Fund Raising

Building a Better Major-Gifts Officer

September 23, 2014

Colleges are increasingly reliant on the big gift.

More than three-quarters of all higher-education fund raising came from the top 1 percent of donors in 2011, up from 64 percent just five years earlier.

So it stands to reason that colleges are also increasingly dependent on their major-gifts officers, particularly the ones who are really good at landing such donations.

Major-gifts officers, typically responsible for donations that range from $25,000 to $10-million, are also hard for colleges to keep. The average tenure for a major-gifts officer is now just 18 to 24 months, according to A.J. Nagaraj, a research consultant with the Education Advisory Board, a consulting company based in Washington D.C. "Colleges always have an opening."

With that as a backdrop, the company, known as EAB, undertook research to home in on the traits most often found in the most successful gift officers. It then put them together in an attempt to identify the kind of person who would be ideal for the job.

To create the model, EAB looked at the donation results of more than 1,200 major-gifts officers at 89 colleges (including eight outside the United States) and also surveyed those officers on their approaches to fund raising. The questions were designed to assess such things as the officers’ attitudes on the importance of developing partnerships with faculty members while cultivating prospective donors.

Using the results of that survey, EAB classified the gift officers into five prototypes—the Cultivator, the Fixer, the Adapter, the Academic, and the Lone Ranger. For example, the Adapter, which accounted for 28 percent of the sample, is a person who shows strong intercultural skills, stays abreast of faculty research, and is behaviorally and linguistically flexible. The first and last of those traits are especially relevant, according to EAB, as the pool of major donors grows more ethnically diverse.

'Curious Chameleons'

The colleges, meanwhile, classified each of their fund raisers based on whether they were in the top third, middle third, or bottom third in terms of money raised and having met their particular fund-raising goals.

The company had hoped to find one natural prototype that would encompass the best performers. Instead, it found that top performers were well represented among all the prototypes. So it then went back in a sort of reverse-engineering exercise and examined the list of top performers to see what they all had in common. The consultants found that most of the top officers shared the Adapter’s behavioral and linguistic flexibility, the Academic’s intellectual curiosity and skills for synthesizing information, and the Lone Ranger’s assertiveness in soliciting prospects.

Just 3.8 percent of the wider pool had all four of those traits. That share was not big enough to count as a statistically legitimate separate category, but EAB determined it was noteworthy enough to merit its own name, especially considering those officers’ fund-raising prowess. EAB called them Curious Chameleons.

The notion of Curious Chameleons might seem a bit contrived, but EAB says that people who fit that profile were 49 percent more likely to have been in the top third of performers at their institutions, and 78 percent more likely to have exceeded their fund-raising goals, than the pool as a whole.

In real life, says Mr. Nagaraj, they are the people who can spend two hours in an 80-degree condominium drinking a warm Tab with an 85-year-old grandmother and then quickly switch gears for a 30-minute pitch to a high-powered lawyer. They are also the people who are equally comfortable sorting through the results of data analytics generated by the development office’s prospect-research team and taking in the esoteric work of a university’s star scientist.

And while Mr. Nagaraj acknowledges that it is "incredibly difficult to teach someone how to be intellectually curious," he says most of the other characteristics of Curious Chameleons can probably be taught or enhanced through training.

He hopes the research will help colleges rethink how they interview and hire their major-gift-officer candidates. And, he says, it could also broaden the horizons on where to go looking for candidates in the first place. That’s especially important, says Mr. Nagaraj, because now "everyone is competing for the same small number of individuals."