Since mid-March, the philanthropic world has endured dramatic changes to “business as usual.”  Major gift officers have become proficient in the use of Zoom, Skype, TEAMS, and, yes, even landline telephones!

As we become comfortable in this new environment, what are hiring managers now seeking in their recruitment, onboarding, and retention of frontline fundraisers?


While business practices may be altered, the characteristics and traits that hiring managers seek in major gift officers remain intact.  The qualities most sought after in candidates have not changed, including being personable, extroverted, in possession of strong organizational skills with good attention to detail, collaborative, and mission driven.  However, there are other qualities that managers should look for.

The ability to listen athletically

During our Intensives workshop for major gift officers, we stress the importance of “athletic listening” and encourage gift officers to hone their skills of keeping focused, maintaining eye contact, pay attention to non-verbal cues (facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, etc.), asking questions that show you are paying attention, and not interrupting.  This skill can be evaluated during in-person or video candidate interviews.

Evidence of an advanced approach to relationship-building

Peter Hamilton, Managing Director at Conley Search Group, notes that one of his clients “seeks candidates who understand how to deliver a “bespoke” experience to each donor, prospect, and volunteer in a portfolio.”  He looks for candidates who may not use that term but who understand that approach and are practicing it currently.

A commitment to diversity and inclusion

During her tenure at Miss Porter’s School, Christine Pina, Chief Advancement Officer, has recruited one of the most diverse staffs at MPS – and quite possibly throughout all independent schools.  “Identity and representation are at the heart of what we do with regard to recruitment.  I want our office to look like what our alumnae population is going to look like in the future.  This moment for understanding racism in America has given us the moment to look at Miss Porter’s through the lens of its 177 year history.”

The ability to function as a team player

We also find that former athletes sometimes possess intrinsic qualities that make them strong gift officers.  They are goal-oriented, work toward successful outcomes, and understand the values of teamwork.

Onboarding during Social Distancing

Terri Selby, Executive Director of Major and Planned Gifts at St. Lawrence University,  says, pre-pandemic, new hires “were given a 3-week agenda that showed meetings already on their schedule, they received a welcome letter signed by the entire advancement team that accompanied the agenda and were assigned a mentor who works in advancement but not in the same department.  On their first day, new hires received a “welcome wagon” gift bag of swag and were introduced to the team during the morning meeting.”  Most, if not all, of these practices can still be done remotely.

Boston University has check lists for new hires, managers, and members of the Talent Management team that includes onboarding tasks such as sending welcome emails, confirming start date, advising on dress code and transportation options, determining office space location, setting up phone, voicemail, and technology needs, and scheduling onboarding training activities.

In-person onboarding activities

When staff members return to campus, other onboarding activities can include taking a campus tour with an admissions group, attending academic, athletic, cultural, and student lectures and events, participating in alumni and parent engagement opportunities, and attending welcome luncheons for new employees.

Portfolio development and expectations

It is always helpful to pepper the gift officers’ portfolio with good, qualified prospects – individuals that you know will be receptive to their outreach and willing to meet with them.

Additionally, a clear understanding of gift officer performance metrics and a discussion of what success looks like at 90 days and 180 days will help to eliminate any difficult conversations during performance evaluations.

“Successful onboarding should be part of the recruitment/hiring process,” notes Hamilton. “What the organization learns about a candidate’s strength, weakness, personality, work style, during the process helps the organization plan for onboarding.

Use of technology on the rise

In a recent Washburn & McGoldrick survey of current and former clients, 86% of respondents noted the use of technology as being one tool their institution had provided to assist them in remote work during the pandemic – including laptop computers, video conferencing, and participation in professional development webinars.  One third also noted increased communication on how their institution is responding to the pandemic, leadership briefings, regularly scheduled team meetings, and 1:1 video meetings with their manager as being helpful from both a morale standpoint and assisting them in outreach to donors.

Terri Selby, who managed a team of remote and campus-based gift officers pre-pandemic, observed that the use of technology differs between her veteran remote gift officers and her newly minted remote gift officers.  “Our veteran gift officers are over Zoom.  They’ve been using it for years to join our meetings so any chance they have to talk on the phone is welcome.  On the other hand, my major gift officers who were not remote want to have our 1:1 meetings via Zoom.”

Is increased compensation always the answer to retaining good gift officers

With the average turnover of gifts officer hovering around 2-4 years, managers are turning to a variety of cash and non-cash incentives to help retain talented gift officers.

The pandemic has provided Miss Porter’s School the opportunity to focus on retention of their advancement staff.  “We really need to pay attention to our people and make sure they are happy and being productive,” says Pina.   “We are having more one-on-one meetings.  This is a moment for us to be doing more professional development.  Without travel, our staff has more time to read, attend webinars, and simply talk with colleagues.  We are able to recognize people’s humanity more freely and technology has allowed this.”

BU has increased their efforts to retain personnel during this environment.  They are having much more dialogue with team members, have instituted new virtual and meaningful forms of recognition, are creating a 6-week in-house training program for frontline fundraisers and a managers’ forum, and focusing on the wellness of their team.  They try not to schedule Zoom meetings after 4:00 and encourage keeping the workday to 8:30-5:30 with an hour break.

Peter Hamilton offers suggestions such as “investment in professional development, personal coaching sessions, a non-cash “credit” or fun “bonus” towards something that is personally meaningful to them – a cooking or pottery class, membership to a museum or wellness program beyond access to the school’s gym.”  For those seeking leadership opportunities, Hamilton suggests “asking them to lead an ad hoc committee, participate on an institutional task force, or standing committee.”

As a member and now leader of the MaGiC (Major Gift Conference) director’s group, Terri Selby reports that other institutions have offered campaign bonuses for staff members who stay six months after the close of a campaign and even staff sabbaticals similar to those awarded to faculty members.

Keep the hiring conversations going

“We are doubling down on outreach to diverse candidates,” says Amy Bronson, Associate Vice President, Advancement Resources & Strategic Talent Management at Boston University.  “We are keeping our recruitment pipeline going through this pandemic and current hiring freeze.  We are providing informational interviews, hosting virtual recruitment events, and looking at how thing will change and staying ready for what will shift.  There is a large pool of talented candidates that normally wouldn’t be looking to make a career change.”