Principles of Training New Major Gift Officers – Part II

Last week we discussed two of the essential principles for training new major gift officers: understanding the donor perspective and clear definition of the donor cycle. This week we have three more. Beyond orienting fundraisers to the nature of major gift philanthropy, organizations must seek to broaden the aptitude of these professionals to work with their colleagues and adequately represent their institutions. Leadership can do this through offering:

A Deeper Understanding of the Functionality and Capacity of Central and Operations Teams

Hand in hand with providing fundraisers clearer expectations of what working with donors looks like, an organization must partner with these individuals to set expectations for working within a development team. New fundraisers must know, for example, when and what type of additional research will be most useful to them (early career development officers often will get caught in a desire to know everything possible about a prospect before meeting with them). The ability to partner with and utilize the skills of central development teams and operations professionals will give new fundraisers a leg up in their early years as well as lessen the burden of other team members in orienting these individuals to their own programs the hard way (when something goes wrong or a fire needs to be put out).

Opportunities to Practice New Skills and Observe and Learn from Senior Fundraisers

Learning means little without the ability for professionals to put what they have learned into practice. Any formal training session should, therefore, be paired with low-risk avenues for new major gift officers to gain experience in the realities of working with donors. Across the country there are now several institutions tackling this need in creative ways—whether it’s a virtual learning experience utilizing actors or avatars, structured “mock” meetings with close volunteer donors, or role playing in a workshop setting. This “practice space” gives new fundraisers two great things: the chance to get a feel for major giving conversations and valuable feedback from those working with them on what they did well and what could be improved.

Another great resource that many institutions already have lies within the existing senior fundraising team. Exposure to best practices by observing high performers in action can be a very meaningful point in developing new fundraising talent. This type of shadowing helps show novice development officers not only how to respond when a meeting diverts from the theoretical agenda, but also the depth and nature of relationships between an experienced fundraiser and high level donor.

Knowledge of Institutional Strengths, Histories, and Controversies

Your donors and constituents have typically been familiar with your institution longer and in more depth than your junior fundraisers. This gap has to be addressed directly. Donors and prospective donors will expect any development officer they meet with to not only know about their history as donors, but also have a decent grasp of the people, programs, and history of your organization. Whether this be previous controversies that the institution has survived or national championship teams and coaches, training a new frontline officer must include consistent and reinforced building of institutional knowledge.

We’ve seen data time and time again that says that newly hired fundraisers take 3.5–4 years to begin to produce real gift dollar results. For those who are new to the frontline, that ramp-up can take even longer. It’s in our best interest to accelerate this process with new major gift officers through strategic training and education, clear opportunities and exposure to donors and the team, and reinforcement and feedback.

BWF’s TalentED practice offers one-on-one coaching, intensive training workshops, and talent management counsel to help our clients recruit, retain, and grow a high performing fundraising team. For more information contact us at

Copyright © 2015 Bentz Whaley Flessner & Associates, Inc.


Principles of Training New Major Gift Officers—Part 1

The non-profit fundraising sector is in the midst of a major talent shortage, most acutely felt on the frontline. Development officers are getting recruitment calls constantly, even within a few months of moving to a new institution. This model of trading talent back and forth in short intervals to temporarily meet institutions’ hiring demands in unsustainable. Therefore, all development programs should invest, not only in their current fundraisers, but also in building a pipeline of new fundraising talent. To do so, there must be meaningful, deliberate training for those professionals who are new to the field or to major giving. Any institution working with a team of new fundraisers should integrate the following key components into their program.

Exposure to and Understanding of the Donor Perspective

According to recent research from the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent1, the best fundraisers are those who actually mirror the values and perspectives of donors themselves. They give a higher percentage of their own income to charity, donate blood at a higher rate, and believe passionately in the cause of their institutions. Those new to fundraising need to first understand and identify with donors in order to be successful. For those who have been hired from outside of the field (e.g., with a background of sales or marketing), this step is all the more critical. Major giving is very rarely a transactional relationship. In order to connect with prospects and donors and be successful in fundraising, many individuals will have to undergo a paradigm shift.

The upside of this component, however, is that integrating the donor perspective into your training and onboarding presents a fantastic opportunity for donor engagement, stewardship, and volunteerism. By asking donor volunteers to share their stories, serve on panels, and even participate in training new development officers, institutions have established another valuable connection with these philanthropists. In return, the donors are able to see themselves as partners in the health and future of the development program itself.

Definition and Cues of the Major Giving Cycle and Development Team

For someone entering the frontline, the flurry of activities and responsibilities can be overwhelming. As investors in these team members, the development office must have a focused discussion and orientation to the major giving cycle. This should include, not only supplying definitions of how prospects at a certain organization are categorized but also providing meaningful case studies, guidelines, and cues for how individual prospects move through stages. When we work on training faculty members and physicians on being partners in development, we often provide them sample cues and responses that indicate donor interest and readiness. The equivalent of that tool is rarely offered to fundraisers.

In next week’s advisory, we’ll wrap up the essential principles of training new major gift officers.

BWF’s TalentED practice offers one-on-one coaching, intensive training workshops, and talent management counsel to help our clients recruit, retain, and grow a high performing fundraising team. For more information contact us at

Practice and Repetition Are Not Enough: Why Training and Coaching Are Essential Elements for Developing Effective Fundraisers

Shooting Free Throws (Narrow)In previous posts our TalentED team has emphasized the importance of practice and repetition in ensuring that fundraisers develop the skills and professional judgment necessary to achieve success as a major gift officer. I’m confident it’s now accepted wisdom that repetitive simulations and actual hands-on, in-the-moment interactions with donors are essential experiences in helping new gift officers master the art of fundraising—a process that includes discovery, cultivation, solicitation, negotiation and stewardship.

As vitally important to performance as regular practice is, a recent article from Inc. Magazine reminded me that repetition alone cannot guarantee long-term fundraising success.

In “4 Short Lessons on How to Learn a New Skill,” author Sims Wythe posits that individuals who pursue mastery of a skill must also possess or receive four other factors if their repetition to yield meaningful improvement: (1) motivation, (2) knowledge, (3) application of knowledge, and (4) unequivocal feedback:

  1. Motivation

To get better at a skill, we must first want to improve. As Wythe states, “the first thing you have to do is simply begin…. And now that you know you want to begin, you have to be willing to fail, to be frustrated, to be bored, and to be angry that what looks so easy for some is so hard for you.” Without these internal or external incentives for improvement, we are unlikely to apply the necessary discipline, exert enough effort, or tolerate the impediments.

What motivates fundraisers to improve? At the very least, our supervisors expect and require us to become more polished and increasingly productive. Hopefully, we also bring to the task our own personal pride and desire for success.  Nonetheless, even the very best fundraisers encounter obstacles, including objections and rejection by donors. It’s not an easy job—and these challenges certainly contribute to the rapid turnover among first-time major gift officers.

  1. Knowledge??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

For practice and repetition to make a difference, you have to be practicing the right things. As Wythe observes, if you practice your golf swing at the driving range every day of the summer but you have a lousy swing, it’s unlikely your swing will be any better on Labor Day. Wythe thus cites Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who advises that “…acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.”

What does that mean for major gift officers? Your own ability to enhance your performance is limited. To get better, you need to observe effective fundraising in action, have access to resources that will inform you, and obtain feedback from other, more experienced fundraisers.

  1. Application of Knowledge

Practicing alone has limited value. You must also practice in front of others and in situations similar to those in which your actual performance will occur. For example, Wythe cites the process of becoming Practicing Piano 3a better public speaker: “the only proven way to become a better speaker is to rehearse under performance-like pressure…. It is hard to replicate real-life circumstances, but practicing your speech aloud to people who are familiar with your topic is—again—the only scientifically proven way of improving your speaking skills.”

For fundraisers, that means practicing the types of conversations that you must have with donors: getting the appointment, eliciting information, exploring interests, soliciting gifts, overcoming objections and making the close. As uncomfortable as it may be, live practice—and yes, even role playing—of donor conversations in front of other, more seasoned gift officers is critical to recognizing opportunities for improvement and identifying areas for further practice.

  1. Unequivocal Feedback

Once you begin performing the skills you’ve been developing and policing, it’s vital to evaluate your performance and to identify areas that require further practice and improvement.  Indeed, Wythe suggests that we all need a coach; however we cannot be our own coaches: “You can read all the how-to books you want, but then you have to implement those suggestions—which takes a huge amount of discipline that most of us don’tPracticing Violin 1 have—and then you have to be able to see around your own blind spots which, believe me, will take a lifetime.”

Of course, few fundraisers have the resources to engage a personal coach. Instead, that role should be filled by your supervisor and your peers, and ideally, your organization will offer on-site training programs or opportunities to attend off-site workshops.  But if your supervisor and peers don’t see themselves as coaches, or if you don’t have access to training programs, it is up to you to proactively seek out feedback and coaching: Ask your colleagues to provide the ‘rapid and unequivocal feedback’ Wythe says you need, or seek others to help fill that role. Just be sure that you enlist knowledgeable people who you trust to critique you without holding back.

It should thus be good news for both new and seasoned fundraisers that the imperative for pursuing a comprehensive approach to building advancement teams is beginning to be acknowledged and to be addressed. By applying tenets of “strategic talent management” to the advancement profession, fundraising organizations are increasingly looking holistically at the entire process of finding, training, developing, rewarding and keeping the best possible gift officers. And training, coaching and mentoring are core elements of this fresh, holistic approach to growing talent. In addition, consulting and support organizations (such as Bentz Whaley Flessner and TalentED) are also ramping up their offerings to help clients develop talent management strategies, provide training and coaching, and better understand the dynamics of creating and maintaining effective fundraising teams.

It’s good news, for sure. But don’t stop practicing!

Engaging Volunteer Fundraisers: Focus First on Internal Training



A senior development officer recently shared with me her acute frustration with her organization’s fundraising volunteers. She explained that her team had supplied the volunteers with an array of new information, materials and training exercises, yet the volunteers did not seem to absorb the content nor follow the guidance; worse, they continued to fall back into the same bad habits my friend’s team was trying to modify. My colleague was on the verge of acquiescing or even closing down the program.

As advancement professionals, we know there are correct ways to do things and incorrect ways to do them.  And if we want our volunteers to follow those best practices, be effective, and achieve our objectives, then we need to start by providing leadership in both word and deed.

Unfortunately, we don’t always adhere to our own prescribed processes, but instead give in, make exceptions, or act in ways that contradict our own advice. When we do that, we also give our volunteers an excuse or even encouragement to diverge from the desired practices.

There are several other errors that our trainers and staff liaisons tend to make when working with fundraising volunteers:

  • We don’t stand firm: We often let volunteers persuade us to cut short certain elements of our training program. (Almost no one wants to participate in role-playing exercises, right?) As a result, important information is not conveyed and critical skills are not developed, leaving volunteers inadequately prepared to fulfill their roles.
  • We’re inconsistent: We may say one thing in a training setting, but then act contrary to it in practice, causing confusion among those trained and prompting them to follow their own instincts instead of best practices.
  • We don’t understand our volunteers: We don’t listen to our volunteers and thus discover their needs, questions and anxieties—nor do we acknowledge that volunteers may harbor hesitations and questions that they are reluctant to vocalize in a training session with others.
  • We don’t follow through on promises: We don’t provide the support, answers, timely responses and other things we committed to during the training session.
  • We conduct “one and done” training: Single-session training can be helpful, but to truly modify behaviors, improve performance, and generate desired outcomes, a series of in-person and/or online follow-up sessions is highly recommended. Good training involves repetition, learning by doing, and reviewing the outcomes of actual performance.
  • We don’t provide timely rewards and feedback:  When working with volunteers, if you don’t provide timely feedback on their work, these unpaid supporters may feel unappreciated, as well as be uncertain whether or not they were effective. And if they were not effective, or were engaged in unproductive or inappropriate behaviors, you also must be prepared to gently direct their efforts into other endeavors.

Wondering why I chose a puppy photo to accompany this post? It struck me over the holidays that the training of fundraising volunteers shares several similarities with canine obedience schools—a conclusion I reached while visiting with my twin eight-year-old nieces and their new dog, Teddy (pictured above). And the most important lesson to be drawn from that comparison is that training success is determined more by the quality and effectiveness of the trainer than by actions of the training subject. Trainers who send mixed messages to their trainees can unintentionally encourage, reward and reinforce behaviors that are opposite the ones desired.

Accordingly, a decision to initiate or expand a volunteer-driven fundraising program in hopes of advancing a campaign or other major gift initiative is not one to be made lightly. Success requires an ongoing investment in training, communication and volunteer support. It also requires clearly defined, mutual expectations. And perhaps above all else, it demands knowledgeable, persistent trainers.

In short, before enlisting others to join our fundraising efforts, we must first be sure that we understand our own roles, know best practices, and be able and willing to follow through on all that we promise to our volunteer partners. And a critical first step is to be sure your trainers are well prepared and effective.

Do you agree that the efforts of fundraisers directly affect the performance and effectiveness of our volunteer fundraisers? Do you have success stories to share or suggestions for more effectively engaging and deploying volunteers to assist in securing major gifts?

My TalentED colleagues and I would also be happy to share examples of how we have helped organizations with their volunteer efforts. Just call!

How to Engage Your Deans to be Better Fundraisers

Originally published November 12, 2014

“I’ve never met a donor who gave a big gift to a dean they didn’t know or didn’t like.”  This quote by BWF founding principal Bruce Flessner touches on a critical element of higher education fundraising: the engagement of academic leadership makes a difference to donors.

The past decade has reflected that need, as expectations have risen at many institutions for deans to spend 25%–50% of their time on development. However, changing the job description is much easier than changing the behavior. The dean who is effective at fundraising is still a relatively rare find at any university.

Here are five strategies for engaging your deans meaningfully and productively in fundraising:

Emphasize the partnership with frontline fundraisers.

Deans who are effective fundraisers tend to partner with effective development officers. Deans who view their frontline fundraisers as simply additional administrative support tend to be more disengaged in fundraising.

  • Deans who actively seek their development officer’s advice on major gift prospect strategies, partner with the development officer on making prospect visits, and regularly meet with the development officer to evaluate fundraising progress and results are more likely to produce more fundraising results.
  • Many best practice shops not only engage the dean in the hiring process of unit-based fundraisers, but also include him/her in discussions on performance expectations and time management.
  • Training and/or strategy sessions that focus on clarifying expectations for each type of development activity between these partners can make the creation and revision of that relationship more seamless.
Provide opportunities for deans to hear and learn from their peers.

Deans value hearing from peers about their challenges and victories in fundraising. Facilitating sessions where deans have the opportunity to share with and hear from each other can build camaraderie around the roles of deans as fundraisers and encourage them to think about fundraising success as a point of pride.

Involve the institution’s leadership in training and facilitated sessions.

Even if your president or provost can only provide an introduction at a training on solicitation, for example, his/her presence makes a difference, because this involvement:

  • Communicates to deans that advancement is valued by your institution’s leaders.
  • Encourages deans to attend and participate. If your senior leaders’ time can be secured for more than an introduction, deans will have the rare chance to engage their top academic officers, completely framed by the topic of fundraising.
  • Reinforces the president and/or provost “leading by example” in their personal involvement in the institution’s fundraising.

Discuss time management and involving others.

Remember that deans are very busy—that is part of how they became academic leaders. Emphasizing fundraising can sometimes feel like pushing another item off on a dean’s already full plate, especially if the message is communicated as an order and not a conversation. Remember that deans as well as all of us make time in our busy schedules for work that we decide is important. Therefore, we need to help deans understand the importance of fundraising to the success of their colleges, schools, or units.

If we want deans to spend more time on fundraising, we need to be seen as allies on how to manage other responsibilities and tasks in a way that frees up valuable time. Bringing in active associate deans can help drive a meaningful discussion on how fundraising fits into an academic unit’s workloads and priorities. The other side of this coin is ensuring that when deans spend time on fundraising, their time is being used productively. Clearing out or protecting a dean’s schedule for development activities will only become a regular practice if that time is used wisely and outcomes are soon realized.
Build training around who your deans are and how training can enhance their fundraising skills.

When engaging a dean as a fundraiser, the element you have the least control over is the individual’s personality and strengths. There may be best practice and personality expectations for deans, but reality has a way of deviating from template. That element of the dean as an individual is what will drive successful relationship building with donors; therefore, use training as an opportunity to highlight and enhance his/her personal strengths.

Do you have deans who do not like to meet new people in one-on-one settings?

  • Use training as a platform to brainstorm when and where they are most comfortable in meeting new people and who might help introduce them to donors.
  • Are other deans detail-focused and administering a wide variety of programs in a large college? Training can be an opportunity to integrate their knowledge of each program into the larger picture for donors to understand.
  • Let any training that focuses on development messaging also focus on the stories of deans as individuals, because no matter how polished a speech may be, donors will sense if it isn’t coming from a genuine place.

Training isn’t about changing deans; it’s about elevating their story, packaging their ideas, and partnering with them to meaningfully engage in fundraising. Teaching the basics of fundraising may come into play, depending on the background of your dean, but ultimately, the best training for deans is that which links any new knowledge to real action items and tools for the dean to use moving forward.

Something Worth Reading: “Senior Executives are Often Unaware of Development Opportunities”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently highlighted a very interesting report on the executive leadership of non-profits. The report’s findings? That the most senior executives aren’t always on the same page as their leadership team.

Related to development and training, the following quote from the article is particularly troublesome:

Nearly all senior-most nonprofit executives believe their organizations are providing formal professional development opportunities, according to a new study, even as half of those serving immediately below them report that no such opportunities are in place…

Ninety percent of the senior-most executives said their organization offered formal development opportunities, while just 52 percent of leadership team members said such opportunities existed.

This speaks to the disconnect we’ve discussed before on this blog, but rather than managers and their direct reports in fundraising the data demonstrates that the top executives at non-profits have a parallel disconnect to their development leaders. When this relates to professional development opportunities the entire organization suffers. In fundraising a lack of executive understanding of the training needs and actual programs for development paired with ignorance of existing opportunities by leadership means that the institution is likely to (a) fall behind in appealing to and retaining top frontline talent, (b) perpetuate or exacerbate frustrations between performers and their managers, and/or (c) miss opportunities to improve both performance and engagement.

In many non-profits executives have ideas but do not engage or bring in others for implementation. A similar lack of implementation planning is evident in this report’s findings on succession planning where CEO beliefs (they overwhelmingly are in favor of it) conflict with reality (less than a third actually have succession plans).

The whole report is worth reading and looking over. For those in talent management it’s useful to know trends in leadership that affect how staff interact with and view their managers and executives. Among its findings:

Over 9/10 of CEOs believe that developing leaders in an organization is key to succession planning yet 1/2 would recommend hiring an external candidate to fill the CEO position.

Leaders 45 and under mainly prefer a salary increase whereas those over 45 mainly prefer acknowledgement as an incentive to remain with their current organization.

27% of Leadership Team members are ready to become CEO now and 38% do not aspire to become  EO at all.

So – what do you think? Is this consistent with your organizations? Have you personally seen damaged relationships or unrealized potential due to a non-profit CEO’s overlooking of a critical issue?

Maximizing the Return on Your Investment in Staff Development