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Fundraiser Nightmares and How to Wake Up From Them: Think Big or Else!

By Tom Watson on June 27, 2008No Comment

Think Big or Else by Lilya Wagner

James had worked for five years at Somewhere University and found his career mildly stalled.  He had held entry-level positions, beginning with data entry, and quickly moved up the fundraising career ladder at the university.  He acquired experience in direct mail, managed the call center, helped design the donor website, created and managed the yearly community outreach event (the academic achievement awards that brought together donors and scholarship recipients), and had begun to communicate with some major donor prospects.  Here, he believed, he had found his niche!  This was where he functioned best!  He had the personality for such relationships; could present the case for support well, having worked his way up in one organization; and enjoyed identifying and cultivating the individuals who had the capacity to give large sums to Somewhere University.

When James asked the president of the university foundation if he could move into the major gifts officer role, he was told, “We already have one person doing this work, I’m also engaged with major donors, and we simply don’t have enough potential activity since we are a small, suburban institution.”  Disappointed but not discouraged, James began to look around for a job where he could assume the position of major gifts officer.

Because he liked educational fundraising and had acquired his experience in such a setting, he looked for job opportunities at major universities in his state.  His first interview was at a higher education institution of 20,000 students which also had a medical school.  The first question the president of the foundation asked him was, “What is your experience with major gifts?”  James began to explain how well he knew the fundraising process and had acquired expertise that would lend itself well to major gifts activities, but before he could explain that he had begun to interact with major donors at Somewhere University, the president interrupted.  “I’m looking for someone who brings considerable experience in the major gifts area.  I can’t take the time or take the risk of training someone who is fairly inexperienced.” 

Undaunted, James went to his next interview.  This was with a headhunter who promptly asked, “What’s your record of bringing in millions at your university?”  This time James was wiser and began with his most recent experience.  He said, “During the last fiscal year, I identified six half-million dollar or more donors, have had preliminary conversations with them, brought the president of the foundation to meet them, and I expect that from these results we’ll finish the year with at least two of these coming to fruition.”  The headhunter began to look at a point just behind James’s head and her eyes glazed over during this explanation.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “You bring many good qualifications and you probably could  run the annual fund if there were such an opening, but I don’t think you’re right for this university.”  Crestfallen, James asked, “Could you explain just what the university foundation is looking for?”  The headhunter responded, “They want someone who can make 25 calls a week, is good at following leads, will keep good records and fill out the forms, and will meet a goal of personally raising $3 million in the first year.”  James had the temerity to ask, “Are the donors out there?”  To which the headhunter replied with annoyance, “They’d better be!  That’s why we’d be hiring you!”  Clearly this relationship wasn’t going to work either.  James wanted to believe he was a professional, but this assignment seemed to border on being a technician.’

Somewhat confused, James went to his third interview.  This time he visited a national organization that focused on wildlife and the environment.  Maybe he would have more luck outside of academe.  “We’re diversifying our funding base,” the senior vice president for advancement told him.  “We’ve done well in receiving large government grants, and now we want to match those with private funding.  Your job will be to hit up the corporations.”  James was even more cautious this time and carefully phrased his next question.  “How much money was raised last year, and how much of that was in major gifts?”  The senior vice president gave him a look that bordered on disbelief.  “If we can get large government grants, certainly we can get big corporate gifts!”  “Does the organization have a database from which I could begin to identify major gift prospects?”  James asked.  The senior VP gave James a long look.  “We have a database we use for marketing and for our product sales.  Probably that would be enough.”  James tried a different tactic.  “Does this organization have an annual fund?”  At this point the senior vice president got up and said, “I think you are too academically oriented for us.  Thank you for coming in.  I wish you good luck in finding just the right, next job.”

James went to the nearest Starbucks, ordered his mocha latte in the largest size possible, threw in a brownie for good measure, then stared out the window at the passing traffic as he pondered his interview experiences.  He had learned, both in training sessions and at his previous workplace, that major gifts usually came from an organization’s own donor base, that most came from individuals, that it took time to bring a major gift to maturity, and that major gift fundraising was a relationship development, not a set of forms that were filled out by mandate.  What was happening?  His experience seemed to indicate a major shift in major gift cultivation and solicitation.  Now he was faced with a major gift mentality, and perhaps even practices, that required an artificial number of calls, expectations of immediate returns (his interviewers had all but said, “show me the money, and show it to me now!”), and a pace of major donor acquisition that seemed unrealistic. 

Now for the question — how would you advise James?  Has there been a shift of inordinate focus and unrealistic expectations in acquiring major gifts?  Are organizations’ leaders requiring major gifts officers to reach goals that haven’t been carefully and intelligently set?  Is there too much emphasis on quantity and not enough on quality of gifts?  Is it no longer valid that many gifts take time to grow, that they are based on a relationship between the fundraiser representing the organization and the donor?  Has the fundraising profession reached a point at which a major gift is no longer one that is appropriately calculated for an institution, but a magical six-figure amount that all organizations expect to reach?  So, how would you explain possible major gift trends,  and maybe even a phenomenon of undue emphasis on major gifts to James, and what should be his next career move?  Or did James just have the misfortune of interviewing at organizations that were not the norm in major gift development?

We invite your advice.  Send an e-mail to with suggestions of no more than 400 words. We also encourage readers to share their own fundraising nightmares, as well as their solutions to those presented by others.

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