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Craig Smith on Major Gifts Fundraising - Part II

In Part I of The Woolbright Group’s interview with Craig Smith regarding major gifts fundraising, he shared candid opinions on the “trouble” with cash gifts, his “hunter/farmer” theorem, and the practice of role-playing to as a skills-assessment tool. If you missed part one, you can access it here. In Part II, Craig covers several more pertinent topics including preparing trustees to make a successful ask, how to deal with a “preemptive gift strike,” and what to do when a donor says “yes.”

Part II

CW: How might a major gifts officer best prepare a “volunteer,” be it a trustee, a dean, faculty member, provost, or even a president to partner with them on a major gift solicitation?

CS: The primary challenge is when people who are in leadership positions haven’t had a lot of experience. The thinking may go something like this: they [donors] have money, we have needs; they must want to give it to us. Let’s tell them everything we’re doing, and they’re bound to say yes.

This is a prescription for failure. So, it is extremely important that you have a clear plan and method to help a volunteer or a senior leader know what the issues are, and how to best prepare them to pursue the conversation with the donor.

One method of preparation is to put together a document known as a “briefing spider.” Basically, it’s one-page map that lays out all the questions that we should ask and answer before we make a call on a prospective donor. Do we know what assets they might use? Do they have a stock portfolio? What is their current personal situation with charitable, family and business commitments? Are they really capable of a gift as large as we have envisioned? Based on what empirical evidence? What ties them to our programs? What idea do you want them to fund? Why is the gift important now, not just to us, but also to them?

Both gift officer and volunteer need to know what they are going to ask for; determine what is/are the donor’s area of interest; how much they are willing or able to give; what kind of assets they might use; and timing that makes sense for the donor and for the institution. They need to have talked through what planned gift options should be put on the table, both current and deferred if appropriate.

Of course, the gift officer needs to know whom they are going to be teamed with, whether it is a faculty member or the president or whomever. And, if you, as the development officer isn’t going to be at the meeting, you need to be darned sure that those who will are ready to play their roles well by rehearsing with them in advance.

You need to think about the best answers to the toughest questions you might be asked; what a prospect might say or ask that would throw you off guard or leave you speechless, and prepare ahead for how best to respond before you meet with them. Making it up on the spot is a bad idea.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if a donor says yes, I’ll give you the gift, it’s very important to properly finalize all the details of the gift transfer. The development officer and donor need to immediately discuss the payment schedule and all the other nitty-gritty logistics. For instance, will there be any discount if the donor wants to give the gift immediately rather than over time? What assets will comprise the gift (cash, stock, real estate, etc.)? What is the designated purpose of the gift? What must be included in the gift agreement? What will be the exact form and timing of any recognition? Will there be a will provision to back up a gift that is paid over time? Is insurance involved in the gift in any way? Leaving any or all of this to chance or assumption can cause a lot of havoc down the road.

One thing I always like to be sure gets talked about is the preemptive-strike gift. You’re going in to ask for $500,000, and as soon as you sit down, the donor says, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m going to give you $50,000.” Who on the asking team, the volunteer or the development officer, is going to be tasked with countering that in a way that doesn’t make the donor feel unappreciated for their offer? How do you get the conversation back on track? Again, not something you want to handle on the spot off the top of your heads.

CW: Have you found those volunteers to be receptive to that kind of preparation and role-play?

CS: The rule of thirds is alive in every sphere of our lives. A third of them are good at it right out of the box, a third of them will be good at it if you spend time with them. And then there is the third that will never get it. Despite how important development and fundraising is today, presidents and deans are hired because they’re great academics, not because they’re good at helping you raise money. Find the ones who want to excel and work with them as much as you can.

CW: How do gift officers engage major donors with the priorities and interests of the organization they represent?

CS: The more experience somebody has, the better they are at that. A new development or major gift officer doesn’t yet understand the importance of what someone needs to know, feel and experience to want to make a significant gift. It is part of the skill set to know whom a donor needs to meet; what tours might they need to take; what programs, or events they need to attend. I’ve come to believe that being more deliberate about setting written strategies for donors, with timelines for what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, and who’s going to be involved, makes all the difference in the world.

CW: What are you finding to be major donor expectations of your organization, and are they the same as they were ten years ago?

CS: Donors have far greater expectations about how their gifts are being used, and the transparency of the organization. That is why gift agreements are so important, and a very clear understanding upfront about what they’re giving, what you’re going to do in return, what everybody’s responsibilities are, and then following through. A robust and well-staffed stewardship team is really crucial over the long term so that your biggest donors really do understand what you’re doing with their money, and don’t feel like the only time you’re talking to them is when you want their next gift.

CW: Final thoughts?

CS: First of all, please don’t fool yourself by thinking this work is easy or without frustration. You’re going to be spending lots of time learning about a lot of things, including yourself, in order to grow and mature in your approach to your work. You need to have a good dose of competitiveness, be outcome driven and eternally optimistic, along with a really well-developed set of active listening skills. This work is not for the faint-hearted.

But it is wonderfully rewarding. When you can help donors truly connect and engage with whatever it is that you’re representing and hoping that they’ll support, it’s really fun when people decide to make a gift and you see the difference it makes in their lives by the look on their face and the emotion in their voice. That’s the real pleasure of our work.

CW: Thank you.

CS: My pleasure.


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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