Turnover can be costly. When a donor’s key contact leaves—whether it’s the president or development officer—the donor’s relationship with the institution is disrupted. The result? Delayed or decreased giving.The most generous and engaged donors expect a relationship with the institution’s leader, but the average tenure of a U.S. college or university president is just seven years, down from eight and a half in 2006, according to a 2012 American Council on Education report. Gift officers, charged with the critical task of building and sustaining donor relationships and raising revenue, stay an average of less than four years, research firm Eduventures reports.
So how can you reduce the negative impact of presidential and gift officer turnover? By expanding the number of individuals involved in donor-institution relationships and including people with greater tenure in those relationships.

The limits of control

Inviting others to join a relationship with donors might seem controversial, since development tends to be territorial. Too often, development officers—planned versus major gifts, for example, or the undergraduate college versus law school—fight over who should talk with 100 key donors when virtually no one is regularly talking to 10,000 others. I’m exaggerating a bit, but not a lot. I’ve had to address this almost everywhere I’ve served and consulted.

Development officers tie themselves in knots trying to control access to donors instead of creating and supporting as many relationships as possible. Incentives—such as crediting gifts to individual gift officers—often reward such control. When someone who has monopolized a relationship leaves, that donor’s relationship with the institution suffers. But donors with many connections easily transition from one gift officer or one president to the next.

The key is changing how presidents and gift officers view their role. If they see themselves as owning the relationship between donors and institutions, they are undermining philanthropy and diminishing success. If instead they understand their role as facilitator, they will encourage relationships that do not depend on one or two individuals. A three-legged stool will collapse if one leg is removed, but a 10-legged stool remains strong even if one or two legs are missing.

At the University of Chicago, where I served as vice president for alumni relations and development, most top donors supported multiple parts of the university, not just the department or school from which they graduated. Donors had more relationships than the development office could track, let alone control—with multiple fundraisers, presidents and emeritus presidents, deans and faculty members, and other donors, including board members and classmates.

We encouraged gift officers to support and expand these relationships by gathering and sharing information and by bringing in people who could enhance donor interest and engagement. The risk of too many relationships was more tolerable than the risk of too few.

Metrics focused primarily on gift officer transactions—such as the number of visits made to donors or the amount of money solicited that year—can incentivize ownership over facilitation. Success in major gift fundraising depends on teamwork: Today’s major gift may be the result of five individuals’ work over 10 years. In addition to measuring short-term transactions, leaders must also measure and reward growth in the quality and depth of donor-institution relationships facilitated by those gift officers. They can track, for example, the number of individuals involved in each donor-institution relationship and the degree to which each feels well informed and supported by the relevant gift officer.

The ‘new’ gift officer

A top donor’s relationship with the institution will likely outlast any one president or gift officer. At UChicago, we discovered that among top donors the average span of time between their first and most recent gift to the university was 34 years. A major public research university recently found that the average giving relationship of its top donors spanned 27 years.

Even the longest-serving presidents and gift officers are unlikely to stay that long. Asking them to be a donor’s sole or even principal point of contact is shortsighted. The short-lived tenures of campus CEOs and gift officers can frequently disrupt relationships. Donors may experience months or years of neglect. Every experienced gift officer has heard the words “You’re the first person to contact me in years! Where have you and your colleagues been?” Even worse, “I suppose you’re looking for another gift, even though no one has told me what happened with my last gift.”

Meanwhile, in many institutions, faculty members’ terms are often measured in decades for various reasons, tenure being one. Another constituency offers even greater stability to those responsible for the stewardship of donor relationships: other donors. The average “tenure” of an alumna or alumnus is about 60 years—more than 15 times the average tenure of a gift officer.

Involving multiple individuals in donor-institution relationships reduces disruption when a staff member inevitably departs. Including individuals with long-standing relationships with the institution provides added stability and continuity. What does this look like? For donors with the highest capacity and affinity, involve the president, a board member, a classmate or close friend of the organization, a senior development team member, and a senior program leader—such as a music director or leading physician.

If you’re thinking that involving peer donors and other staff in relationships adds to gift officers’ workloads, you’re correct. To fundraisers tasked with securing gifts quickly, this team approach will seem counterproductive. If their job, however, is to build strong and sustainable relationships, involving longtime peers is essential for maximizing major gifts.

Of course, a multipronged relationship requires coordination. When relationship managers coordinate through facilitation rather than control, their colleagues are more likely to consult them before engaging with a donor. It only makes sense for each person involved in a relationship with that donor to find out what the donor has said to colleagues before having the next conversation. Coordination becomes a means to more productive work rather than an obstacle to regular contact with donors.

A leg up

Smart leaders don’t allow administrative silos to limit donor-institution relationships. They advocate for many-legged “relationship stools,” that can survive the loss of one or more legs. They also include long-tenured individuals to ensure that some of those legs remain for the life of the stool.

At these colleges and universities, top donors don’t worry about presidential or gift officer transitions—their long-term relationship is with the institution. These donors often have the greatest tenures, and the new presidents and gift officers are simply the current stewards of the relationships. The newcomers benefit immediately from many colleagues—other legs of the stool—who can support them in their important work with the donors entrusted to their care. If they do their jobs well, the relationships will remain strong and stable long after their departure.

Aspen Leadership Group builds long-term relationships with current and aspiring philanthropy professionals. We are a career firm, not only a search firm. We’ve established the Philanthropy Career Network as a free resource for all who work and volunteer in the field of philanthropy, and its leaders and members regularly contribute content such as the article above. The more we know about you and your aspirations, the more we can help you throughout your career.
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