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Gift-officer-in-chief: The head of school’s role in major gifts work

Your board of trustees has just approved a proposed capital campaign—a set of well-developed fundraising priorities emerging from, and informed by, a thorough strategic and/or master planning process. The school’s fundraising consultant has tested them in a feasibility study and recommended a bold but attainable working goal. As head of school, perhaps this is when you envision a Mary Poppins-like development director waltzing into your office to brief you on how the aspirational gift table will magically self-populate in the next three to five years. But if you’ve “seen this campaign movie before,” you know that that the tremendous satisfaction of transformative campaign fundraising carries an associated executive workload. You will play arguably the most critical role in your school’s campaign; you are the gift officer-in-chief.

Instead of entering your office in Victorian garb with a magic umbrella and muted carpetbag in hand, your business casual development director enters your office carrying a campaign timetable and your customized, personal portfolio. In this case, the term portfolio doesn’t refer to a physical folder for ephemera storage but rather a roster of parents, alumni, grandparents, and friends to whom you are assigned as the lead relationship manager. To be sure, other representatives of the school—gifts officers, trustees, other ranking volunteers—will have portfolios. However, the odds are that those constituents in your portfolio have the greatest potential to effectuate the campaign’s success.

Your first step should be to understand the campaign gift chart and timetable, so that you may work with your development team to determine the appropriate load to carry in your portfolio. Hint: It is unlikely your development director gave you too few names. It’s said that a full-time major gifts officer should never carry more than 100-125 prospects. Given your far-ranging responsibilities outside of development pursuits, it is appropriate for you to take on fewer prospects than a dedicated development staffer. At the same time, know that during a campaign’s advance phase, as much as 50 percent of a head’s time should be devoted to cultivating and soliciting prospective donors. This estimate of time reflects not only the hours spent around a board table or behind a desk but also the direct work with prospects. Importantly, it is at the beginning of the campaign when you are needed most. In other words, take solace in knowing that your load will lighten as the effort continues.

The next step will be a thorough review of the prospective donors in your portfolio—as well as consideration for ranking prospects who are not in your portfolio. With this work, you and your development director are laying the groundwork for a successful campaign by considering the personal connection you currently have and might further develop with these prospective donors. Thoroughly consider campaign assignments—yours and those of others—to ensure that the philanthropic matchmaking has been thoughtfully completed. It is requisite for those prospective donors in your portfolio to have the ability to make pace-setting gifts. In addition, your portfolio will probably include those:

  • Who have earned the position to hear from the “chief vision officer”
  • Who have hierarchical orientation and are minded to receive the CEO only
  • With whom you share history (especially those whom you’ve solicited previously)

There are also people who should not be in your portfolio. It is not your responsibility to vet unqualified prospects (allowing for extraordinary exceptions, this generally includes high-net worth families who lack philanthropic inclination). It is also not your job to entertain those whose financial support will be grossly disproportional to the time that they demand. Finally, know there is no shame in passing off a top prospect if there are relationship complexities that stand in the way of gift conversations.

Once you and your director of development have refined your portfolio, it is he or she who should manage you on this front. Accordingly, you should accept the role of being managed and make time for regular reviews and updates on your portfolio. These meetings will be more productive (and comfortable) if you have completed the prior session’s action items. Of course, beyond the broad and general reviews of all names in your portfolio, it is prudent to set time aside for development of strategy around specific prospects and individual request preparation. As it relates to requests, certain donors—you probably know which ones—will expect you to invite them to meetings. Other prospects will understand if meetings are scheduled by your assistant or a member of the campaign team. A trustee or development staff member with a gift for opening doors and securing meetings is an incredible resource.

Not every prospective donor will be ready for an immediate request. Keep in mind that you are a key player on the cultivation team. While many parents are already familiar with school initiatives (because there is no such thing as a “quiet” campaign phase when there are carpool queues, athletic sidelines, and second grade group chats) and might very well be ready to discuss support, alumni and farther-flung prospects might need a meeting or meetings to work up to this point.

As you continue to meet with prospects, it is vital that you perform two key tasks following the conversations: call reports to your development staff and offer words of appreciation to your prospects. It is critical to provide meeting notes for the development files to inform short-term and more distant steps to manage these donor relationships. You are busy, so develop a good system to deliver salient points from the meeting: notes may be left on your development director’s voicemail or shared via emailed bullet points. Immediately after the meeting is also the ideal time to send a personal note to the prospect with whom you have met. This note needn’t be too long. In fact, if it is too long, the recipient is likely to assume it was ghostwritten. An email is immediate, but a handwritten note is personal—much as your donor’s gift will be.

As commitments are secured and the campaign continues and even winds down, your work continues. Major gifts work and constituent relations must continue outside of the formal structure of a campaign. Those in your portfolio will shift into stewardship and ongoing cultivation. Yes, their gifts are still being fulfilled, but you will continue to play a major role in making sure that they feel appreciated, that they know their voices are heard, and that their gifts have been invested and used as they wished and you promised. During the time between concentrated efforts, some names will be retired to make way for promising new prospects. These new names will find their way into your portfolio for cultivation alongside existing stewardship and solicitation responsibilities. To be sure, the time spent with key donors and prospective donors outside of solicitations will add grace and dignity to the major gift process and will also set the stage for future campaign success.

If you need assistance developing a strategy for your gift-officer-in-chief, please reach out to Shelby at slamar@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Shelby LaMar

Vice President

Shelby LaMar, Vice President, serves clients within our independent schools practice area. He has more than 20 years of experience within this sector, including managing capital campaigns, annual funds, and advancement services, as well as communications and marketing development, including proposal writing, and case statement development. Since 2009, Shelby has…