Major Gift Officers: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Mark W. Jones is a leader, fundraiser, communicator and mentor. His frequent speaking, teaching, and writing activities have earned him recognition in the advancement field as a thought leader on matters of professional development, talent management and leadership. He can be reached directly at 

The rate of turnover among fundraisers remains high, and among no cohort of advancement professionals is this movement more pronounced than major gift officers (MGOs). Recent studies and surveys by CASE, AFP and others suggest the average tenure of a front-line fundraiser is now somewhere in the range of 1.5 to 3.5 years.Whatever the actual tenure numbers may be, it’s obvious that a lot of major gift officers are on the move. So if you’re a gift officer with even a smidgen of experience, someone will probably try enticing you to move in the year ahead. My advice: Don’t do it.

My rationale for dissuading you from changing jobs boils down to the proverb, “good things come to those who wait.” Development professionals who truly want to achieve success and produce transformational outcomes must be prepared to make an up-front investment of time—in their institutions, in their donors, and in themselves. Frequent moves do not serve you well, for several reasons:

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice. The skills for effective cultivation, solicitation, negotiation, and closing are only acquired through practice. Major gift fundraising is an art, and to become good at it requires training, repetition and lots of hands-on experience. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests that proficiency in any complex task is only achieved after 10,000 hours of practice. If we accept Gladwell’s rule and apply it to fundraising, we can project that a first-time gift officer will require almost five years to become effective at their work: 10,000 hours ÷ (40 hours x 52 weeks) = 4.8 years. (Although we all know that development officers usually work more than 40 hours per week!)
  2. Gladwell is Right. Recent work conducted by Bentz Whaley Flessner among its clients confirmed the validity of Gladwell’s proposition: When measuring the year-to-year progression of major gift officers’ productivity, it wasn’t until their fourth year that fundraisers begin to generate significant output from their prospect portfolios. Once a gift officer turns that corner, their output continues to grow at substantial rates.
  3. Relationship-Building Requires… Relationships. Major gift fundraising is a relationship-based endeavor, and relationships with donors cannot be developed overnight. While the most important relationship is always between the donor and the organization, the connection between the donor and a development professional is crucial. Only through a series of meaningful conversations and contacts can a gift officer come to understand a donor’s interests, capacity, motivations and readiness. Moving through that process also requires the donor to achieve a substantial level of comfort with and trust in the development officer who is their principal contact. Frequent changes in those representatives interrupt that process—or even terminates it if a new gift officer doesn’t quickly and effectively pick up the ball again.
  4. Longevity Yields a Better Portfolio. Another reason it takes a few years for gift officers to truly tap the capacity of their assigned prospects is that new fundraisers usually receive a “discovery” portfolio that necessarily requires numerous qualifying calls, many of which result in prospects being removed from consideration. Those dropped prospects are then replaced by others (who may also be dropped) before this iterative process eventually yields for each gift officer a solid collection of genuine major gift donors–a progression that can reasonably take 2-4 years to complete. Unfortunately, if development professionals leave their position prematurely, neither they nor their institutions get to harvest the fruits of their labors.
  5. Fundraisers are Measured by Funds Raised. Because the demand for strong development professionals outstrips the available supply, it is possible to move from job to job over a short period of time. It’s also possible for a newbie to get lucky with one or two big gifts early in their tenure and parlay that into another job. But in the final analysis, effective development work is all about building relationships and closing big gifts. If you cannot one day point to a single multi-year tenure during which you showed progressive growth and demonstrated your ability to close multiple large gifts, you will have fallen short of your full potential: You will have limited the philanthropic capacity of both the organizations you served and their donors, as well as short-changed your own prospects for professional advancement and personal satisfaction.
  6. Results Get Rewarded. We all want to be rewarded for our work, and we can sometimes convince ourselves that by leaving our current employer we’ll find better rewards elsewhere. Nonetheless, even in our present-day culture of immediate gratification, rewards still have to be earned, and the process of earning them takes time. As I suggested earlier, unless gift officers allow themselves adequate time to fully explore their portfolios, develop relationships and produce results, those earned rewards won’t be forthcoming. Truly productive gift officers are highly prized, and most institutions will act within reason to retain them. But a gift officer can’t expect such VIP treatment unless they’ve earned it, and they definitely cannot earn it during a short tenure.
  7. Define Your Rewards and Go After Them. What are the rewards major gift officers want? Compensation, of course. But various studies, including a 2014 Bentz Whaley Flessner survey of frontline fundraisers, revealed that gift officers’ most desired rewards are actually not dollars but other less tangible items: A better prospect portfolio, professional development opportunities, information from and access to leadership, new challenges, and recognition. As a development officer, you do have some control over these perquisites: Make a case to attend a workshop to develop a relevant new skill set. Suggest that you be involved in preparing a major solicitation. Ask to take on a new responsibility (that won’t interfere with your other duties of course). And above all else, challenge yourself to become more strategic and engaged with your own best prospects–and thus produce more gift dollars.
  8. Everyone Loves a Winner. If you allow yourself to learn, develop and grow as a development professional, then positive results should follow. It’s at that point–where you can show that you are knowledgeable and skilled; that you have developed a productive prospect portfolio; and that you have also demonstrated staying power at one or more organizations–that you can write your own ticket. Fundraisers with such a record are truly in short supply, and if you can show that you’re one of them, both your current employer and other organizations will covet your services.

It’s true that your success is not entirely your own responsibility nor completely under your control, so I also offer two caveats to my admonition to stay put:

  1. First, your organization and supervisor also have obligations to position you to achieve and sustain success as a development professional: you need training, coaching, resources, support, and opportunity. Unfortunately, not every organization is as supportive of its employees as it should be or may have acute resource constraints. But rather than fret about what’s missing, take charge of your own progress as much as you possibly can–which may include finding coaches and mentors outside your current organization.
  2. Second, sometimes there are compelling reasons to leave an organization before you are able to establish the long-term track record I have suggested, such as a truly unreasonable supervisor, a toxic work environment, lack of professional development or growth opportunities, or an otherwise unstable organization. But always consider the familiar maxim, “the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t.”

If you are a major gift officer considering a job change in the coming year, be sure that you honestly assess whether you have done all that you can to become the seasoned, knowledgeable, productive and stable professional who will be prized by your current and/or prospective organizations. And if you choose to leap, be sure you’re not doing it impulsively and that you have full knowledge of where you’ll be landing.

Otherwise, stay put. Instead, challenge yourself this coming year: make the most of your prospect portfolio, enhance critical skills, and take other actions that will increase your value. Make the new year one in which you, your organization and your future career prospects will become better, stronger, more productive, and well positioned for future success.

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