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Hiring & Training Gift Officers: Best Practices from Vice President for University Advancement Kent Stanley

Reeher sat down with Minnesota State University, Mankato’s (MSU) Vice President for University Advancement, Kent Stanley to ask him how best practice management strategies impact a fundraising teams’ ability to raise money. Our conversation highlighted the importance of:  

  • Providing development staff with high-quality training opportunities.  
  • Hiring candidates for their core qualities.  
  • Equipping development officers with proven strategies for making the ask and closing the deal.  
  • Supporting staff to improve efficiency and reduce turnover.   

Kent Stanley has been working in fundraising and development for more than 15 years. Prior to joining MSU, he held posts at Utah State University, Fort Lewis College and Eastern Washington University. Our conversation together has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

ReeherDo you have formalized processes for gift officer or development staff training?  

Kent Stanley: We’ve built a four-step professional development process for our development officers (DO).  

 1) The first is a robust two week on-boarding process that introduces a DO to the university, their college, and our unit. They have an assigned mentor and we schedule their initial meetings in a well-ordered process.  

2) We provide new hires with seven or eight 60-minute seminars that cover the majority of the “Big Items” of major gift development work. Depending on the staffing need, we have run these twice-a-month during the fall, or as an intensive two-day seminar.  

 3) We have two development officer group meetings per month. One of these is dedicated to prospect management and includes a 15-minute training session. 

 4) We do two lunch and learns per year with a common read. This is voluntary for our entire staff. The book from last fall was Leadership and Self-Deception. 

ReeherWhat do you hope to accomplish by providing this training?  

Kent Stanley: For a couple decades I’ve watched talented new gift officers start their jobs by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. For 30 months they try to swim and then they leave the profession. I’d argue that much of the unhealthy levels of development officer turnover is due to lack of training, especially in-house. At a regional public institution I do not have the ability to compete in the market for talented development officers with a history of success in raising dollars and engaging donors. I have to be able to recruit the right talent; people who are making a career   

ReeherYou mentioned that institutions aren’t always able to find highly experienced gift officers. How do you hire the right people for your organization?

Kent Stanley: I look for candidates who share our common values of integrity and work ethic. Asking the right questions at an interview and doing research is the only way to get to know someone. We also look for candidates with what we call intellectual bandwidth. Gift officers don’t need to know everything, but they have to be able to talk to people about their jobs and their educations. When they’re talking with a donor who works in a technical field, they have to be able to understand what people are telling them and put it into context. Gift officers with the self-confidence to ask questions and learn more about unfamiliar topics are most successful connecting with donors. In training I use the example of Alice In Wonderland. Alice’s curiosity led her to follow the white rabbit down the rabbit hole. Gift officers have to know when to follow an aside or a conversational clue. We call these “the white rabbits” and they can yield amazing insight into a donor if the gift officer knows when to ask more.  

We also look for people who are enthusiastic and have positive energy every day. Gift officers have to be able to turn the corner on their emotions and keep their energy up in order to have productive meetings. We hire for this trait by doing a full-day interview. We look for candidates who can keep their energy consistent over the course of the day.    

ReeherOnce you’ve hired the right candidate, does providing training improve your ability to meet fundraising goals or staff retention goals?    

Kent Stanley: We track how quickly we can get new gift officers through their training to be meeting monthly visit goals. We don’t give gift officers dollar goals until their third year on the job. During the first two years, we focus on activity levels and meeting those monthly and yearly visit goals. By a gift officer’s third year, they should be regularly closing gifts. 

ReeherAs gift officers start to meet visit goals, does training and professional development stop?   

Kent Stanley: As I previously mentioned, development careers have dramatic turnover due to lack of training. In my experience, gift officers leave around the third year when they realize that they don’t know how to close a gift and feel trapped.  

Starting in the 18-24-month period, I reconnect with gift officers and invite them on my visits to watch the ask. Or I attend one of their visits. During this period, it’s important to focus training on how to move the donor relationship forward. I teach staff a series of words to use when they request a donation. Since timing is critical, we break down the visit into timed steps to make sure they build the case and make the ask with enough time left for the donor to ask questions, get clarification, or negotiate.   

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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