How to Hire the Right People for Raising Major Gifts

Are the people working as major gift officers at your organization in the right role?

Do they have the best skill set and mindset for this job?

How would you know if they do or don’t?

For your most successful MGOs, what makes them so good at their job?

For the others, can they be trained and developed to perform well, or is this the wrong role for them?

That’s a lot of tough questions.

If your organization is going to continue to deliver a consistent flow of major gifts in the coming decades, you need to ramp up your ability to hire the right people for major gifts positions.

To guide this discussion, we’re going to look at an 18-month research project that explored what makes the highest-performing MGOs so good at their jobs. The study also gives examples of what various higher education institutions do to hire better MGO candidates.

But first, let’s be clear about the stakes of failing to hire the best people for your major gift officer positions.

Stakes for Hiring Major Gifts Officers Are Getting Higher

There are more than twice as many nonprofits today as in 1991. That means more organizations clamoring for what you’re going to discover soon is a relatively small pool of top talent for the unique skills of a major gift officer.

You need to know what to look for. And then, you need to know how to spot it when it’s sitting right in front of you.

Another stake concerns the money. At colleges, unrestricted giving has been trending downward. Now, under 25% of gifts to liberal arts colleges are unrestricted. Just 12% of gifts at private universities are unrestricted, and a mere 3% at public universities.

Yes, colleges are just one branch of nonprofits, but the trend speaks to changing expectations among donors for what their gifts will accomplish. One term being used to describe this is ‘venture philanthropy’ – treating major gifts much like an investment in venture capital. Donors want a return for their money. Not a financial one, but something tangible that happens, that they can point to and say, “My gift did that.”

Major gift officers need to be able to relate to this brand of philanthropy, and cater to it.

On top of that, hiring the wrong person as a gift officer is very, very costly.

If a gift officer doesn’t work out, you don’t just lose the time spent hiring and training them. You also lose the resources. And, because that person wasn’t effective, you lose the potential donor relationships and gifts they could have developed that instead languished or got lost altogether as donors defected.

Hiring the right people as MGOs is a big deal.

The EAB Study of Top-Performing Major Gifts Officers

Up until 2013, when EAB (Educational Advisory Board) conducted this study, no large-scale investigation into major gift officer hiring had been done. The EAB study looked at 1,200 MGOs from 90 colleges and universities. These came from England, seven provinces in Canada, and 32 states in the United States.

The study identified four characteristics of top performing major gift officers. These are:

  1. Flexibility – both behavioral and linguistic
  2. Curiosity – both intellectual and social
  3. Ability to distill information
  4. Ability to strategically solicit prospective donors

Gift officers with these four qualities were, according to the study, “disproportionately represented among top-performing fundraisers.”

In a study that large, with that result, and with what’s at stake when hiring gift officers, it’s worth exploring these four qualities and learning how to attract such people, and then spot them during the interview process.

This is about getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.

The Curious Chameleon – ENTJ

The study uses this description of a curious chameleon for these top-performing gift officers, the ones who exhibited the four attributes listed above.

If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality test, these people tend to be ENTJs. They are achievement-oriented, confident, motivated, assertive, reflective, and ambitious. They tend to be good leaders, and people tend to like being around them.

Interestingly, ENTJ personalities are rare, constituting about 4% of the population. But another study referenced by EAB notes that this personality type was found in 60-70% of advancement leaders.

That’s quite an over-representation. 4% of the population produces nearly three quarters of leaders? Again, it’s the unique attributes of these people that suit them well for major gift fundraising.

Let’s look at the four attributes to see why, and why the word ‘chameleon’ is an apt description.

Behavioral and Linguistic Flexibility

Chameleons can change based upon their environment.

Behavioral flexibility means you can make all sorts of people feel comfortable around you. You can adapt your behavior to the situation and the people around you. In other words, you are relatable. This trait is extremely valuable when working with so many different types of people who you are hoping will give a large amount of money to an organization.

Linguistic flexibility goes along with that. These top-performing major gifts officers can “code-switch” their language with relatively little effort, and without coming off as insincere. They’re just good communicators. This enables them to relate, bond, engage, and build trust with all sorts of different people.

As the study points out, 26% of giving pledge signers are ethnic minorities, immigrants, or non-US residents. That’s one fourth. So an MGO needs to have cross-cultural skills if they are going to effectively engage with so many different types of people. And the wealth is spreading across these groups. There are now over 35,000 black American millionaires, and that number is growing.

But you don’t have to be of the same race or ethnic background as a donor prospect to effectively engage with them. You just need behavioral and linguistic flexibility. This is true no matter the ethnic background of the gift officer or the prospect.

An important note here – this isn’t something you can train. Again, ENTJ is a personality, not a skill set. You want a person who innately possesses these four qualities. You can’t train a person to be behaviorally flexible. Or perhaps, if you can, and with lots of effort and elbow grease, you might be able to train them to be half as good at this compared to an ENTJ, for whom it just comes naturally.

Don’t waste time training apples to become pears. Just find the right person for the position.

Intellectual and Social Curiosity

Relatability is one thing. But curiosity is just as important.

An intellectually curious person simply enjoys learning about new things, new ideas, new concepts, and new discoveries. They are interested in stuff. They are lifelong learners. You need this in a gift officer because different prospects have different interests. A curious gift officer will also be interested in those things, whether it’s new technology, food from South America, ancient practices in Kazakhstan, or 16th century poetry.

Their sincere interest validates and bonds them with each donor prospect.

Likewise, a socially curious person enjoys learning about people. They like to ask questions, hear stories, and learn about people’s past experiences. This enables them to get prospects talking about their lives and feel heard, which builds trust.

Ability to Distill Information

Major gift officers get bombarded with all sorts of information. Some of it is social and personal, such as the life stories, interests, and connections with your organization’s cause that a prospect might share over many hours of discussions.

Other information is statistical. All the data they get fed about prospects such as giving patterns, event attendance, wealth ratings, and industry information about cultivating, qualifying, stewarding, and converting major gifts prospects into donors. This and much more information continually washes over them, as it does many others involved in this work.

But top-performing major gift officers are able to distill the most important information from all that and use it to enhance and deepen their relationship with a prospect. They can also use it to inform the gift range they propose to each potential donor.

They remember the important details from long meandering stories. They can identify the most important data and use it to develop offers. They can recognize what matters in an avalanche of banality, communicate the most relevant information, and discard the rest.

Ability to Strategically Solicit Prospective Donors

Again – you need all four of these qualities in a major gift officer candidate. Not just one or two.

All the curiosity and distillation doesn’t matter if you can’t take that and use it to turn relationships into gifts. The study brings up the term “friendraiser,” which describes a gift officer who is great at relationships, but struggles to turn them into actual gifts – which is the whole point.

But the top-performing MGOs excel at developing strategic outreach plans and crafting personalized offers for each donor. They possess the confidence AND the skill to artfully and effectively ask for gits. They are comfortable with silence, and undeterred by rejection.

Hiring Strategies for Major Gift Officers

Again, you’ll have to request the study from EAB to see all this, but it might be worth it if you’re really struggling with hiring major gifts officers.

The study details several examples of hiring tools and strategies from a variety of colleges and universities.

Fictional Prospects

One school sends an MGO candidate a profile of a fictional major gifts prospect. The interview requires them to discuss that profile and develop possible strategies with two other staff members. This tests their ability to distill information, and it reveals their level of curiosity – two of the critical attributes of top performing gift officers.

Role Play

Then, they do a role play that includes an ask, and the ‘prospect’ rejects their request so they can see how the MGO candidate responds. Here, they are revealing the ability to solicit strategically, as well as flexibility.

Create Emails and Strategies

Another school has the prospect use a similar set of information to create an outreach email to that prospect. Again – distillation, strategy, curiosity.

Behavioral Tests

And another school employs an online behavioral test that assess traits such as verbal reasoning, numeric reasoning and ability, energy level, sociability, decisiveness, objective judgment, independence, and attitude.

These are all excellent strategies to start using to hire for your major gifts positions.

What Happens If You Hire Poorly?

An ineffective hiring process for major gift officers will only increase the already epidemic turnover across the industry.

See 4 reasons why gift officer turnover is so high

Lastly, Consider Reading WHO.

The best book I’ve ever read on the subject of hiring staff is WHO. WHO begins by breaking down all the myths related to hiring. Then the authors make the following recommendations:

  1. Define the outcomes you seek – Start with the end in mind. That means you’ve got to be extremely clear about the type of person you want, what you want them to do, and so on.
  2. Turn hiring into a marketing endeavor – You’ve got to generate a flow of A Players to your funnel. Put the pedal to the metal. Generate as much buzz and activity as possible in the shortest period of time. Then weed out the weak candidates and hop on the good ones before they get hired by another organization.
  3. Ask the right interview questions – To dramatically improve your ability to quickly distinguish an A Player from a B or C candidate, you’ve got to learn how to interview candidates and get good at it!
  4. Find alignment – In order to attract the kind of person you want to hire, you’ve got to understand what a top tier candidate cares about most. Then you’ve got to find a way to give it to them or another shop will.

I highly recommend reading WHO. Doing so will save you enormous amounts of time, frustration and aggravation.


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