Three Essentials for a High-Performing Principal Gifts Team

Three Essentials for a High-Performing Principal Gifts Team

As wealthy donors give increasingly larger seven-, eight-, and even nine-figure gifts, the value of having a principal gifts fundraising program is undeniable. Although institutions might categorize principal gifts using different dollar amounts, they are best understood by their transformational nature – not by their number.  

In 2022, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) released its first major study of principal gifts to U.S. colleges and universities, identifying four threshold levels for principal gifts based on the type of institution. These thresholds included $250,000 for community colleges, $1.5 million for master’s-level institutions, $3.5 million for baccalaureate institutions, and $10 million for research and doctoral institutions.  

The biggest gifts are often interdisciplinary and require a high level of collaboration and co-creation. You will never find one development officer closing eight- or nine-figure gifts singlehandedly.

Additionally, according to data contributed through its Principal Gifts Survey and the Voluntary Support of Education (VSE), the median for the largest gifts from individuals was $1 million, which represents a 31% increase in the median gift amount since 2005.  

For more than half of the gifts documented in the study (56%), the possibility of galvanizing additional giving from fellow donors was cited as a goal. This suggests that institutions and donors alike see the great potential for principal gifts not only to catalyze transformation, but also to stimulate future philanthropy.  

For smaller institutions with fewer numbers of development staff, attracting such gifts might feel aspirational. But in my 40-plus-year career as a fundraising professional and consultant to higher education clients, I have seen three essential factors for a high-performing principal gifts program that can attract the uppermost levels of investment. Whereas larger institutions often have teams focused on these functions, smaller institutions can devote one or two staff to executing these roles. 

1. Ensure You Have Gift Officers Dedicated to Principal Gifts 

While many major gift officers have the skills and competencies to solicit principal gifts, select an individual or group of gift officers who will focus their attention exclusively on principal gift prospects. 

Keep in mind, a principal gift officer’s portfolio should include fewer prospects than a traditional gift officer’s; when I worked at the University of Chicago, this was roughly 50 to 60 prospects. That number should be decreased proportionately if your officer has staff management responsibilities, because a considerable amount of time and effort goes into long-term strategy, cultivation activities, and proposal preparation. 

Moreover, though major gift officers might have a timeline of 18 to 24 months for potentially closing a gift, principal gift officers require a longer runway. The biggest gifts are made only when the donor feels ready. This is why building relationships is a key element of principal gift fundraising. As much as possible, a gift officer will build a one-on-one working relationship with the donor; however, the overarching goal is to strengthen relationships between philanthropists and institutions. In most instances, the president or senior leader must be involved in securing the biggest gifts. 

Principal gift officers must also work closely with colleagues across the institution, as well as those within development and advancement – especially donor relations, research, prospect management, and development communications. Often, transformational gifts support interdisciplinary purposes and require collaboration across units. A gift to support research on climate change, for instance, could require collaboration between physical scientists, social scientists, and economists.    

Likewise, principal gift fundraisers must be excellent listeners both when working with prospective donors and when working with faculty. Frequently, gift officers will need to work with a team of faculty members, and facilitating these interactions requires leadership and organizational skills.  

2. Select Someone to Coordinate the Activity and Engagement of Senior Leadership 

Designate at least one individual to be responsible for the fundraising activity of senior leaders. This person’s job will include coordinating schedules, calendars, and weekly meetings for the president, vice president of development, or other high-level roles involved in the cultivation of principal gift prospects.   

As I’ve observed throughout my time in fundraising, many institutions do not have this as a formal staff role, but it is critical for ensuring that moves management processes happen smoothly and that all key activity is documented.    

At the University of Chicago, we did have someone serving in this capacity. The Director of Presidential Engagement joined our weekly meetings to discuss the president’s prospects – which were the University’s highest-level prospects.  Others in the meeting included the Vice President for Development, the Associate Vice President for Principal Gifts, the Executive Vice President of the University, and (depending on the prospects under discussion), appropriate deans and faculty.   

The Director of Presidential Engagement created the meeting agenda with input from the Vice President for Development. She was also responsible for ensuring that follow-up happened in an efficient manner. 

As a result, the best strategies were developed and next steps occurred in a timely manner, with no lapses in activity. 

3. Assign a Leader to Manage the Overall Principal Gifts Program 

If your institution is committed to attracting principal gifts, appoint a leader to oversee the program’s operation. This could be the vice president for development or an associate vice president in charge of principal gifts.   

The program leader would administer principal gift pipeline activity, which should include frequent, if not weekly, engagement with various prospects. He or she would also oversee the work of prospect research and donor relations, executing ongoing and timely cultivation and stewardship activities and working with the writers of top proposals. 

The leader will also typically carry a small portfolio of prospects, because his or her time will be consumed by myriad oversight activities. 


Remember, the biggest gifts are often interdisciplinary and require a high level of collaboration and co-creation. You will never find one development officer closing eight- or nine-figure gifts singlehandedly. Principal gift fundraising is a team sport, and regardless of the size of your team, having the right roles and strategy can help your institution attract its largest gifts ever.  

Mike Levine, Vice President, has more than 40 years of experience in fundraising and management within higher education, including 15 years at the University of Chicago as Associate Vice President with a focus on principal gifts. For guidance on your developing your principal gifts program, contact Mike at mlevine@grenzglier.com 

For more insights on how your institution can position itself to attract and secure principal gifts, download our GG+A Playbook, Transformational Giving: Keys to Unlock Principal Gifts. 

Contact-us button to link to contact us form


Grenzebach Glier & Associates Inc http://gga.ugmade.co/wp-content/themes/gga/assets/img/grenzebach-glier-and-associates-print-only.png
About the author

Mike Levine

Vice President

Mike Levine brings more than 40 years of experience in fundraising and management within higher education institutions to the GG+A team. Mike has provided counsel to a number of prestigious clients during his time at GG+A, including Ohio State University, Tulane University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Before joining GG+A,…