If you want to succeed in major gift fundraising, you need a staff member to lead the charge. For most nonprofits, that position is filled by the major gifts officer.
To help dissect the role of the major gifts officer, this post has been divided into five frequently asked questions about the position.
Let's begin with the first and most obvious question...
FAQ #1: What is a major gifts officer?
As was described briefly in the opening of this post, a major gifts officer is a leader of an organization's major giving efforts.
In practice, that means that a major gift officer identifies and seeks out major gifts as they are defined by the given nonprofit's current fundraising status. For example, a major gifts officer at a small nonprofit that is new to major giving might be in charge of all gifts over $3,000, whereas at some of the more developed institutions, like large universities, major giving might be anything over $125,000.
Major giving is housed in the development department of an organization, and therefore, major gifts officers most commonly report to the chief development officer or someone of a similar level. When a major giving program is in an advanced stage, the nonprofit might even have a major giving team. In that case, the major gifts officer(s) would report to the director of major giving.
We'll investigate the specifics of the role and the job requirements as each frequently asked question is addressed, but before moving on, as a note, it is important to mention that if your organization is on the smaller side and hiring a major gifts officer is too costly for your budget, you have options.
Those options include:
- Pairing major giving and planned giving, so that you hire one officer to cover both lucrative fields of fundraising.
- Adding the major gifts responsibility to another member of development's position.
- Building a team from your existing staff to launch your efforts and coordinate major giving until the program has produced enough funds for you to hire a full-time major gifts officer.
No matter the major gifts officer arrangement your nonprofit makes to actively seek those funds without sacrificing too much time and too many resources, your efforts are going to need a leader.
Depending on the option you choose, the requirements you establish for the position are going to change. A fundraiser who is taking on additional responsibilities and shouldering some of the weight of a major giving program will not need to have the same background and knowledge as a person you're hiring to specifically be the major gifts officer and launch your major giving program.
The remainder of this post will deal with the position of major gifts officer (and positions with different titles but equivalent responsibilities) exclusively. If your organization is not at a place to include that role, you can scale back some of the responsibilities, qualifications, and experiences as needed.
FAQ #2: What are the job responsibilities of a major gifts officer?
In a broad sense, major gifts officers are responsible for managing a portfolio of major gifts prospects and donors.
That role plays out in a multitude of ways, including:
- Identifying prospects for major giving.
- Cultivating the list of major giving prospects.
- Guiding (and often times running) the solicitation process and securing major gifts.
- Working alongside the rest of the development team to reach year-end fundraising goals.
- Setting out realistic goals for the nonprofit's major giving efforts.
- Reaching/exceeding the goals set for the major giving initiative.
- Managing relationships with major giving prospects and donors.
- Reporting major giving progress to the board and various higher level employees.
Essentially, if it pertains to major giving, the major gifts officer should have a hand in it.
FAQ #3: What knowledge, abilities, and skills should a major gifts officer have?
Let's get right into it with this question. Here's a collection of knowledge, abilities, and skills a major gifts officer should have:
- Exemplary interpersonal skills -- If a fundraiser is going to be leading your organization's efforts to secure some of your most valuable gifts, that officer has to be able to handle the various conversations, presentations, asks, and other duties, that come along with the role.
- Top-level written and oral communication skills -- A major component of the role is pitching major gifts to various prospects. That process will require both verbal and written communication tactics. Those moments are opportunities for your nonprofit to impress during the process, but they have an equal opportunity for a mistake to do just the opposite.
- Excellent leadership and team skills -- Sometimes the job will call for the major gifts officer to lead an initiative, while in other instances the officer might have to work with a team under another development leader. The major gifts officer should be able to switch hats easily and readily.
- In-depth fundraising knowledge -- This point is as direct as they come. You can't be a major gifts officer if you don't have a complete knowledge of fundraising. Sure, some components of the job have to be learned as they are experienced, but the fundraising foundation has to be there.
Additional traits to look for include:
- Comfort with multi-tasking
- Commitment to your cause
- Passionate about nonprofit work
With these traits in mind, you should have a solid idea of the characteristics that make up a major gifts officer.
FAQ #4: What prior experience does a major gifts officer need to succeed?
The position of major gifts office is not entry-level. One doesn't simply start a career in fundraising with the skills to acquire game-changing gifts on a consistent basis. The ideal candidate will have the following experience:
Although universities don't offer degrees in major giving, your major gifts officer should still possess a bachelor's degree. It is even better if the officer also has additional degrees and certifications, like a master's degree in fundraising/fundraising management.
However, nonprofits should recognize that with the field of fundraising in particular, there's no better indication of a person's ability to secure gifts than his or her fundraising track record. So, in the instance of a major gifts officer position, experience should trump education.
The experience needed to be a major gifts officer spans many aspects of fundraising. There will be variations from nonprofit to nonprofit, but the list below should touch on most of the necessary prerequisites.
Major gifts officer prerequisites include:
- 5+ years of fundraising experience.
- A proven track record of securing large gifts.
- A background in cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of high-quality donors.
- Time in a leadership role.
- A history of properly managing multiple responsibilities.
- Experience in making cold calls and initiating relationships with donors.
- A deep knowledge of major giving and the kinds of prospects that suit it.
That list, combined with the education factors, should help drastically narrow down the major gifts officer candidate pool.
Being a major gifts officer is a challenging profession, and as such, few people are fully qualified for the role.
FAQ #5: How do you hire a major gifts officer?
When it comes to managing something as important as your major donors, hiring a top-notch professional is undoubtedly the only option for your organization.
The first step to hiring a major gifts officer is to create a clear, detailed job description. With a description that clearly states the role, requirements, and responsibilities, as well as your nonprofit's culture, is important if you want to attract the most qualified applicants.
Use this template from Aly Sterling Philanthropy, to see how to structure your own job description.
Once you have your job description, you'll want to post it in multiple locations to spread the word about your open position.
Use outlets, such as:
- Nonprofit job boards.
- Your organization's newsletter.
- Your website.
- On social media (think: LinkedIn)
Along with your job posting, you should also include a downloadable resource with information that isn't covered in your job description. These resources are perfect for candidates to print, reference, and keep on file.
Develop an executive search committee to conduct interviews and evaluate candidates. Make sure to establish what your nonprofit's ideal major gifts officer so that you can compare applicants with your requirements.
These five answers to frequently asked questions about major gifts officers should fill in most gaps you might have had in your knowledge of the role.
With these answers, you can start to see the shape a major gifts officer role would take at your organization with your specific major giving initiative, goals, and limitations. Remember, like with any team member, the major gifts officer has to fit with your nonprofit's mission and needs, first and foremost.