Major & Principal Giving

The market for major gift officers (MGO) continues to be hot, and turnover is a perpetual challenge. The average tenure for an MGO has declined to 2.5 years, and the average new hire stays no longer than 18 months. Only 30 percent of candidates have at least one 5-year position on their résumés. This is a real dilemma for both the profession and organizations as they aim to build long-term, meaningful relationships with constituents.

There are many, many variables at play in these statistics, but one has considerable influence—getting started well. Probably the most common obstacle to that is discovery calling and making productive contact to develop relationships with prospects in the assigned portfolio. How do we best support and empower our new MGOs?

Many new major gift officers, including experienced MGOs in new positions, often struggle to connect with their new prospects. Most MGOs aim to meet metrics that set minimums for visits and other actions. Striving to hit those marks can become a high hurdle to clear when an MGO isn’t set up for success or doesn’t have the right tools to get started.

Ways to Clear the Hurdle

Below are some techniques and strategies that can make it easier to clear the discovery call hurdle.

Understand the Value

Many newcomers don’t always understand the immediate value of discovery calling, which can result in efforts to avoid them altogether or lead to other behaviors such as spending time on lots of deeper research. The fact is that success requires access and visits, so nothing is more important than the work to secure that access and those visits. In addition to a plan, newcomers likely need supervisory assurance about this approach.

Discovery Shouldn’t Be Cold

Discovery calls to a prospect shouldn’t be the first time they are hearing from an organization. We need to put ourselves in our donor’s shoes and take a holistic approach to their journey, not just focus on the ask. By the time a prospect is assigned for discovery, the prospect should be familiar with your organizational stories and the value of being a donor. (This can be where digital engagement and annual giving really shine in a donor journey.) Through a mix of channels and mediums, you can nurture your audience so gift officers are in a position to deliver the right message at the right time.

Do the Homework, Track Efforts

Newcomers also need assurance that trouble gaining access isn’t likely to be fixed by getting a list of prospects who are easier to access. Because wealth is an insulator, “tough to access” may even be an indicator of a higher quality list. Research, of course, can determine the truth of this supposition. It is important to change the narrative so gift officers understand the outreach is worth the effort for these qualified top prospects.

Tracking efforts can help isolate the key friction variables. For example, it helps to discover how many attempts, on average, it takes to secure an appointment. This can provide some insight into whether the newcomer is making enough attempts, which in turn can lead to a clearer understanding of how much time to budget for attempts. Regularly confirming that the gift officers have the right information and supporting their efforts will be important to success.

Sticking with It

One of the most important qualities of the prospects assigned in portfolios is in fact a natural insulator to the discovery call. The gated community is emblematic of this phenomenon, but wealthy prospects are “gated” in many ways. They are busy and have more options, more residences, private transportation, executive assistants, unlisted numbers and addresses, etc. And of course, they have more MGOs pursuing them.

As a prospect’s “insulation” rises, so too does the propensity to move to less wealthy prospects who might be easier to reach. And, as the MGO works with less and less wealthy prospects, s/he must close more and more gifts to reach their dollar goals, meaning more and more discovery calls.

Consider Timing and Vary It

Recording and evaluating your efforts will allow you to reflect on your timing and narrow in on the best opportunities.

Timing is important from several perspectives. If success is elusive, one of the first adjustments is to vary the routine—try reaching out in the evening, early morning, or on weekends. Be persistent!

Donor location is another key factor. Are you calling a donor who may be in the office or traveling for work? Are you calling or emailing a snowbird you think is in NYC in November but has already left for SRQ? Do your calls align with their schedule and locations? Try both office and cell numbers to broaden opportunities to connect. Send emails to both business and personal email addresses when available. Consider the address to which a letter was mailed and the timing of it. Thinking ahead matters.

Allow for Flexible Scheduling

Wealthy people are often busy people with full calendars. Make sure you are asking for an appointment far enough ahead—even four to six weeks—so that you’re not asking them to cancel something else. Your flexibility in securing a time that works best for them will reap bigger benefits than “fitting in” a meeting sooner.

Make Enough Attempts

One of the most important indicators of discovery success is prioritizing time to make enough attempts to secure enough visits. The time budgeted for making attempts should not be forfeited to focus on the process of preparing for the attempts with research, etc. Keep in mind that the purpose of the attempt is to secure the appointment, not to establish the relationship. Relationship building is the purpose of the visit. The answer to the question, “How many attempts are needed?” is “As many as it takes to secure enough appointments.”

Get Off on the Right Foot

Another key to discovery is the art of securing an appointment. If the prospect declines the visit, this is probably an indicator that the first conversation needs to change. What is being said to the prospect? What is the prospect saying in return? One common problem here is that newcomers say too much in the initial conversation and rely too heavily on the research to build a connection.

Frequently, the more said in the first conversation (or relying too heavily on scripted content from research), the more reasons the prospect has to refuse the visit. The better approach is to have a good lead-in question that draws the prospect into offering information, even if it’s already known.

One very important question in discovery calling (and throughout cultivation) is: “Do you mind if I ask …?” Getting permission to continue the discussion is often the best offense against a well-built defense. The primary goal is to get them talking and let them share details at their own pace.

Shape first contacts as opportunities for prospects to influence the direction of the organization, take notes, or even conduct a formal survey for a first visit.

Leverage Contacts

Sometimes a mutual connection can be the best tool to open new doors. Use connectors to improve your chances—prevalent interests, common acquaintances, or current donors who know the prospect. A trusted individual making an introduction can lay the groundwork for a meaningful relationship and promising visit.

Plan the Message

Do you know what you’re going to say if the prospect answers the phone? A successful call begins with planning, so draft a script for when the prospect answers the phone. Listen carefully for reactions to that script. Modify the script and listen for changes in reactions. The discovery call script is a bit like the stump speech of a politician—often the first speech leads to some “yeahs” and some “boos.” In the bus on the way to the next speech, the politician deletes paragraphs that got booed and amplifies those that were cheered. Cold calling too is an iterative process.

Plan Your Voice Message

Have you noticed that people don’t seem to answer the phone anymore? Another common sticking point in discovery calling is mastering the voicemail. The bulk of calls to cell phones, landlines, and even office phones end up in voicemail, which can be problematic. This problem is then exacerbated by the common mistake of leaving a callback number because first, the caller relinquishes the initiative. How long should you wait for the prospect to call back before trying again? The caller must hold onto the initiative. Second, in a nuanced way the callback number from a stranger is a breach of etiquette. It puts the responsibility for making the connection on the prospect, not the newcomer who initiated the outreach.

Rather than merely leaving a callback number, thereby putting the onus on the prospect to connect, leave a voice mail that identifies the caller (this should be very short), gives a reason for the call (also very, very short), apologizes for missing the prospect, and proposes that the caller will try again. Better yet, the caller should state a date and time when they will call again. If the caller proposes a specific time, s/he must be ready to follow through, whether that’s next week, the next day, or even within an hour or two. While it might seem trivial, using a “smiling voice” while leaving a message goes a long way to creating a cheerful impression. By using a “smiling voice,” the caller can actually call several times in a day without becoming a nuisance and may even increase the likelihood of someone picking up the call. A sequence of these attempts serves to build a preliminary image of the gift officer as someone who is pleasant, responsible, persistent, and reliable.

Send an Email or Letter in Advance

There are additional techniques that can improve the odds for turning an attempt into a bona fide contact. One of the more common is to send an email or letter of introduction to set the stage before the outreach attempt is made. It is important to track this kind of technique to identify the messages, signatures, subject lines, or timing that work best.

The introduction should focus on encouraging the prospect to take the call by providing a valid reason to do so. Resist talking about the organization and the caller. Don’t say more about the appointment than is necessary. A better approach is to use the call as an opportunity to learn from the prospect. For instance, the call could be about getting feedback to help the institution’s leaders learn about some important issue or question (e.g., what the institution can do better to serve the community in this “new normal”). There is an old saying in fundraising: “If you want advice, ask for money; if you want money, ask for advice.” For a newcomer, the visit can be a way to get advice on a particular topic.

Track Results, Make Changes as Needed

Occasionally, there is a gap in turning connections into appointments. Track those conversations as well and consider the conversations with those who are reached. It might take a gift officer a while to hit their stride. It is important to try out ideas, track responses, and determine what works. Then change the script accordingly. Improvement comes from methodical, self-conscious, and self-critical practice. Note insights, draft pitches, sketch out the rationale. From time to time, it is often helpful to make discovery calling processes and techniques an item on the team meeting agenda. Frequently, what works for one caller can be adapted to success for another.

Focus on the 2nd Visit

Once an MGO has achieved access—because major gift work requires multiple visits—the requirement for discovery calls declines and reduces the effort associated with trying to clear the first hurdle. This works much more effectively if the second visit is booked before ending the first. Set the expectation or anticipation of the next visit at a specific time to further explore ideas “put on the table” in the first visit. A good supervisor will focus on supporting the newcomer in managing discovery calling and converting the first visit into the second.

Once that critical first visit is secured, it’s essential to pivot to thinking about how to build the relationship and further connect the prospect and the organization. It’s essential to always consider how to move the prospect through the donor journey. Doing the hard work of discovery calling and making connections at the front end reduces the amount of discovery calling required as time goes on. Just as resistance to power through the initial phases of discovery calling becomes a vicious downward spiral, so too success in discovery calling becomes an upward spiral of results and hitting goals.