Building In-House Bridges: Communication Tips from a Gift Officer and a Researcher

By Christina Makal McCaffery, director of major and planned giving, and Jeffrey Walker, PhD, director of research, Development and Alumni Relations Office at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 

Since 2011, Christina Makal McCaffery and Jeff Walker have been philanthropy colleagues at the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee campus (UWM). With their record-breaking comprehensive campaign concluding, they paused to reflect on the various questions, challenges and opportunities surrounding in-house communication, which led to this Q&A. 

Jeff: I understand you were at a conference recently and happened to overhear a rather thought-provoking chat. 

Christina: I was sitting at a table of prospect researchers, and most of their conversation regarding frontline fundraisers was about their frustration. Frustration that the right prospects were not being seen or visited. Frustration that prospects were sitting idle in portfolios. Frustration with not understanding some of the time pressures that frontline fundraisers complain about. Frustration that frontline fundraisers do not fully use the information that they provide and spend so much time gathering. 

J: What did you say? 

C: I really just listened. They outnumbered me! But also, from a management perspective, I am in a position where I see and understand the frustrations on both sides. So much of it is about limited resources for all parties. If I had said anything, it would have been something like, “I know how you are feeling, and I also know how your frontline colleagues feel.” 

J: How did you feel? What new thinking did the conversation spark? 

C: I have been a part of these venting conversations with prospect management staff and research teams previously. It reminded me that, from a management perspective, we all have more work to do to break down silos in our own shops and to be more transparent about our shared goals, as well as the pressures on our time and efficiency. 

J: Within our philanthropy team and in other organizations you’re familiar with, what obstacles have you seen when frontline and behind-the-scenes colleagues collaborate? What are some common patterns of misunderstanding or misperception? 

C: That was a huge topic this spring at Apra OverDRIVE/ and DRIVE/, in Baltimore. It’s all about the data culture and fostering a greater understanding. In terms of data here at UWM, I think we do a really good job, mostly because of our database management committee — something a lot of organizations don’t have. In that forum, we can share issues and try to resolve them from all perspectives. We get to hear from people in each area of expertise and how the problems impact them. Our growing data culture allows for transparency between all areas of our staff. That’s really what is necessary to continue to build bridges. 

We have achieved a deeper level of understanding of the value we each bring through data transparency — using dashboard reporting. All members of our team have access to our reports and can see in just a few clicks the status of work-to-goals in each of our respective areas, whether research, annual giving or major giving. 

We are not perfect, though, and still have misunderstandings, but so much of that is about resources. All employees have so much work to do and want to have an impact, and they feel disappointed or let down when things they have spent a lot of time on are not utilized, or when they feel they don’t get enough support. By building a strong team culture and sharing more information, I think the misunderstandings can be minimized, and our data culture will continue to improve. 

J: Is the traditional “extroverted gift officer” and “introverted researcher” dichotomy a helpful framework? Or does it cause more problems? 

C: Our frontline people are inclined and trained to work with people who have all sorts of communication styles. I honestly don’t feel like that is the root of the issue. And, actually, I think it’s misleading. It can be an excuse to try to explain away certain communication issues, where typically there is much, much more to the story. 

J: What can frontline and behind-the-scenes team members most learn from each other? What should we all try to do better — or differently? 

C: We all need to be better at walking a mile in others’ shoes. Especially at UWM, where our staff is so lean. We are all doing our level best with the strained resources that we have. Many of us realize that, with more staff and more in the overall budget, we could do so much more and be even more productive. We all feel strapped, and because of that, it’s often too easy to point the finger at who is not doing what. 

We need to rise above the old blame game. We all have a key role to play as part of our team, and our collective job is to identify, engage, cultivate, solicit and steward donors and advocates for this amazing institution. Sometimes, I think better illustrating and defining our respective roles can help. But we also need to foster a true team understanding of our roles, across the continuum. 

J: What's the “secret sauce” that makes these working relationships thrive over the long term? Most importantly: What’s crucial for collaborative success during a campaign? 

C: Leadership and communication are key. Collaboration is based on accessibility and a willingness to work together to understand each colleague’s goals and situation. From a management perspective, we must attempt to enhance our culture, so those factors are continually emphasized. 

J: To wrap up: What practical communication tips would you offer for new frontline and new behind-the-scenes colleagues? And why? 

C: As in our external work, relationship building in house is vital. It is imperative for people from different teams to work together and communicate together to address challenges and obstacles. To find real solutions, we all need to be on the same page, and the only way to accomplish that is by fostering the sense of team. Go out of your way to get to know your colleagues. What makes them tick? What are they passionate about? What are their strengths? 

J: Thank you so much, Christina. I’ve enjoyed this, and I’m grateful for the insights you’ve shared. 

C: I had fun, too — and I hope our UWM experiences will help our peers in other organizations. Philanthropy is inspiring, in part, because there’s always so much we can share and learn. 

Christina Makal McCaffery has been a member of UWM’s Development and Alumni Relations Office since September 2007 and a director of major and planned giving since July 2017. She is available via and




Jeff Walker has been the director of research in UWM’s Development and Alumni Relations Office since January 2011 and is also a longtime member of the Editorial Advisory Committee for Connections. He is available via, and



This article relates to the Relationship Management domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge. 

To learn more tips on effective communication amongst colleagues, check out these webinars: “Building Relationships Outside of Development” and “Say What? Communicating for Results.” 

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