What does major gift excellence require?

Published by Karen Osborne on

I don’t mean what you need to get the job or even how to keep it. Too many nonprofits are willing to settle for less than the best. There are more available positions than there are good folks to fill them. You are employable without excellence.

What I’m talking about is what you need to be exceptional regardless of what the boss thinks or wants.

Why should you bother to be exceptional?

  1. Major gifts change the world. Through transformational investments, your beloved cause has needed fuel to achieve the vision. You are one of the drivers.
  2. Being excellent and LOVING your job makes the days fly by, keeps you motivated and happy. It inspires others to excellence – colleagues, volunteers and board members.
  3. Donors respond to outstanding major gift officers. They want YOU to help them achieve THEIR dreams.
  4. Your IDEAL opportunity will need and seek your priceless competencies.

Karen_1Achievable Excellence, you just need to know where to look

There is a ton of information available about what it takes to be good at this work. Much of it, however, focuses on skill sets and experience — can you close, do you know how to solicit, and have you ever secured a six, seven or eight-figure gift? More recently, how knowledgeable are you about relationship fundraising. Good questions but not the ones that lead to exceptional.

Extraordinary major gift officers have strategic agility — the ability to first create a strategic donor plan (4 to 7 strategic steps over 6 to 18 months that builds a long-term, productive and meaningful relationship) and visit strategy (concrete outcome goals, identified strategic questions and key points to make) and then pivot with poise when circumstances change.

Empathy is another critical competency — the ability to understand another person without the donor explicitly explaining all of her motives and feelings. Certainly, you should ask about philanthropic values and motivation but also sense what she didn’t say.

Karen_2If you asked me about my giving motivations, I’d tell you that children are my focus. If you are listening with your eyes and ears, you’d know there is more to that story and probe to find out my underlining “why.”

Empathy alone, however, can be a disaster. We’re so empathetic, we’re afraid to ask strategic questions including “would you consider an investment of…” When you couple empathy with what Jim Collins calls “professional will” in “Good to Great for the Social Sector,” however, you have a winning duo. Will to succeed, grit, tenacity in the face of steep odds.

Collins also talks about Legislative Skill – the ability to collaborate with others in the organization, achieve co-ownership of goals, and inspire or motivate others to follow even though they don’t report to you. We know how important that is to major gift success. We need our CEOs, mission staff, board members and peers to be part of telling the story, sharing impact and outcomes and wowing donors with exceptional donor care.

Humility is at the top of the list as well — ego in check, constantly learning. Arrogance, not matter how successful you’ve been, will trip you up.

We all know integrity (ethical, honest, transparent) is the coin of the realm — whether or not you are both trusted and trustworthy as Stephen M R Covey explains it in The Speed of Trust – a person of character and competence. Being trustworthy, (a person of good character) is not enough. Others must also trust you.

Karen_3 Intellectual and social curiosity is important and that requires strong questioning and listening skills. 

Major gift work is a journey and relationship building is not linear. You need the ability to deal with ambiguity. Donors don’t always know what they want or what they mean. Where the gift is headed is not always clear.

Because so much of the work is done out of the office, good judgment is darn important — can you analyze, assess and make wise and timely decisions both on the spot and after consideration.

Of course, you understand why the ability to organize and set clear priorities is required for excellence. You have to know how and when to say “no” to some tasks and some people if you want to hear a joyful, generous, “yes” to your major gift request. This can be the hardest of all the competencies since most of us are pleasers with a can-do attitude. The ability to say “no,’ however, politely and firmly gives you the ability to say “yes,” to what is truly important.

How many of these qualities do you possess? How will work on the ones needing attention?

Karen Osborne

Internationally recognized as an expert consultant and excellent presenter, Karen receives invitations from all over the United States and the world to make presentations and consult with NGOs, universities, justice, social service, and health organizations. The Council for Support and Advancement of Education (CASE) awarded Karen the Crystal Apple for outstanding teaching and Ashmore Award for Outstanding Service to the Profession. Published and often quoted in industry books, newspapers and magazines, Karen serves on the board of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and teaches a graduate course on philanthropy for Johns Hopkins University.


Kristina · February 18, 2016 at 16:19

This was an excellent read, Karen. Thank you for writing such an inspired piece. I will definitely keep this in my, “keep your head up, and don’t forget” folder.

Elizabeth Vernick Baroody · February 23, 2016 at 22:59

Karen —
As always, you’ve nailed the essence of joyful fundraising! Great words.

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Connie Murphy · March 6, 2023 at 16:22

Thank you Karen – as always – for such wisdom and clarity. We recently hired a new MGO who brings a lot of experience in the business sector though light on the philanthropic sector. This will be a helpful guide.

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