A recent conversation with my daughter on the way to school led to a startling realization. My role as Director of Major Gifts at Franklin & Marshall College has taught me a lot about driving success, both as a professional fundraiser and as a parent. During this particular drive, my daughter peppered me with questions about what I was going to do that day. Do I like my job? Why did I have meetings and what did I talk about during them? With whom was I going to talk? Why does my team follow my directions? How do I succeed at my job? Her curiosity led me to think about how closely my career integrates with my family life and how my experiences leading a team of major gifts officers informs my parenting at home. What lessons have I learned from my life as “Mom and Major Gifts Officer” or, to coin a term, the MoMGO?
Ask direct, open-ended questions and listen to understand
My team follows a donor engagement process designed by Plus Delta Partners. This approach relies on a series of open-ended questions that reveal our prospects’ readiness, inclination, and ability to invest philanthropically in F&M’s Now to Next campaign. Authentically asking direct questions gets to the heart of the matter. By listening to prospective donors with an intent to understand – not to reply – gift officers quickly glean an individual’s philanthropic goals. This practice builds trust and transparency for both the donor and the gift officer.
Having experienced how successful this question style is in the field, I find myself practicing (and honing) my questioning skills at home. I have turned conversations with my children into learning opportunities for me by listening to understand what is on their minds. “What class did you find most challenging today?” “How did you practice kindness at school today?” “What was the most interesting thing you learned today?” “Tell me more about . . . .” As my daughters answer these questions, I listen to both what they are saying and how they are saying it. I pay attention to the nuances conveyed by their expressions and body language. Being fully present with them and curious about them builds our bond. It also invites them to come to me more regularly asking “life questions” about challenging situations they confront.
Follow up and follow through
How many of us return to the office after a week on the road with a long list of next steps necessary to continue cultivating prospective donors? These next steps guide our relationships with these individuals and map out the timeline for their philanthropic investment. Completing them demonstrates integrity and trustworthiness, both of which are key to building a stronger connection with prospects.
Countless nights I have returned home exhausted from a day on the road only to find that I had forgotten to iron on Girl Scout badges or still had to make good on a promise to play a game, read a favorite book, or listen to my child practice her musical instrument. Follow through as a parent is an investment in relationships on a much greater scale. It models integrity and trustworthiness for children who are learning to navigate the world. My actions and follow through show my daughters they are important and loved. For me, the moments I spend with them reading, listening to violin or drumming practice sessions, or playing a game brings me a greater appreciation for their individuality and fuels their confidence that I will do the things I say I will do.
Collaborate and work together
To inform my team members’ strategies for gift conversations, I rely heavily on cross-campus and interoffice partnerships. These collaborations enhance the outcomes of gift conversations by providing examples of inspiring stories of impact around campaign priorities; they also contribute to efficient processes. The development of these partnerships depends on the skills used in cooperative board games: communication, empathy, teamwork, shared goals, negotiation, and leadership skills.
Knowing how important these skills are to my team’s success, I realized that the games we play during family game night create a safe environment for my daughters to work through the challenges that arise during school and workplace collaborations. For the foreseeable future, you will find me at home on Saturday evenings playing Forbidden Island, Shadows Amsterdam, or Harry Potter Battle of Hogwarts with my family.
Not long ago my team participated in a professional development workshop led by Hannah Chase of Magnet Genius Machine. This workshop approached team building through improvisation and storytelling. “Yes, and” is the underlying principle for improvisation. This rule directs us to pay attention and relate to the words, actions, and ideas of another person, opening us up to deep listening and anchoring us in the present. In his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Alan Alda says relating is “being so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you’re observing them.”1 When improv performers fail to focus on their partners in a scene, they cannot react properly and the entire scene suffers and falls flat. Similarly, a gift officer who does not employ a “yes, and” mentality may struggle to advance gift conversations or adapt nimbly as the conversation evolves. The simple act of saying “yes, and” opens up dialogue and gives permission to authentically explore goals: “Yes, and tell me more about how you envision your gift impacting that academic department?” “Yes, and what will you do to follow up on that donor’s request?” “Yes, and how might we create a meaningful day of campus meetings for this individual?”
During car trips with my kids, I play improv games, including one-word-at-a-time stories; “yes, and”; and alphabet sentences (each sentence begins with the next letter of the alphabet). The results are silly. We laugh a lot. Spending time together in this way keeps us present with each other. This silliness and fun cannot happen if we are not focusing on what the other person says and does in the moment. As a result, I see and feel my girls relating to me (and to others) more completely in more serious conversations.
Model behavior and demonstrate grit
My gift officers’ primary roles are to schedule meetings and close gifts. Some days a gift officer makes 25 phone calls, sends 30 emails, and receives no responses to meeting requests. As a director, I have my own prospect portfolio. I, too have days when nobody answers my phone calls or emails. I talk about both my successes and failures with my team, share my tips and tricks, ask for their thoughts on how to approach hard-to-contact alumni, brainstorm ways in which other alumni might assist in connecting us to those we can’t reach, and make sure they know I am right there with them in the trenches. Similarly, I make it a point to be on the road meeting with potential donors and securing investments for F&M’s campaign. I work hard to model the strategic and intentional way in which I ask them to do their own work. There is no doubt grit, perseverance, and passion for their work inspires my team to keep at it day after day – securing meetings and discussing philanthropic investments for F&M. Angela Duckworth captures this in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance: “To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”2
At home, my daughters pursue a wide variety of interests– for my oldest, it’s learning Chinese, drumming, and swimming, while my youngest loves playing the violin, swimming, and assembling sparkly fashion choices. I encourage them to keep working hard on what they feel passionate about, to learn to try new approaches to meet their goals, to take risks and fail, then pick themselves up, as they keep an eye on their goals in pursuit of finding their passions.
Always be coaching
During the last two summers, I had the opportunity to participate in professional coaching classes through Fundraising Leadership. The first taught me to understand coaching and how best to apply its basic ideas to better communicate with my team, foster accountability, and drive their successes. The second class focused on leading high-performing teams by championing my team members, engaging in healthy conflict, creating trust, and nurturing integrity by being present and complete. Creating a culture of accountability involves asking what someone is going to do, when he or she will do it, and how to know when a task is complete or successful. This approach ultimately affords me a better understanding of the progress my team members are making with their top prospects. It builds my accountability as well as theirs.
All of these questions translate to my daughters, too. “What is your homework/practice assignment/chore to complete, when will you do it, and how will I know you have completed the task? This positive approach teaches responsibility, accountability, follow through, and integrity or the state of being whole and complete with confidence in your word.
Support your team
Stand up and speak up for your team, celebrate them, be grateful for the work they do, advocate for them, and drive success. My team is very important to me. Together we celebrate their individual successes and lay a foundation for their future career paths. I have a system of “door badges” to celebrate milestones through public affirmation posted on team members’ office doors. We recognize high-meeting days, gifts closed, most phone calls in a day, and other accomplishments. Our collective team success moves us closer to meeting F&M’s campaign goals. Knowing my team well and continuing to learn about them allows me to provide the right guidance and leadership to promote their success. This support takes many forms: providing a safe space and the encouragement to think innovatively about donor cultivation, championing for a promotion, relaying necessary information, advocating for resources or tools, and expressing concern for what is happening in their personal lives.
In my personal life, supporting my team looks very similar: learning and understanding how to best be there for each of them. Like in the office, at home this takes a different form each day. It means educating others about my daughter’s peanut and tree nut allergies; it means helping one of my girls work through a conversation with a teacher about schoolwork, and it means encouraging both of them to work hard and have the most fun possible while doing so.
At the intersection of leading and parenting
Because frontline fundraising work is about building and sustaining relationships that lead to inspired investments, the crossover between leading a team of frontline fundraisers and parenting is inevitable. As a MoMGO, the way I do my work, apply professional development, and foster authentic interactions enhance my relationships with my daughters and my team. Ultimately, these intersections deepen, enhance, and grow meaningful connections – building philanthropic investments and personal ones along the way.
- Alan Alda, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (New York: Random House, 2017), 10.
- Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016), 275.
Kristen Krista is Director of Major Gifts at Franklin & Marshall College and serves on the board of Grape Leaf Empowerment Center in Lancaster, PA. When not on the road for F&M, you will find her on the pool deck with her husband serving as a Stroke and Turn Judge for USA Swimming, playing cooperative board games with her family, or teaching leadership lessons to her Girl Scout troop.