often overlooked as a source of insights and ideas. “Say you have someone who's been a gift officer for a long time, who is on the front lines or on the ground talking to donors,” says McDearmon. “They are the people you should go to, to figure out how to start a big new fundraising campaign. But many institutions will leave the actual gift officers out of that conversation.” In fact, according to the UnderDeveloped survey, 55% of fundraisers said they “often feel unappreciated” in their role.

When major gift officers are not included in this kind of planning, many will simply leave, feeling that their expertise isn’t respected. Because university development is a small community, word quickly spreads about a university’s attitude toward gift officers. If your organization isn’t supportive of major gift officers, they’ll know it.


4. Offer Flexible Hours

Gift officers have a unique job. Like sales, fundraising requires being out in the community rather than sitting behind a desk. Many MGOs are expected to travel frequently as well.

Since gift officers’ work isn’t confined to the 9-5, flexible work environments are very attractive to them. For example, evening hours should count as part of the workday—so if your major gifts officer participates in an evening event, let them choose to come in later the next morning. This goes a long way toward building gift officers’ morale.


5. Treat Your Gift Officers to Current Technology

Donors don’t give just because your university has the most advanced CRM, but having the right tools is essential for an effective giving program.

"Many gift officers are asked to deal with outdated systems for data entry, correspondence, and setting up events," says McDearmon. Good tools free up the major gifts officer's time to focus on building relationships with donors and promoting the university’s program. Additionally, as we mentioned earlier, word spreads; gift officers looking for a new opportunity will steer clear if they know you’re using outdated tech.

Rygg also recommends focusing on analytics. Using data analytics to identify who in your database is most likely to give can help your gift officers succeed—which will, in turn, encourage them to stay with your university. Analytics helps narrow down the huge funnel of potential donors so your MGOs can focus on the best prospects.


6. Honor Philanthropy

Some universities don’t understand the impact of philanthropy. They hire a major gifts officer because they’re “supposed to”—but they don’t respect MGOs, and they don’t take advantage of these pros’ experience and skills. To attract gift officers and keep them happy, honoring philanthropy needs to be a part of your organization’s culture.

Are you ready to help your MGOs succeed? Contact us for a demo of CueBack. You’ll learn how our cutting-edge AI technology can give your major gift officers the time to do what they do best—and improve your donor relations and gift officer retention rates.

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