When Teri McIntyre was a University of Wisconsin undergrad in the early ‘90s, she volunteered to call alumni to ask for college fund donations and—believe it or not—she liked making those calls. A university development officer noticed and offered McIntyre a job after graduation.
“I didn’t know if I could spend my whole life in sales, asking people for money,” McIntyre says. “But she told me it’s not all about sales. The fundraiser’s job is to put the right opportunities in front of people who want to help our institution.”
Flash forward, and McIntyre is a major gift officer (MGO). From 2014 to 2016, she led the development team for San Diego State University’s College of Business Administration—and her mentor’s advice helped her raise millions of dollars. SDSU’s development team, led by Mary Ruth Carleton, vice president of university relations and development, raised a record $107 million in 2015-16.
“Really good major gift fundraisers, who can move in the realm of $1 million-plus gifts, are worth their weight in gold,” says Myrna Hall, a senior consultant and principal at Marts & Lundy, the New York-based fundraising consulting firm with an international nonprofit client base.
Following are techniques that administrators who are fundraising all-stars use to score significant gifts for their institutions.
Be curious, get smart
Top fundraisers have a “drive to learn more about people, places and things,” notes “Gifted and Talented,” a report summarizing the widespread research by the Education Advisory Board (EAB) on MGO performance.
Kim Winger of Colorado State University has that drive. As director of development for the College of Health and Human Sciences, she keeps her finger on the pulse of eight academic departments by attending the dean’s cabinet meetings, campus events and faculty presentations. “I have to understand and be passionate about what our college is doing to communicate effectively with donors,” says Winger.
Deans are often instrumental in sparking that same passion in fundraisers. When Ed Kvet, now of counsel at Marts & Lundy, was dean of the College of Music and Fine Arts, and later provost, at Loyola University New Orleans, he asked his fundraisers to attend classes, sit in on private music lessons, talk to students and “see what the heck it is that we do.”
Years of experience have shown McIntyre, who recently joined the University of California, San Diego as senior director of development, that she has to be vulnerable and ask lots of questions. “My academic leadership is brilliant, and I can only represent what they’re accomplishing if I do whatever it takes to learn about it,” she says.
No matter how much information fundraisers collect, they’ll never have all the answers. Marti Heil at Virginia Commonwealth University enlists deans, the president and other administrators to meet with prospects.
“Donors who choose to make a large investment over time want to deal with the top person and understand their vision, where they are leading the institution, and how the donor can be part of that,” says Heil, vice president for development.
Top MGOs have strategic relationships with key partners on campus. “People give to people,” says Katie Turcotte, EAB lead advancement researcher. “You can help the donor connect to the institution by bringing out the faculty person, researcher or administrator who can share wonderful stories about their work.”
Timing of contact is important. Kvet advises bringing in the dean when “a donor shows curiosity about how a gift would be utilized and what that research is about, and the MGO gets a sense that it’s time to refine his interests,” he says.
Presidents play an active role in major donor cultivation. The MGO at San Diego State may have President Elliot Hirshman join the conversation at any time, from first contact to negotiation of the gift. “When a strong prospect says he or she would love to meet the president, this person is asking to be brought into the circle and we do it,” says Hirshman.
Act like a coach
When he was dean, Kvet spoke the lingo of the music academy. “I used typical academic language, asking donors to endow tenure-track slots. Most donors have no idea nor do they give a hoot what tenure-track is.” Kvet learned to let the MGO interpret his message and shape it into terminology appropriate for the donor.
Top fundraisers also help the president and academic administrators understand the most effective process to secure a major gift. McIntyre calls it “the big aha” moment. “We’re not going to walk into the office tomorrow with a ton of money and put it on [the dean’s] desk. If we stay focused on the goal and refrain from asking for a gift prematurely, we can have a much bigger impact.”
Winger at Colorado State coaches her academic partners to “dream big about what philanthropy can do for them. Their need for new conference room chairs probably won’t get the donor excited,” she says—whereas the amazing research being conducted by the early childhood center could.
She coaches faculty and administrators to tell their story in a way that resonates by asking them to answer “so what?” and “who cares?”
Top MGOs understand the importance of developing and nurturing the next tier of donors—that is, those with major gift potential. Andy Reeher, president and CEO of Reeher LLC, a provider of higher ed fundraising software, sees a huge number of relationships with these people where that potential is never met. “If you’re taking the president to an area to meet with known major donors, include visits with future prospects.”
“I constantly put myself in situations where I’ll meet people,” McIntyre says. When working with a current donor invested in a project, she’ll ask about anyone that donor knows who may also be interested and arrange a joint conversation.
At Colorado State, Brett Anderson, vice president of university advancement, purchases data and psychographics—the classification of people according to attitudes, aspirations and other criteria—to identify prospects. CSU feeds the data through its own algorithm to prepare its MGOs.
In its recent campaign, the university received 29 gifts of $1 million or more, primarily by “identifying strategic plans for the college and the donors who align with them, getting out and meeting with these people, and engaging them in our story.”
Be a chameleon
“Our fundraisers are required to talk to donors who are very different in personality and background,” says Anderson. “One day they meet with a rancher and the next day with a Wall Street billionaire—and in each case they must come across as sincere.”
Therefore, “behavioral and linguistic flexibility” is another key attribute of top fundraisers, according to the EAB study: “MGOs who successfully apply this principle don’t change who they are based on the prospect; they selectively choose which side of themselves to showcase.”
On a typical day, here’s how Winger of Colorado State may demonstrate flexibility: “In the morning I’ll meet with the CEO of a construction firm, have lunch with a retired schoolteacher, and share afternoon tea with a sweet elderly woman who came to school here in the ’40s for the home ec program.”
Winger makes it work, she adds, “by stopping to regroup between visits and preparing questions and topics for each unique donor.”
Connect, connect and connect
Building relationships and developing an affinity with the donor are requirements for achieving major gifts. “First you have to be a really good listener,” Winger says. “It’s amazing what donors tell me—things they might not even have told their children—and if I listen to every word and respect what they say it can lead to a significant gift.”
Anderson, who heads Winger’s department, tries to pair the right MGO with the right donor based on personality. But no matter who they meet with, “top fundraisers have to be engaging, dynamic, excellent communicators, good listeners and put in the hours to secure million-dollar gifts,” Anderson says.
Once the relationship develops, Heil at VCU follows up to sustain a connection. “We find creative ways to thank a donor and keep them engaged—have a student call to say thank you, send a picture of the new student union, invite them to visit the research lab—we’re doing what we can to make them insiders.”
Make a match
Top MGOs take on the role of matchmaker. “They find out about the prospect’s passion, then figure out what we are doing on campus that matches that interest,” says Hall. One example: A potential donor has a child with diabetes and the institution is doing research on the disease.
Not long ago, a portfolio landed on McIntyre’s desk for an alumnus who volunteered for the university and had made small gifts for years.
“I asked about his long-term goals, something no one had done before.” He said if he won the lottery, he’d give every cent to SDSU to name a program. This led to an honest conversation concerning his goals about philanthropy and recognition—and ended with a $2.8 million gift.
Donor motivation can be a game-changer. “At the end of the day, you need to find out what makes a person happy and figure out their motivation to move them to be a philanthropist who will support your institution repeatedly for a long period of time,” says Carleton of SDSU.
While it sounds counterproductive, Heil has turned down gifts that were so narrowly defined, VCU couldn’t fulfill the requirements. “When I tell the donor the truth and offer alternatives to fulfill what they’re trying to accomplish, they thank me,” she says. “It takes a trusting and sustainable relationship to get the million-dollar donation, and that requires honesty.”
SDSU President Hirshman agrees: “You must be very direct with people. We promise only things we can deliver that genuinely reflect our strengths.”
McIntyre builds trust by letting donors know when the cost of a project has increased so much that a proposed donation might not have an individual donor’s desired impact. “If the project isn’t right for them, you have to share the bad news. I want them to know I am representing them, as well as the institution.”
Take the long view
Significant gifts are legacy lifetime investments, and they usually don’t fall out of the sky into someone’s lap, Heil points out. “They take patience, perseverance, tenacity and determination. Your fiscal year-end deadline is not relevant to the donor.”
McIntyre credits her long-term focus as a technique that contributes to her success. “I build a relationship and try not to assume what the next step in giving will be,” she says. “Instead I listen and learn about the prospect’s affinity with our institution and long-term philanthropic goals. That’s the way transformational gifts happen.”
Harriet Meyers is a Columbia, Md.-based writer and editor who frequently covers higher ed fundraising.