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Craig Smith on Major Gifts Fundraising – Part I


In October, Cynthia Woolbright sat down with Craig Smith, Associate Vice President for Development, Rochester Institute of Technology, to talk about major gifts fundraising. Craig shared candid opinions on topics ranging from the "trouble" with cash gifts, seeking job candidates who meet his “hunter/farmer” theorem, and the practice of role-playing to determine if a development officer has the right skills for the job.

Part I

CW: Craig, please share your prognosis on major gifts fundraising for the foreseeable future.

CS: So, in my work at RIT as the Associate VP for Development and as a consultant, I’ve come to the conclusion in the last year that we’ve trained prospective major gift donors, and ourselves as field officers, to really pursue transactional gift-giving. I don’t think it’s been purposeful, but it’s happened. And while that approach delivers adequate returns for a lot of organizations, I’m sure it means we’re leaving money on the table.

CW: By that do you mean “transactional” as opposed to relationship-building?

CS: By transactional, I mean that we do a decent job of discovering what donors want to support, but we often fail to dig deeply enough into someone’s real motivation for giving to a particular cause. Usually, we skip entirely any conversation about how the gift might best be made. And I’m of the opinion that if we can address this sort of systemic issue, we could unlock a lot more philanthropic support across the board from most organizations.

CW: What do you think has caused this?

CS: It has a lot to do with the fact that when people agree to see us, they know what we do. They ask, “You must want to come and see me about money.” So from the outset, the donors, who are the ones with the money, guide the conversation to, “Yes, I know you want some support from me. I’ll do something. This is what I’ll give you. I’ll give you a cash pledge payable over a few years. How’s that?”

CW: What can be done to remedy this sort of transactional conversation?

CS: I think that we, as development officers, haven’t been trained to cope with guiding and directing the conversation more proactively. And so I’ve embraced a set of tools called the four decisions and the two-part conversation that has helped me simplify the process of discovery with somebody. These tools help me to make it more about the donor, and less about me and the organization I’m representing. They help me guide the conversation over time, so that I can split the emotional from the intellectual. I start with, talk to me about why you want to do something, what you’d want to accomplish if you could do something meaningful. The key is to put money aside for that part of the conversation. Then, in a second conversation we begin talking about how the donor might make it happen, given their circumstances.

When a donor says, you must want to talk to me about money, I say, first I want to talk to you about what matters to you; what floats your boat about this organization, or this cause; and what impact you might want to have on it. It allows me to put aside “you must want to talk to me about money” until we get to the second part of the conversation. I want to get people to talk to me from their hearts first and their heads second.

CW: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges today for gift officers, are they any different from the past?

CS: There’s always been, you know, sort of dynamic tension from leadership to get the most spendable cash you can, as fast as you can. I understand that from an operations point of view. But it’s ultimately short-sighted, and singularly focused on a donor’s checkbook.

The question I often ask audiences when I’m in front of them, whether they’re donors or development officers, is, please give me a show of hands: how many of you keep more than 5% of what you’re worth in your checking account? Nobody raises their hand. Certainly not the major donor prospects, who have their assets tied up in lots of other things.

So, why do we chase so many cash gifts and so many multi-year pledges paid with cash. I think we could do a much different and better job if we all worked harder at becoming gift planners. And that’s not planned giving. Gift planners seek to construct a gift plan with the donor, one that will be revealed to us if we will search for it, and explore it with them. And I don’t mean deferred gifts. I mean lots of appreciated asset gifts. And that’s what I see as a big challenge.

CW: Let’s talk about recruiting and cultivating major gifts officers, and the ways that we can ensure a pipeline of talented officers.

CS: Certainly, having your own sort of training program for people on a regular basis, that renews it and refreshes it for people who’ve been through it before, and brings new people up to speed, is important if you want a pipeline. I’ve interviewed a lot of people over time who should have been working in alumni relations jobs, not development jobs. And they’re great relationship-builders, but they don’t excel at closing and the pleasure that comes with that. So, I’ve embraced this concept of hunter versus farmer. Hunters make up about 20% of the American population, and they have three key traits. They’re very competitive; they’re very outcome-oriented; and they’re eternal optimists.

So, I’ve been trying to find people who are about 75% hunter and 25% farmer, because enough hunter makes you chase the outcome and bring things to closure. But some farmer, because farmers are good at planting the seed and nurturing the crop. They aren’t good risk-takers, but they’re good at those other things. You need both traits to be able to pursue a relationship and steward gifts over time.

CW: What other attributes and skills do you seek for your major gifts team?

CS: I believe that none of us get out of college and say, gee, I can’t wait to become a development officer. Most all of us who have varying education and skill sets fall into this, one way or another. I’m looking for people who either have some development experience or perhaps some kind of sales work in their background. At RIT, we’ve hired a lot of people out of industry who’ve excelled very well. It’s helpful when they understand the difference between selling widgets and relationship-based kind of sales.

I like to ask people, if you really want to go into this work, go take a DiSC assessment. That’s D-I-S-C. It’s about your essential characteristics of your personality style of work. I also advise people, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you’re outgoing and gregarious, you’ll succeed in the major gifts role. The best and most successful major gift officers are the ones who listen more than they talk.

End of Part I

Next: Craig Smith talks about role playing, preparing trustees and others to partner with major gifts officers, and how to deal with a “preemptive gift strike.”

Craig currently leads the University Development team at Rochester Institute of Technology. In this role, he manages a group of 24 professionals in major gifts, corporate and foundation relations, and development communications. RIT field officers employ a combination of activity and dollar-based metrics to drive their success, and routinely use gift planning tools and techniques in their day-to-day interactions with donors.

Before joining RIT in 2007, he served as a Senior Consultant with John Brown Limited. His clients included higher education, the arts, healthcare, and cultural organizations nationwide, including the National Geographic Society, the University of Michigan, all of the campuses of the University of North Carolina, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He helped to develop and manage campaigns from as small at $6 million to as large as $2.5 billion.

Craig is dedicated to creatively bringing together philanthropists and worthy charitable causes to assure maximum tax advantage for donors while assisting development officers in reaching their important goals. He is best known for his leadership, personal solicitation skills, and gift planning know-how.

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