News and analysis
September 24, 2014

‘Curious Chameleons’ Make the Best Major-Gift Officers, New Study Says

A research firm has created a model to identify the characteristics of successful major-gifts officers, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

The Education Advisory Board, a Washington D.C.-based company, analyzed the donations brought in by 1,217 major-gift officers at 89 colleges and universities in the United States and the Britain, for a report titled "Inside the Mind of a Curious Chameleon."

It categorized the gift officers under five labels—the Cultivator, the Fixer, the Adapter, the Academic, and the Lone Ranger—based on characteristics including intercultural skills and the ability to stay current with faculty research.

No one group produced the best fundraisers, however. The highest performers often combined the best traits of each group—what the researchers called "Curious Chameleons." Just 3.8 percent of the major-gift officers had all the major traits identified as necessary for top returns including behavioral and linguistic flexibility, intellectual curiosity, and assertiveness in soliciting prospects.

Colleges rely on big gifts, even as they struggle to retain the staff members responsible for courting major donors. Research conducted in 2011 showed that more than three-fourths of all higher-education fundraising came from the top 1 percent of donors, up from 64 percent five years earlier. Meanwhile, major-gift officers are on the job for an average of 18 to 24 months.

And as colleges rely more on major gifts, they also face hurdles when it comes to soliciting their youngest alumni, who typically make small donations. Less than half of millennial alumni, defined as individuals born from 1980 to 2000 with a four-year college degree, have donated to their alma maters, according to research conducted by the consulting firm Achieve. Three-quarters of those surveyed said that they would give to other organizations or causes before giving to their college.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the Education Advisory Board's research on major-gift officers.

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