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Keys to Success in Major Gifts

Interview with Jen Hall, Director, Regional Development, The Wharton School

Transparency. Accountability. Impact. These are the three primary requirements major donors expect in return for their giving, according to Jennifer Hall, Director, Regional Development at The Wharton School.

“It’s not enough now to say, ‘You’re supporting the mission of the school,’” Hall explains. Donors want—need—to know exactly how their dollars are being used “down to the last penny.” Transparency translates to keeping donors apprised of where their dollars go even they give an unrestricted gift.

Transparency and accountability go hand in hand. According to Hall, donors are holding organizations accountable for every dollar given and spent and they want to know how their giving will impact on the organization. Hall’s team and senior leadership are eager to comply with donors’ expectations because they understand that donors are passionate and give because it is important to them to make a difference, influence change, and be certain that their giving will help ensure the success of the institution going forward.

Meeting donors’ expectations is increasingly important for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are thousands of worthy organizations and institutions competing for the same dollars. The competition is fierce and every organization is “doing it better than ever before…that is to say, telling their story just as passionately and convincingly as another,” states Hall. “The challenge for gift officers,” Hall continues, “is not only tell the story but cast the donor as the hero of that story.”

Staying relevant in donors’ lives when they are spread across the country and even around the world is an additional challenge. Video platforms like Skype and FaceTime help a lot when it’s not practical to meet in person. Data plays a key role too, according to Hall. The concept of “big data” applies to major giving just as it does in other industries. “We come to the table with far more information and sophistication than ever before. As we look at potential donors data is critical in driving the operation and how we work.” Halls states.

Key to a successful major gifts program are talented gift officers. Competition in this area is fierce, too. Salaries and employment packages aimed at attracting and retaining high performance individuals are becoming the norm. At Wharton, a training program for incoming gift officers, coupled with a clear path for advancement and opportunities for increased responsibility help attract the best talent. Incoming gift officers train for three to four months before meeting with donors. During this time, role-playing is used as a means of familiarizing new team members with their territory, important donors, the competition, and of course the institution they represent. In evaluating applicants, Hall asserts that candidates “have to have an appreciation and understanding of the mission. If not, it is very hard to create the ‘story’ and motivate others to want to be part of the story.”

When trainees have the expectation that they will close a gift right away, Hall quickly dispels the notion. “This is work that requires patience. Taking time to listen and ask the right questions is key to better understanding the donor and his or her motivation and intentions. Only than can you begin to make the case for your institution,” Hall stresses.

Hall believes that success comes with tenure. “We know that success in major gifts is not, you know, two years here and two years there. Major gifts success comes when there is tenure in a role. You can accomplish incredible philanthropy and comprehend the value of your work if you stay three, four, five, six years,” she states.

“Recognizing that people want to develop professionally over time means that organizations need to define opportunities for increased responsibility within a role to keep that gift officer incentivized to continue working for the mission, gain additional skills and develop as a gift officer.”

It is also up to the individual to continually grow in a position or profession. Hall advises, “Continue to seek out and have conversations with those who you admire, or are perhaps in positions you aspire to. Learn about what they’ve done on their career path and start incorporating some of those things in your own career path.” “Compete with yourself,” she recommends, “drive yourself to your best success.” ‘Have fun on the way, and appreciate the impact you are having on an organization because you believe in the mission,” she concludes.

Jen Hall is the Director of Regional Development at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In this role, she leads a team of regional gift officers supporting their fundraising and engagement strategies for alumni and friends of Wharton. As a senior fundraiser for the School, Jen primarily works with alumni in California. Jen has spent the last 8 years at the Wharton School, starting as an Associate Director of the Wharton Fund before being promoted to the Wharton Major Gifts team. Since joining the Major Gifts team, Jen has been promoted twice and then to her current role.

Prior to relocating to Philadelphia, Jen served as a Business Development Consultant for Crescendo Consulting Solutions. She started her career at Muhlenberg College, serving as the Assistant Director of Alumni Relations before being promoted to a Leadership Gift Officer.

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