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September 29, 2015

Where Do Good Major Gift Officers Come From?

Where Do Good Major Gift Officers Come From?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the fundraising profession is expected to grow at least 17 percent between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than the average growth for all occupations.

For those who have made their livelihoods in the field of development, this probably comes as no surprise. Decreases in state and federal funding for health care and higher education, combined with the rapidly rising number of nonprofits, have left almost everyone with a growing need for private contributions.

As a result, open job positions abound and the search for good talent remains both relentless and challenging—especially when it comes to the workhorses of every fundraising operation, the major gift professional. Which brings us to the two questions on everyone’s mind: Where do good major gift professionals come from, and how can I get some?

To answer those questions, let’s look at the pros and cons of the four major strategies for generating a pipeline of major gift professionals.

Strategy #1: Grow Your Own


This involves identifying individuals in other areas of your institution who demonstrate the potential to become successful major gift professionals. They are recruited to entry-level major gift positions and trained and developed over a period of several years. Admissions, alumni relations, public relations, and annual giving programs are often good sources for viable candidates.



  • They already know the organization and how to talk about it.

  • They have existing roots in the community and are more likely to stay longer than transplants, which is good for both the organization and its donors.

  • The process of identifying candidates allows you to build connections with development across the organization.
  • It may take 2–5 years and extensive training before you see the return on your investment (although coaching can dramatically reduce this time).

  • The pool of worthy candidates may be relatively small compared to your need.

Strategy #2: Hire Experienced People From Other Organizations


This entails identifying knowledgeable major gift professionals at organizations that are similar to your own. Conferences, professional associations, and personal networks can serve as recruiting channels for this type of candidate, as well as Internet job boards and professionally focused social media networks, such as LinkedIn.



  • They already know the fundamentals of raising major gifts and can hit the ground running (or at least walking briskly).

  • They have a track record and references within the field (be sure to check them both thoroughly), which reduce perceived risk.

  • They can bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to the organization.
  • They don't know your organization or your approach to raising major gifts.

  • Statistically, they are likely to take a position somewhere else within 3 years.

  • Under-performing fundraisers have figured out how to make this system work for them by moving around frequently—so you have to do your homework.

Strategy #3: Seek Transferrable Skills From Outside the Field


This includes identifying other professions that require knowledge and skill sets that are similar to those of major gift fundraising, and reaching out to find potential candidates in those fields looking for a career change. For example, consultative salespeople with experience selling intangible products and services, such as insurance and financial management, often can apply their soft selling skills to raising major gifts in very little time. Psychologists and social workers, who often suffer burnout in their chosen professions, bring a strong understanding of people and what makes them tick. This can quickly translate to deep and meaningful conversations with donors.



  • They have a track record and references within their chosen profession (be sure to check them both thoroughly).

  • They can bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to the organization.

  • By going this route, you are actually expanding the pool of talent available in the field.
  • They don't know your organization or major gift fundraising, which increases perceived risk and the need for immediate training.

  • They can be more difficult to find and attract because you have to go outside the usual channels of communication.

Strategy #4: Use Professional Recruiting Services


This involves hiring an outside consultant or firm to identify and vet potential candidates for you. Generally, recruiters charge a flat fee plus expenses or a percentage of the candidate’s total first annual salary. Specifics do vary by firm.



  • It saves you the time and hassle required to screen the initial pool of candidates—a good recruiter will weed out all the duds before a resume hits your desk.

  • They often have the ability to reach passive candidates who are succeeding in their current positions and not actively seeking new employment.

  • If a hiring situation turns out badly, there is an external entity to take responsibility, and—if it happens soon enough—even cover the financial loss, or re-do the search.
  • It can be deemed as too expensive for entry-level and mid-level positions.

  • The recruiter may be sending the same candidates to a variety of institutions—so you are essentially competing for the same pool of talent.

Regardless of which strategy or combination of strategies you decide to use to find good major gift professionals, it’s important to know what you are looking for in your candidates. The experience they list on their resume is a good start, but you also want to know whether they will fit into your values and culture. One way of doing that is by establishing a list of characteristics or competencies your organization expects a successful major gift officer to demonstrate on the job. Then, have each interviewer rate the candidates on those competencies. Too many low scores will quickly alert you when a candidate simply isn’t a good match.

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