Managing Major Gifts:
Don’t Buy Into “Everything Sales”

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The worlds of major gift fundraising and for-profit sales have a complicated relationship. For many years, development professionals denied any benefit in adopting “sales” techniques for fundraising.  Their rationale: “What we do is mission driven, not profit driven.”  “We are about relationships, not transactions.” “The cause and the donor come first, not the bottom line.”

These are indeed bedrock notions of the profession.  Yet, there’s no denying that good major gift work follows a classic “sales” model.  Success hinges on finding potential donors, making contact, securing in-person visits, building relationships and closing gifts. The language of both professions is often identical:  We generate “leads” to fill a “pipeline” of “prospects” and need to make “calls” and “visits” to “close” the deal (or the gift).

Over the years, particularly in the last decade or two, the development profession has grown to appreciate and adopt many sales structures and techniques. In its most simplified form, this is boiled down to “metrics” – identifying and tracking the numbers that most drive a business. In the case of fundraising, these are things like number of contacts, visits, solicitations, dollars raised, etc.

Managing by the numbers helps supervisors and gift officers know what’s working and what isn’t (both on a personal and an organizational level).  Metrics can help major gift fundraisers avoid a Groundhog Day of endless cultivation (or the “cultivation cul de sac” as dubbed by one colleague). Metrics can help quantify and demonstrate to deans, CEO’s, headmasters and executive directors that beneficial activity is happening even if the dollars aren’t rolling in (yet).

Here is the caution: metrics alone are not the silver bullet. Too heavy a reliance on managing by the numbers can sacrifice meaning on the altar of technique. Advancement professionals need to encourage, promote and facilitate philanthropy for all types of worthwhile organizations—and must be committed to working in a sustained, mission-driven and relationship-based fashion. Just hitting the numbers in any way possible is not enough.

Balancing the structure and discipline of sales with the “heart” of philanthropy is key.

Here are a few points to bear in mind while looking for that balance:

  • The wrong metrics will drive the wrong activity.
  • Don’t try to measure everything. Focus on the most important activity measures and the most important result measures.
  • Avoid a “pure” sales paradigm where transactions are more important than relationships.
  • Metrics without management are often meaningless.
  • Evaluate performance only partly on metrics. Equally weigh core competencies and how well gift officers embody organizational values such as collaboration and innovation. Rewards based only on individual metrics can cause negative reverberations throughout an organization.
  • Hire and nurture outstanding managers for your major gift officers, experienced professionals who will focus on achieving key numerical targets while motivating gift officers to work in smart, effective and mission-based ways.