Too often I hear of an “us” and “them” mentality between donor relations professionals and gift officers. Gift officers promise their prospects the world, whether it’s feasible or not, conforms to legal guidelines or not. Timelines mean nothing to them, everything is urgent, and database coding or documentation is optional. It’s a wonder we can even co-exist!
I’ve spent more than a decade in donor relations, years of real job satisfaction and growth. So why would I ever want to take on gift officer responsibilities? What could tempt me to venture over to the dark side? One reason is that long tenure in the same job. I need new challenges, and I want to learn new skills. The other is practical: gift officer experience makes me more marketable and beefs up my resume.
What are some of the advantages of training donor relations staff as gift officers?
1. Let’s go back to that stable job history. There’s an alarming rate of turn-over among gift officers. Recent figures peg the average lifespan of a gift officer at 16-months! By contrast donor relations staff tend to have longevity.
2. Who better to talk to donors about the impact of their philanthropy than the people who have been writing about it? We can recite first-hand stories of students’ lives that have been changed because of scholarship aid, and research that was made possible because of grants.
3. In some cases we already have relationships with key donors. We know the story of their engagement with our institution because we wrote the keepsake book celebrating their gift.
4. I don’t know of any institution that would turn down an offer of more gift officer outreach. Especially with the trend to decrease the portfolio among gift officers, there’s a need for more hands on deck.
DISCLAIMER! Even with these reasons, you’ll be hard pressed to get your boss to agree to give you a prospect pool if you don’t already have a strong donor relations program in place. You shouldn’t ask for new responsibilities if your department hasn’t already mastered the four pillars of donor relations: acknowledgements, stewardship and impacting reporting, recognition, and engagement.
Once you get the green light, start out with some easy prospects. Retirees are a great, often untapped donor population. Usually they still live near your institution so there’s minimal travel involved, and they are prime for a planned gift conversation. What about qualification visits? Someone with the title “donor relations” may have easier access to a loyal annual fund donor than a colleague with the words “gift officer” on a business card. Do you have donors to your institution that are in the stewardship cycle with a multi-year pledge on the books? Perhaps you could visit them on an annual basis and free up their primary gift officer.
I’ve carried a prospect load for 18 months. In that time I’ve learned a few thing:
· Getting appointments is hard! I’ve had to develop a thick skin as prospects refuse to reply to my emails and phone calls or make excuses why they can’t see me.
· Gift officer travel is exhausting! Crack of dawn flights, long days jam-packed with visits, attempting to make a connection with someone who may not be terribly engaged with your institution.
· It takes time to develop a relationship! Only now, after several visits, do I feel that I’m making headway with some of my prospects.
I have a whole new appreciation for my fellow gift officers, and at the same time, I think I’ve developed a little street cred with them. I’ve learned it’s not the dark side where gift officers are, nor is the grass green over there. And I think I’m a better donor relations professional because of it.
This wonderful guest post is courtesy of Mary Solomons, Senior Director of Donor Relations at Skidmore College. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.