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Recruiting Major Gift Officers

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By Steven Ast, President and Managing Director, Steven Ast & Partners

There is no shortage of Major Gift officers…

There is, however, a shortage of Major Gift opportunities…

When we recruit Major Gift officers, we ask how a surprise Major Gift of “X” dollars will be designated. For discussion purposes, we define a major gift as six figures for a smaller (one million dollar plus or minus budget) and seven or eight figures for a larger philanthropy.

Few respond with a visionary, compelling and urgent opportunity. Is there any question why more fundraisers lack the opportunity to identify, cultivate, solicit and close Major Gifts?


Increasingly, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and Giving USA report astonishing seven and eight figure gifts from donors for specified programs and projects at institutions and organizations. In many of these cases, the donor has initiated the gift and offered the gift for an opportunity the philanthropy had not identified. Often a Major Gift officer was not even involved.


Aspiring Major Gift officers must learn to energize the fundraising programs at their institutions and organizations. Working with their CDO’s, they should be much more creative in suggesting gift opportunities which can be vetted with CEO’s and Boards. Only then can a successful Major Gift officer perform the responsibilities for which they were hired.

An example of a creative, versatile approach which can be utilized is either the challenge gift or the matching gift. Often used in combination, either can be a very effective vehicle to create one or several new major gifts.


Major Gift awareness – defined as clearly identified gift opportunities in the fundraising program at an institution or organization – sets the bar for anyone considering a new position as a Major Gift officer.

Unless or until the major gift opportunities are clearly defined and/or the position description acknowledges that the role of the Major Gift officer is to prioritize and make the opportunities visible, the candidate should not take the position.

Specifically, when negotiating for a Major Gift position, this lack of Major Gift awareness cannot be ignored.

Recognizing that performance evaluations must be based on clearly defined goals and expectations, no candidate for a Major Gift officer position should take a job without written expectations.


All too often, we observe the interviews for Major Gift officers in which the CEO or Board member ask “how many major gifts have you gotten?” Many candidates respond by rattling off the number of gifts – some of which may not even be considered a major gift according to the standards of the interviewers.

That’s a trap. Regardless of the number or size of the gifts, there is one way to answer which demonstrates that the Major Gift officer understands the process of securing a major gift and that the candidate can do the same thing for the new employer.

The preferred answer, then, is to tell the story of the gift. Whether the Major Gift officer’s role was to identify , cultivate, solicit and close the gift – for all or only one of those steps – that gift would not have occurred without the Major Gift officer’s involvement. Maybe the Major Gift officer did not get the gift, but the team did.


Of course. The size of the gift request must be more than the donor had in mind.

Any Major Gift officer should understand and believe that principle and should be able to convince the other members of the team of that principle of fundraising. A successful Major Gift officer learns that asking for a gift which is larger than the donor expects should result in raising the donor’s sights and creating a truly extraordinary gift.


Books abound and seminars and Webinars are plentiful, so why don’t more aspiring Major Gift officers avail themselves of these educational, training experiences?

Perhaps it is inertia or more likely it is pride.

The data and the techniques are well documented.

The successful Major Gift officer will have read the books and have taken the courses and then practice, practice, practice and then demonstrate that they have learned and are prepared to deliver that experience to the new employer.


Although the term has caught on in philanthropy jargon – most organizations understand the term and use it – perhaps we should reserve the term for internal use only.

Does a prospective donor really want to get a letter, e-mail or phone call from someone at their preferred philanthropy who identifies him or herself as a Major Gift officer?

Then there’s the issue with the levels of Major Gifts. Many larger institutions have added levels with names such as Principal Gifts and Ultimate Gifts – again, let’s keep those terms for internal use only.

Or, let’s simply refer to the position as Gift Officer.


Confusion exists in some quarters with regard to assigning prospects to staff officers responsible for Planned Gifts or Major Gifts.

Major Gift officers should understand this and cooperate with the Planned Gift officers. Often a successful team positions the Major Gift officer as the primary contact who consults with and involves the Planned Gift officer in the details of the gift transfer.


There are many more Major Gift officers than institutions and organizations know how to recruit.

Knowing how and why to identify, stimulate, recruit and employ them properly requires that institutions and organizations get their act together.

The ideal environment for a successful Major Gift program is one in which gift opportunities are clearly defined and performance evaluations for the Major Gift officers are in place.


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