By Elizabeth de Velasco, Director, Prospect Development, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
In prospect development chit-chat, on our industry email listserv or in conference presentations, you often hear prospect development professionals wondering how we can improve our relationships with gift officers or, less hopefully, complaining that gift officers are difficult.
It seems that we in prospect development often see an essential contrast between ourselves and gift officers. Maybe because many moons ago I was a gift officer, I see that contrast as the strength of our partnership. They are the yang to our yin, the Ernie to our Bert, the maple syrup to our Brussels sprouts.
What if we in prospect development viewed our work from a gift officer’s perspective? What if we considered that good relationships with them are essential to our own success?
In the spirit of thinking differently about our relationships with gift officers, here are six reasons I love working with them:
1. Gift officers are risk-takers.
Advancing an organization requires a change from business-as-usual. Asking for a larger gift is a risk. That sense of opportunity and adventure opens up worlds that we in prospect development may not have seen.
Marci Brenholz, director of development at NYU Langone Health, says, “Researchers logically make recommendations based on a prospect’s past, while gift officers help donors see how philanthropy can transform the future.”
2. Gift officers know how to synthesize all kinds of information.
Modeled ratings and identifiable information provide crucial intelligence about which prospects to prioritize and even how to approach them; however, they create an incomplete view. Gift officers augment research with what they glean from top volunteers and prospects themselves. Opinions about the organization, philanthropic values, life events and the responsiveness prospects show to outreach all enrich a gift officer’s decision-making.
Ann Putnam Marks, UNICEF USA’s vice president of major gifts, shares, “Prospect research helps me ask the right questions. I once received research that a donor had served on many boards of colleges. This allowed me to tailor my preparation toward education, thus sparking a vibrant conversation over months that later led to a six-figure gift.”
3. They understand programs well.
Good gift officers can be impressive and compelling representatives of the organization. They can bring the mission to life, reminding us of why we are committed to the cause.
Kristen Jones, The Nature Conservancy’s director of development, marketing and communications for Asia Pacific, explains, “To find the perfect alignment between a donor and the organization, you need an intimate understanding of the donor’s social mission and very strong knowledge of the programmatic work. Both are equally important to be successful in our work.”
4. They are optimists.
It is not easy to make big asks or even to forge new relationships with prospects, and the work sometimes takes unexpected turns. Despite the occasional setback, skilled gift officers persevere admirably.
Meg Dooley, vice president for development at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, shares, “When I am not raising money for Memorial Sloan Kettering, I can often be found rehearsing or performing a play or musical. Actors always want to know ‘What's my objective in this scene?’ Thorough prospect research helps me to fine-tune my objective, really listen to what the donor is saying, and always be ready to say ‘Yes, and . . .’ on the way to a successful outcome for all.”
5. Gift officers improve prospect development.
The rubber hits the road when a gift officer starts to qualify a prospect. No longer does looking good on paper matter. Over time, in a positive, symbiotic relationship between prospect development and gift officers, there is a feedback loop about which information turns out to be useful or indicative of a good prospect.
Erin Dodd, Cornell University’s executive director for alumni affairs and development for the Northeast Corridor, says that she is motivated by insights from prospect development: “A great researcher once pointed out an alumnus who never finished his degree but mentioned in his corporate bio that he had received a prestigious scholarship to our university. I called him, and the alumnus said, ‘I’ve been meaning to reach out to you.’”
6. Gift officers bring our work to life.
Big fundraising goals require a team effort to achieve them. After prospect development provides research, gift officers take our work the next leg of the journey; grateful gift officers appreciate how prospect development sets them up for success.
Anna Christensen, Mono Lake Committee’s philanthropy director, says, “Prospect research is the light shining in the forest; just a few pieces of meaningful information can inspire a personal visit.”
Gift officers are not a hurdle to overcome, but our partners in advancing our organizations’ missions. When we in prospect development see our work from their perspective, we can provide products and processes that help raise more and larger gifts.