A few months ago, an independent school client asked us to help them decide whether to build a formal major gifts program. It’s not an uncommon question: development operations at independent schools are often small – three or four people, perhaps six or seven – so ensuring that staffing and other precious resources are optimally aligned with program goals is paramount.
This particular client recently completed a highly successful endowment campaign, despite the lack of a focused major gifts program. Over the course of the campaign, several individuals had held primary responsibility for major gifts, and the portfolios of these gift officers had not been consistently defined. There was no dedicated position for prospect management, and only part-time for prospect research. The school also lacked someone dedicated to leadership annual giving – the pipeline for future major gifts.
The school did have the benefit of an exceptionally engaged volunteer base and a head of school deeply involved in the campaign. But they knew that in order to sustain and grow fundraising success, the school would have to re-focus and invest in its development program. But should that investment include a full-time major gifts officer?
Through our work with dozens of independent school clients, we have identified several elements that are the foundation of successful major gifts programs at smaller institutions. By asking and evaluating the answers to the following questions, institutions can decide whether a formal major gifts program is the right fit.
- Is the development operation staffed the right way? Often, the director of development is handling major gifts. Will the anticipated demands of the campaign justify adding a full-time major gifts officer, or, if there already is one, do you need another?
- Are there dedicated volunteers ready to be engaged and used effectively? Keep a small group of high-capacity volunteers focused on the major gifts effort, which will in turn keep the head of school focused on stewarding top prospects.
- Does your school have systems in place – including data management infrastructure – to analyze and manage the prospect pool? Systematized prospect analytics is critical even for small programs. Development staff may feel like they “know” their prospect pool well, but having hard data on the capacity and affinity of each prospect will help you build the right portfolios and manage prospects effectively. At our client institution, we discovered nearly 200 unassigned high capacity, strong affinity prospects that development leadership can now focus on getting into the right portfolios.
- Are there measurable, annual goals and metrics in place for development staff that will not only help grow fundraising results, but also enable staff to be successful? It’s important for metrics to be both ambitious and achievable.
- Is stewardship largely ad hoc, or are there thoughtfully developed stewardship plans in place for each major gift donor? All such donors should have stewardship plans, but plans for those donors whose late-stage stewardship may coincide with the launch of a major fundraising effort are particularly important.
- Leadership annual giving is the natural precursor to a major gift. Are there comprehensive cultivation and stewardship plans in place for these donors?
- Have fundraising objectives been clearly defined, and articulated in a compelling case for support? A concise, clear case for support is essential to campaign success. And that case must be built around inspiring fundraising priorities and giving opportunities. It’s the difference between raising money for “renovations” and raising money for “renovations to the science building that will enable us to guide students through even more advanced, sophisticated projects that will help prepare them for college-level coursework in the ever-more important STEM disciplines.”
- A strong major gifts program will succeed because of, not in spite of, the head of school. Is your head willing to invest time and energy in fundraising? Is he or she willing to regularly engage volunteers and other top prospects?
- Is alumni programming conducive to major gifts? Many schools do have a hyper-local alumni base, but just as many do not – is there a plan in place for engaging with a geographically widespread alumni constituency? This is of course a key consideration for boarding schools.
Our client was able to answer “Yes” to most of these questions. And for the recommended structures and resources not yet in place, the school was confident in its capability to get the structures in place quickly.
If you answered “No” to most of these questions, don’t worry. It simply means that adding a dedicated major gifts officer to your team might not be the right path for your institution. Think about who is currently handling major gifts – does that person have all the resources they need to be successful? Which of the items above could you take incremental steps to improve? For example, any institution with a prospect database can run a fresh wealth screening (an economical choice, too) or even some predictive modeling.
Every institution gearing up for a campaign should be thinking about its major gifts program. And by asking some thoughtful, candid – perhaps even difficult – questions, you can help your institution determine exactly what a major gifts program will look like for you.