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How to Organize a Gift Officer Training Program: A Q/A With Kevin Engel

Reeher asked Wheaton College’s Director of Development Kevin Engel how providing strong training opportunities for his staff impacts his fundraising teams’ ability to raise money. Our conversation highlighted the importance of: 

  • Formalized and detailed training to help gift officers on-board efficiently.  
  • Continuing training opportunities for staff, regardless of experience or tenure.  
  • Fostering a collaborative rather than competitive work environment.  

 

Kevin Engel is a Wheaton College alum. As Director of Development, he supervises all regional development activity. Our conversation together has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Reeher: What processes do you follow for gift officer or development staff training at Wheaton College?  

Kevin Engel: Over the first six months our new major gift officers go through a number of training components including: 

  • Attending a two-day major gift solicitation workshop and a three-day planned giving conference. 
  • Going on 2-3 multi-day trips with an experienced major gift officer, observing and participating in prospect meetings. 
  • Completing a schedule of individual on-campus meetings with approximately 25 colleagues and leaders from across campus. 
  • Reading our in-house gift officer manual and Giving and Getting in the Kingdom: A Field Guide – a book on major gift solicitation by R. Mark Dillon 
  • Meeting daily with the Director of Development for two weeks, then weekly over the next 2-3 months, monthly after that. 
  • Participating in colleague-run orientation on the use of Development tools, the most important of which is the Reeher Platform. 

Reeher: Do you continue to offer training even after the officer has successfully onboarded?    

Kevin Engel: Yes, ongoing training for all major gift officers includes: 

  • Meeting weekly with the whole major gift team to share successes and challenges from recent or upcoming trips, shape messaging of funding priorities, and hear feedback from prospects.  
  • Meeting monthly with the whole major gift team for “Gift Planning Conversations”—refresher training on one gift planning vehicle each month, incorporating members of our Finance Team. 
  • Each major gift officer has the option to attend one professional development conference each year, tailored to an area of need for them. They make a brief presentation to the entire team afterward to share their takeaways. 
  • Twice each year, the entire major gifts team spends 1-2 days at an off-site location to present and discuss their regional business plan with the rest of the team. These are days of sharing and discussing metrics, best practices and encouragement with one another. The mutual learning that happens here makes these “retreats” the most effective training tool we offer. 
  • We regularly push out to the team a variety of webinars offered by Reeher, Academic Impressions or Lynda.com for individual or group use. 

More: Hiring & Training Gift Officers: Best Practices from Minnesota State University, Mankato. 

Reeher: How much time does this process take?  

Kevin Engel: Training is a substantial time investment. In a shop our size with only nine major gift officers, the training for every hire is tailored for the background of each person.  I invest about 20% of my time in training/coaching new or existing gift officers, along with great support from our Associate Director and other teammates.   

Reeher: What do you hope to accomplish by investing the time to provide this training? 

Kevin Engel: We want each major gift officer to be self-sufficient within six months. They need to have the tools and skills to create and work their own business plans. Having the ability to track their own metrics using Reeher allows each major gift officer to see how they are doing on any given day. There are no surprises.  Training also helps foster a collaborative, rather than competitive, work environment. This means that major gift officers are comfortable going to one another for questions, tips, and tricks. Other major gift officers will often have better ideas than I would about daily situations they encounter. 

Reeher: What are the outcomes you see or measure from training? 

Kevin Engel: The essential metrics—visits, proposals, gifts—are pretty clear indicators of the outcomes. As long as visits and proposals are meeting the goals we set, the gifts will come.  We’ve been fortunate the past five years to see all those numbers move in the right direction. There are a number of other metrics we track related to first-time visits, proposal closures, yield rates, annual fund dual asks, and planned gift activity, but I try to keep new officers focused on the big three. During year one, we shoot for a net ROI of 5-10, and after year one we look for a net ROI range of 10-30, including both current and deferred gifts and commitments. 

Reeher: Lastly, does providing training improve your ability to meet fundraising goals or staff retention goals?  

Kevin Engel: It absolutely improves our goal achievement, but I’ve never been brave enough to try it without a commitment to training. You can ask any of our major gift officers and they’ll tell you that they love the collegiality and support to be successful at what they do. Our staff retention is above the national norms, but that can change in a blink so it’s always a matter for vigilance. I don’t ever want to say we have it figured out. I’m always asking colleagues at sister institutions (and at Reeher) for advice! 

Interested in more management strategies to help your major gifts team perform at their best?  Download our industry brief 6 Ways Fundraisers Can Up Their Talent Management Strategy.  


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