Where have the volunteers gone?

When asked to describe their work, many Major Gift Officers will respond something like, “to identify, cultivate, solicit, and steward major gift prospects.”   This perception of the MGO job description has become commonplace and I wish it wasn’t so.

Why?  Primarily because the answer suggests that the MGO is the one who should be doing most (if not all) of the identifying, culitvating, solicting, and stewarding of prospects.  This is a myopic view of our work as development professionals and unnecessarily hampers our effectiveness.

Within the last 15 years I’ve witnessed a “professionalization” of our work to such a degree that we seem to have left behind a valued partner – namely, the major gift volunteer.  While we still witness volunteer assistance on principal gift solicitations, I have seen a decrease in volunteer solicitations at the leadership and major gift level.  This is an unhelpful trend.

Utilizing volunteers  during  major gift solicitations is key for at least 4 reasons:

  • First, the very act of volunteering to solicit a major gift prospect is a cultivation experience for the volunteer.
  • Second, volunteers can say and do things that exert gentle leverage on a major gift prospect in ways that a paid staff member can not.
  • Third, volunteers provide a voice of unpaid affirmation and endorsement – the prospect knows that the MGO is paid to say great things about the institution, but the volunteer is perceived to be without that biased baggage.
  • Fourth, volunteers provide continuity for our development programs.  MGO’s come and go (about every 2.5 years these days), but volunteers provide a line of continuity in serving donors and the institution.

Our role, then, could best be described as a coordinator.  We should coordinate the identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of prospects and donors.   We should work with donors through volunteers.  We should view ourselves as much directors as actors.   But most shops, regardless of size, do not have a robust system of coordinating volunteer actions within the major gift effort.

When we engage willing volunteers meaningfully, educate them on the best approaches, and let them utilize their nicely-perched position as unpaid endorser, we end up cultivating the volunteer and the prospect, leveraging the best solicitation strategies, and we receive larger gifts.

In the end, perhaps the job title shouldn’t be “Major Gift Officer.”  Instead, maybe it should be “Development Volunteer Coordinator.”  Maybe then we’d get the volunteers  back.


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