Principal gifts success starts with staffing

By Dena Schwartz

While 95% of gift revenue is coming from 5% of donors, principal gifts staff are under increasing pressure to drive annual fundraising returns. Regardless of what constitutes a principal gift at your institution, principal gifts staff make the difference between reaching your campaign goal and falling flat.

Chief advancement officers need to meet larger and larger campaign goals, and top donors have higher expectations than ever. In this increasingly high-pressure environment, principal gifts staffing structures are under a microscope. Advancement leaders are looking for the optimal staffing structure to maximize revenue and donor engagement without duplicating efforts or alienating frontline fundraisers.

The centralized vs. decentralized debate

Two staffing models currently dominate the principal giving conversation. Some institutions rely on a decentralized, unit-based staffing model. In these cases, frontline fundraisers are embedded in academic divisions. These fundraisers can quickly become experts on the fields of study housed within that unit and build long-term relationships with faculty conducting cutting-edge research. These staff members often work closely with deans and other senior administrators to connect donors to the deans’ strategic goals for the unit, and their prospect pools often mirror the alumni base from that unit.

Alternatively, principal gift fundraisers who are housed in the central development office often have a higher-level view of institutional priorities and campaign funding goals that are multidisciplinary in nature. When alumni are interested in supporting projects that are not linked to their original field of study, these fundraisers are best-placed to show them any and all potential areas where they could make an impact. A centrally housed fundraiser is often tasked with staffing the president, provost, or other senior leaders, since they are knowledgeable about any institutional project or program.

Often the principal gifts office is staffed based on their entire fundraising strategy. In entirely-decentralized shops, principal gift officers are housed in the units, whereas centralized shops rely on centrally located principal gifts staff. For smaller advancement shops, major gift officers may also be involved in principal giving efforts, increasing the importance of assigning clear lines of responsibility for these prospects.

"Moving toward a hybrid model"

Neither model is perfect. Decentralized principal gifts staff often lack the knowledge and incentives necessary to work with donors on multidisciplinary projects. Centralized staff may be less connected to faculty members within each unit, making it harder to identify smaller projects that match a donor’s interests. In order to move beyond these issues, some institutions are moving toward a hybrid model of principal gifts staffing.

“A team approach to principal giving elevates the quality of big ideas and lowers the likelihood of daft strategy being put to a donor. ”
-Member interview

At one institution with a decentralized development operation, fundraisers are still based in each unit. They are expected to build relationships with faculty members, work with deans, and collaborate across campus as necessary. However, the prospect research team is based in the central advancement office. As a result, prospects are placed in pools based on their interests, not the college or school from which they graduated. Furthermore, central principal gifts staff serve an advisory role on strategy for all prospects, helping frontline fundraisers link their own prospects to multidisciplinary projects on campus. The president is staffed by a fundraiser housed in the central development office who coordinates with unit-based fundraisers to determine how to involve deans and faculty in building a donor relationship over time.

As a result of this hybrid structure, the institution is able to benefit from efficiencies in central advancement services while still enabling fundraisers to build deep relationships with faculty members in each unit. Serving in an advisory role allows prospect research and management to show its value to frontline fundraisers and ensure that principal gifts moves management is a seamless process from start to finish.

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