Recruiting your staff for your major gifts program is critical, to say the least. Hopefully gone forever is the image of the slick presenter who could "sell" mom and pop on giving away the farm.

Successful major giving is based on real relationships, with the major gift officer still knowing what their place and purpose really is, because the donor certainly does.  Consider these traits to look for, and tips for hiring, when you select people who will closely carry the image of your organization.

1. Integrity, integrity, integrity. Look for this first when hiring.  Major gift officers will need to be people who donors highly value and trust to help them accomplish their giving goals. Without trust, this is going nowhere.

2. Relationship skills.  This one is a little hard to qualify in a candidate if you don't know them, but you must find out if they are genuine relationship people. Do they love people and are they also skilled at helping guide them to a decision? Or do they just view people as prospects toward goals? Or, worst of all, are they afraid to ask for a gift?

3. Communication skills are obviously very important, but we're looking for a particular communication skill set here, and that's the interpersonal skill set, which is different from mass audience presentation skills and even small group presentation skills. While some people can speak well to all three audiences, they are the rare person.  Look for people who are genuine and respected for who they are and they will represent you well.

4. Organizational skills are very important to the management of the process.  Notes, remembering details that are important to donors, and lots of preparation before a call are important things that the gift officer will need to juggle.

When planning your major gift program, realize that it will take some time.  Starting with the right foundation will put you miles ahead of organizations who started quickly and now have a revolving door of personnel for various reasons.  Consider these basic steps:

1. One stage of the interview process should include having candidates in a social setting. That's the time to find out how they conduct themselves with manners in the midst of clanking plates and spilled water.  If they don't pass this test with you, they certainly won't with your most cherished supporters.

2. Role play during the interview.  This one makes everyone a little uncomfortable, including the interviewer at times, but it's worth the effort.  A correctly designed role play will give you some idea of how candidates think on their feet, and you can laugh together after it's over.

3. You must commit to equip them.  Great tools will help a great fund officer do great things. Average tools will slow a great fund raiser's success. Whether it's a white paper to begin a discussion or a polished video that tells your story and sets up the officer to continue the conversation, you must make that commitment as an organization. Ongoing training will also neeed to be part of your commitment.

4. You must commit to pay them well. Do I really need to explain this one?  Okay I will...a little and bluntly. Major donors will not relate well to people who are far below their station.

5. You must have a system or the gift officer's effectiveness will be limited.  A moves management concept integrated with realistic, but progressing goals, and a way to track activities toward those goals, is the system that will guide you to the future or leave you wondering what was said to whom and when, and when in the world will we ever get some money in here.

These are some basic ideas to get you started on that all-important road that will make the greatest financial difference for your organization for the long haul.

AuthorCraig Smith

Two schools near me are experiencing record enrollment while two others are in a very different place.  Same demographic, same town.  What’s the difference?

In today’s challenging economy, private education can be on a family’s chopping block if income falls.  Your school must be positioned as part of the DNA of your families so that education isn’t cut in all but the most drastic of circumstances. 

Here are some tips to keep in mind. 

  1. What’s In It For Them?  That’s right and especially at a Christian school, you must be able to answer that question once you understand a family’s needs.  So, ask the question, “What’s the single most important thing to you in your child’s education?”  Your ability to meet that need is the first key.  If you can understand and meet their top three needs, you are well on your way.
  2. Show your commitment and keep your promises.  Are you living the sermon you’re preaching?  If you promise a loving, caring environment then every faculty and staff member must live that commitment.
  3. Treat people equally.  The school environment requires judgment calls to be made every day but if school leaders cater to special interests, their long- term credibility suffers, and ultimately the school suffers.  Consider creating your own version of a Statement of Agreement, which, among other things, states that the school has the final authority and that the parents agree with it before enrolling.
  4. Share your message, build your brand.  Your first communication priority is to your current school families.  Sharing your success stories, your needs and even your shortcomings (along with the fact that you’re taking action to correct them) are ways you cultivate loyalty and create goodwill ambassadors of your school families.
  5. Manage your perception.  Does your “inside reality” match your “outside perception” and are they both at a high level?  Do your families believe that their tuition investment is really worth it?  How you appropriately communicate and value everything from your tuition rate to your curriculum will reinforce that same perception among your families.
  6. Give them an opportunity for genuine input.  This works best at a personal level—with the teacher, principal and the leader.  You need to communicate your protocol for this, but also your openness to receiving feedback.  Small groups, committees and advisory boards can also be springboards to success.

There are many other things to be on top of, if you are to weather the economic and opinion storms that constantly blow.  Fundamentally, successful schools understand what they are and what they are not, and they stay true to their mission.

AuthorCraig Smith

Successful philanthropy is rightly focused on the needs and goals of the donor.  When you put yourself firmly in the shoes of the potential major donor—and really understand what they desire, you are on your way to success—not the quick kind, necessarily, but the most important kind, which is deep and long-term. 

The balance of course is that you have a mission and a vision to accomplish.  And you need increasingly more resources to move forward.  You want to be traveling on the road to where your donor’s goals and your mission intersect, and then align. 

Here are five things to keep in mind:

  1. Listen, really listen.  The first few stages of cultivation should include you asking many questions about their interests and then listening between the sentences.  At one meeting in a nice, but certainly not ostentatious home, I noticed a pencil sketch sitting over the mantle.  I was curious as to why it was so well-lit and such a focal point of the room.  When I asked to see it, I noticed the signature – some guy named Picasso.  That gave me obvious insight into the prospective donor’s interests and tastes.
  2. Engage in conversation and, to the extent that the donor is interested, meaningful involvement with your cause.  That can mean different things to different people.  The profile of a donor isn’t necessarily that of a volunteer, but meaningful involvement is needed.  That could be something hands on at your food pantry or it could be involvement in expressing their preferences in the design of a building.  It could be getting their views on your white paper for your newly-proposed program.  When they begin writing in the margins of that paper, you’ve got a real conversation and an emerging partnership.
  3. Align their chief interests with that of your organization.  Years ago when a builder sold his interest in one of his unrelated businesses, his philanthropic interests went back to his true love and he wanted to build something on a school campus.  What school doesn’t have that need?  Such an interest allowed the school to develop and then accelerate its vision to become a leader in the sciences because that aligned with the builder’s interests.
  4. Solidify.  As the conversation progresses, the prospective donor can become so engaged that they guide you not only toward their specific interests, but even to the amount you should ask them for.   Part of the art of fund raising then becomes understanding that the amount may be a starting point for a discussion rather than a cap.
  5. Ask.  Yes, absolutely ask for the gift, but do so in a timing that makes “yes” a forgone conclusion.  If you’re on pins and needles when it comes time to make the request, you probably haven’t spent enough time listening, engaging, aligning and solidifying. 

Ideal philanthropy is truly a win-win in every sense of the term.  Prospective major donors have always been smarter than me anyway and their philanthropic intent is already there.  If you can’t create a match within your own organization, it’s much more faithful to steer the donor to one who can help them.  The goodwill always comes back to you and so will the contributions.

AuthorCraig Smith

Where do you go to find a foothold if you’re starting from scratch to build a support base for your non-profit?  A foothold may not be possible, so start looking for a toehold.

One passionate advocate with the right commitment can be the starting place.  If you can recruit or find one high-level person who is captured by the mission of your organization, and they are willing to recruit or at least help recruit others, you could be on your way to an advisory board, advocacy council, or better yet, a group with a name associated with your particular cause.

Couple the passionate advocate with another voice who has a trusted public forum and you have a winning combination.  The public person’s role is to spread the word broadly in their circles of influence.  Their credibility and reach is what works for you here, and they aren’t even involved in the personal recruiting.  Their influence is the credibility and trust they have among their audience.  

This person could be an athlete, writer or pastor, to name a few.  Their circle of influence becomes the recruiting pool.  Considerable information saturation needs to take place before recruiting begins. 

The passionate advocate, and probably your chief executive, conduct the recruiting process beginning with phone contact, asking for permission to send an information packet. 

In the recruiting calls, you should communicate upfront that a chief purpose of the group will be to raise funds for your cause by the member’s personal support, and through spreading the word to others.  

But the picture is bigger, too, because you need their advocacy and commitment to advance the cause to a higher level.  Members will be encouraged to use their professional expertise and put their other interests to work on the council in volunteering.  Volunteering and other forms of involvement are very important. 

Another promise you will make is to be sensitive to their time.  Only asking them for one group gathering such as an important annual dinner will help you position the event as an “insiders only” gathering because that’s what it is.  

Benefits to this group include a role in shaping the organization, along with access to the chief executive and board.

The financial commitment for membership is high because those are the people you’re looking for.  So, the people you recruit for the first year—maybe a good goal is 20—each contribute their $2500 or more per couple and you’ve already had a successful fund drive. 

One such group who were recruited to advocate for a new, and, of course, small non-profit resulted in more than 20 families coming together and contributing $163,000 in their first year, counting their membership contributions and other gifts for capital, special projects and other important needs. 

During the second year, membership renewals were above 90% and they contributed more than $120,000 without a big push to encourage them to give above their membership commitment.

The front-end time investment on your part is worth it, but it is substantial.  The group needs its own special newsletter and other unique cultivation experiences such as trips and other opportunities to rally around the cause. 

An advocacy group, done correctly, can be a breakthrough strategy especially for an organization seeking major gifts from individuals and high-caliber people who will connect them to others.

AuthorCraig Smith

Every organization I’ve been part of has received the much ballyhooed $1 million gift.  I’ve only been with a few organizations, so it may not seem that remarkable, but the largest of these had a $5.5 million annual budget at the time, so the $1 million gifts at these organizations were gifts of transformational impact.

These organizations were very different in their mission, but they did share common characteristics that all organizations can be aware of and work toward.  

Non-profits focused on major gifts from individual donors are more likely to make greater progress in a shorter time span.  Individuals make decisions faster and independently.  Relationships with individuals last longer and are more meaningful.  Individuals will share their contacts with you once they’re convinced your cause is a worthy investment. 

Gifts of this size also take considerable negotiation between the organization and the donor, as the donor searches for the impact that meets his/her goals and dreams.

Here are five characteristics that will put you on the path to success for the big gift.  These are worth channeling significant energy toward! 


  1. Be highly relational with individuals.  Successful organizations genuinely cultivate relationships for the long haul, and they focus significant energy on this, knowing that the payoff may be years down the road.  These organizations also have a full pipeline and are receiving smaller but significant gifts along the way.
  2. Be opportunistic and flexible.  Yes, you can be highly relational, as well as opportunistic and flexible.  Successful organizations have their ear to the ground.  They are in touch, and listening for marketplace opportunities such as an IPO of a young executive’s company or the sale of a company by a former trustee.  When an opportunity occurs, the organization is nimble enough to move up or shift vision priorities when the funds are available.
  3. Have integrity.  Integrity in everything you do from your programs, to how you treat your team and the people you serve, to how you steward donor’s contributions.  Integrity also applies if a donor tries to sway or leverage their gift in an improper way.  The organization will politely, but firmly say no.  Other major donors are watching and they do talk.  No gift is worth compromising yourself or your organization, and people will respect you for it.
  4. Have significant vision and leadership that people will invest in.  Major donors in this category usually have significant history with the organization, deep confidence in its leaders including volunteers and endorsers, or both.
  5. Have patience.  This one is no fun at all, but it is a reality.  The organizations I was part of ultimately received the $1 million gift when they were ready for it.  You can want it, you can seek it, but so many factors have to come together before you are worthy of it.


While you must invest in broad-based support for your non-profit, major gifts from individuals are the quickest and the best way for long-term success in fund development for most organizations.  And, when you invest the time and effort, along with many other factors, the $1 million gift can come to your non-profit.

AuthorCraig Smith

Foundations can be an important source of funding and should be part of your strategic mix.  Knowing how and when to approach them, and understanding what meets their needs, requires some research and planning on your part.

Time invested with Foundations can pay big dividends over time if done correctly.  Here are some strategies and tips to keep in mind as you move forward. 

  1. Foundations are people, too.  Even though a board makes a final decision, the staff decision-maker/board chairman/key board member has the influence to get your project approved.  Your stewarding of this primary relationship is your key to success.
  2. Know the average gift of the Foundation for the previous year(s).  It makes no sense to ask for $50,000 if the Foundation is contributing an average of $5,000 to projects similar to yours.
  3. Look for connections…does someone on your board know someone on their board?  Can your staff or board member build a relational bridge to someone of influence at, or connected to the Foundation?
  4. Look for interest in projects similar to yours, but realize that if the Foundation is already funding causes similar to yours, they may have no room for you.  Or they may fund a certain number of projects like yours and you need to look for your slot at the appropriate time.
  5. Realize that Foundations have process and procedures.  Those need to be followed and adhered to by you.  If their rules say send six copies of the proposal, make sure you do.
  6. Understand that Foundations like to be part, but rarely all of your campaign.  Some like to contribute at a mid-stage, others toward the end when you’ve shown you have support from your various constituent groups.  Understand the niche they have probably defined for themselves.  It’s more rare for a Foundation to take a significant funding role in a start-up non-profit.
  7. There’s art, but no shyness required when approaching a Foundation.  After all, they are the only entities set up for the expressed purpose of giving money away!
  8. Thank a Foundation they way it likes to be thanked.  Naming opportunities can be one way.  When you visit the Foundation, do they have a wall of award plaques from other non-profits?  Search for the right, unique opportunity to express your appreciation.
  9. Stewardship.  Follow up and thank them again after you’ve already thanked them.  Provide reports and updates they weren’t expecting.  It’s the right thing to do and you will be remembered.
  10. Share publicly, with the Foundation's permission, what they've done for you.  This way, you help them accomplish their mission and they continue to help you accomplish yours.
AuthorCraig Smith

In recent weeks, I received two well done enrollment marketing pieces through the mail.  Very different, but well done.  One was an oversize postcard from a K-12 school.  The other was a letter from a university. 

The postcard was well-themed, advertised an open house, had good design and artwork, and had an interesting offer of a registration discount. 

The package from the university was a personal-size window envelope and a personalized letter with a nice offer for a publication that I assume the university created about choosing the right college.

The postcard did a good job soliciting our interest in exploring enrollment at the school—at least as much as you can with a postcard.  The only problem: my daughter graduated from the school last May.  We also received this same mailing while she was a current student…gulp.  

Embarrassing for sure when you make data mistakes, and we’ve all made them, including me.  But a baseline requirement for any communication and certainly an enrollment solicitation, is to bounce the list off your current enrollment and alumni database.

Well, you can probably guess what happened with the letter from the university.  Yep, they are offering to send enrollment information to my daughter who is already a student there. 

Two of my children graduated from the K-12 school and I served as president there.  My wife and I are alums of the university, and so is our oldest son, with another son about to graduate.

No, we're not offended, and, according to my wife, we will keep sending those tuition checks. But knowing thy audience or not, is the basis of effective enrollment marketing or the downfall, well before the offer hits the mail or flies into cyberspace.

AuthorCraig Smith

Donors and their motivations come in all shapes and sizes.  Understanding a donor’s needs and creating a partnership that matches those needs with something your non-profit can provide or a problem you can solve, leads to ideal philanthropy—where the donor is fulfilled and the non-profit advances its mission.  What could be better?

In fact, if you can’t genuinely achieve the above, it’s better to steward your prospect to a non-profit that is a better match for their needs and goals. 

Prospective major donors tend to be business or professional people, or some combination of both.  Some bring pre-conceived notions about “how things ought to be.”   While the prospect will and has every right to expect results, the wise donor also doesn’t overlay an American business model on philanthropy and assume they are one and the same, although there are similarities.

Here are some key questions to ask yourself and areas to focus on, as you build relationships one person at a time. 

1.  Is the prospect passionate about your mission?

Does the prospect have, or can you educate and motivate them to significant buy-in regarding your mission?  It’s obviously much easier to start with a prospect who has demonstrated a high-level of interest in your mission.  A charismatic CEO or other leader can also forge or bring relationships to the table based on the trust the prospect has in them—a trust that must be paramount and always placed above the gift.

2.  Is the prospect motivated by your vision?

Yes, agreement with the mission is the first step, but the vision for where you are heading is the key to grabbing the heart and involving the prospect in that vision.  Big visions, with realistic steps to accomplish that vision, can inspire big support.

3.  Is your project and your non-profit on a sustainable path?

Sophisticated donors are sophisticated investors and they want to know their gifts are part of something long-term.  Can you demonstrate the progression of your organization in terms of financial viability in achieving your mission?  Has income kept pace with your vision thus far and will increased income be needed to support the implementation of your vision? 

4.  Are your objectives measurable?

Can you show how you intend to measure your progress?  And, more importantly, discipline yourself to track those measurables and report back to your donors?  Of course it’s important to know how many people you fed or educated last year, but you can also demonstrate measurables in program efficiency and even your fund development efforts. 

5.  Is what you’re doing transformational?

Yes, it’s great to feed more people every year, but does your program lift those people out of the cycle of poverty and help prepare them for their own sustainability?  If you educate more students every year, can you show how those graduateshave impacted others?  Do you have stories to share of how you are changing lives? 

If you can find compatibility and buy-in with prospects in these key areas, your chances of success are much greater than they would be otherwise, and everyone benefits—your donors, your non-profit and, most importantly, the people you serve.

AuthorCraig Smith
Creating K-12 enrollment ambassadors-resized-600.jpg.png

Who are your most active enrollment ambassadors at your K-12 school?  Parents, teachers, students, alumni?  Hopefully, it’s a combination of many of your constituent groups.

Treating your teachers well, besides being the right thing to do, can be a goldmine of goodwill.  Even something as simple as gift card drawings can boost morale and help create the happy “buzz” that you need.  

Combine that with proper teacher pay and benefits, and meaningful dialogue that gives teachers a stake in shaping the future of your school and you have a winning combination.  Yes, it requires a financial commitment but that’s the part about it being the right thing to do anyway. 

When teachers receive reinforcement that their mission is to love and teach every child, every day, they begin each day with the right spirit.  Students know if teachers really care and they tell their friends. 

Incremental campus improvements are another way to generate excitement.  Many things can be done at a reasonable cost and, when they are in high visibility areas, people start talking…in a good way. 

Having the principals, school head and key administrators stand at the curb occasionally to wave and greet the morning arrival is a simple but sincere representation of a school’s heart to appreciate its families.

Ultimately your product in the classroom and your school culture determine your success, but many smaller things can help along the way.

AuthorCraig Smith

Leadership can change everything. Sometimes very quickly. A teacher friend of mine shared her recent experience with me. The principal at her school left a few days before the start of the school year. Progress had been slow with this principal at the helm. Under the principal’s leadership, the school couldn’t and didn’t get enough of the right things done. Resources were strained to the limit and teachers were overworked and made to feel guilty if they took time off.

A new principal was hired a few days ago. Walking into her classroom, my friend was greeted by three building professionals hard at work, one offering to even paint her room, which she was prepared to do that day. Suddenly, there are resources, some new enthusiasm and a get-it-done spirit. And this is being accomplished in the same system, with the same budget, by the same people.

The right leader makes all the difference.

AuthorCraig Smith

Good news . . . direct mail still works and works well. Research shows that people are still comfortable and likely to continue making contributions through the mail. Like any development strategy, direct mail shouldn’t be used alone but rather as one channel of a multi-channel strategy.

To write effective appeal letters you only have to write a personal letter to every person in your database tailored to their interests, reflective of their relationship with you, at an appropriate interval based on their preferences, and asking them for an appropriate amount. It’s that simple!

Okay, it’s not simple but it is possible to write to your supporters in a way that says you know who they are. When crafting the strategy for each appeal, appropriate buckets must be created that effectively group your supporters together as much as possible.

But be careful what you ask of your computer. Sending an appeal to everyone who’s given one gift in a particular year isn’t enough because that might put a first-time donor in the same bucket with a long-time donor who has given one gift this year, but this happens to be their 10th year supporting your cause.

The same is true with thank you letters. A thank you letter that doesn’t recognize a donor’s first gift and welcome them to the family is a missed opportunity to begin a relationship. A thank you letter that acknowledges this is a donor’s third gift in six months says that the organization recognizes and appreciates donors who are providing the backbone of their support.

AuthorCraig Smith

 Student recruiting and enrollment management are  your lifeblood in a K-12 school because compatible students and families are the very  foundation of your mission.  Your school’s enrollment is  a basic barometer of school health, and tuition income  is your key revenue source. 

 Ultimately, your waiting list or a lack thereof is a  reflection of the product you offer, assuming your  student recruiting is done effectively.  Outside  perception will match inside reality at some point  whether it’s good or needs improvement.  Hopefully,  both are at a high-level. 

 When they are, you have an opportunity to increase  your enrollment in a healthy way.  Here are some  steps and activities to consider.

1.  Student recruiting must be a top institutional priority from the head and the board, with buy-in from key stakeholders.

2.  Create a defined recruiting process with a dynamic communications follow up cycle.

3.  Survey current families to find out why they're happy.

4.  Survey former families to find out why they left.

5.  Survey community members/other constituents of interest to get their views.

6.  "Shop" your process where one or more anonymous families shows up on your doorstep as prospective parents.  Track your follow up activities and process, identifying strengths and weaknesses.

7.  Develop your ideal student/family profile.

8.  Motivate teachers to be your best enrollment ambassadors.

9.  Plan activities to welcome new families to the school family in a timely way.

10. Follow up with new families early in the semester to check on their transition.

AuthorCraig Smith