When Worlds Collide: Major Gifts and Direct Marketing Team Up to Maximize Mid-Level Donors | npENGAGE

When Worlds Collide: Major Gifts and Direct Marketing Team Up to Maximize Mid-Level Donors

By on Jul 19, 2018


Four years ago, the only thing major gifts officers and direct marketing teams shared was the office bathroom.

In 2014, when Sea Change Strategies released The Missing Middle: Neglecting Mid-Level Donors Is Costing Non Profits Millions, we found a miles-wide tactical and cultural gap between direct marketers and major gifts officers that was leaving many mid-level programs in a lurch.

Mid-level giving programs exist at the intersection between major gifts and direct marketing. Lack of coordination between the two was a primary reason organizations cited for stalled mid-level growth.

We have just released the 2018 follow up study, and the relationship between major gifts and direct marketing has evolved dramatically. There is markedly more coordination and respect amongst practitioners that is bridging the gap. And successful mid-level programs are borrowing and blending the best of both disciplines.

It’s hard for anyone outside the fundraising field to understand how profoundly different the cultures of major gifts work and direct marketing really are. Practitioners have different talents and strengths, and different blind spots.

Major gifts fundraising is a game of quantum leaps. More and more, major gifts officers focus on donors who can make mammoth gifts, often in the millions or even tens of millions of dollars. Direct marketing is the ground game. Progress is incremental, costs are high and returns on investment are measured in percentage points.

But since the 2014 study, cooperation between this fundraising odd couple has improved. Coordination is the new normal.  And there is more structure to ease any cultural or tactical friction that might arise between the departments.

How are nonprofits closing the gap?

  • Engaged leadership is pressing for coordination and rules to live by.
  • Unique staffing models are emerging.
  • The strengths of each discipline are blending.

Engaged Leadership

Leadership decisions for rules governing the intersectionality of mid-level are now common.

Four years ago we heard story after horror story in which new mid-level donors would get tagged by major gifts based on a wealth score, at which point the donor would be removed from the mail stream. But then because the major gifts team was either overloaded or was pursuing mega-gifts, the mid-level donor would end up hearing nothing from the organization.

Andrea O’Brien with The Wilderness Society says, “Through our leadership team, we’ve implemented new rules around when a donor comes out of the direct response mail stream. It doesn’t happen when the donor enters the major gift officer portfolio anymore. It only happens after the major gift officer has a face-to-face meeting with the donor and has decided that they are qualified to move into the cultivation stage towards the solicitation.”

At Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, the team is designed for cooperation. Says Diane Clifford, director of integrated fundraising, “We restructured to have a smooth pipeline between direct response and major gifts. There is not a lot of friction there.”

Unique Staffing Models

Staffing models are becoming more hybrid and the position of Mid-Level Gift Officer — someone who can grease the joints between major gifts and direct marketing — has become standard.

Victoria Smith, who runs mid-level giving at Oxfam, says, “I manage the program and have three staff within the mid-level team that report to me. We have also developed an exciting collaboration with our major gift team. We have three major gift officers that spend one-third of their time working with mid-level prospects. That’s the equivalent of one person working on high touch relationship building that includes face to face meetings and personalized proposals.”

The Strengths of Each Discipline

One direct response manager sums it up nicely. “The idea is to try to get as close to a major gifts feel as I possibly can with the smallest amount of budget that I can possibly get by with.”

Major gifts keeps the focus on the donor and provides a sense of exclusivity, access and special status. And it draws on the richer and more sophisticated content that major gifts departments produce.

From direct marketing comes a passion for efficiency and employment of analytics so the program can scale. It is possible to add a personal touch to the donor experience of thousands of mid-level donors and still reap enormous returns, but it requires the analytic discipline of a direct marketer.

When these two perspectives work together, mid-level programs can only benefit.


The internal cultural differences between direct marketing and major giving are real, and at some organizations barriers to cooperation remain. Said one fundraiser, “There is still a lot of fear of direct mail from major gifts. They worry we say and do crazy things.”

As we reported in our 2017 report Inside Out Fundraising, silo issues continue to hamstring fundraising at many organizations. In addition to intramural scraps within fundraising, the friction is commonly between fundraisers and communications staff, or sometimes with program staff.

There remains a lot of culture work to do at many organizations and the cost of not doing that work may well show up in the fundraising bottom line.


Alia McKee, Principal at Sea Change Strategies, is a veteran online communications and fundraising strategist with strategic chops and practical “in the trenches” experience developing brand-perfect integrated marketing and fundraising campaigns.

Alia is a noted speaker, author and blogger. Her work has been featured in ForbesNPRThe Chronicle of PhilanthropyBuzzfeed and The Good Life among others. She has received top ratings for speaking engagements including MCON — a day of thought leadership and conversation on how we can engage the Millennial generation in charitable giving — Web of Change — a gathering of the leading thinkers working at the intersection of technology and social change — and Bridge —  the Direct Marketing Fundraising Association’s annual conference.

Alia has authored two ebooks — Homer Simpson for Non Profits and Lisa Simpson for Non Profits — that explore the scientific principles of behavioral economics and the psychology of persuasion as they relate to non profit fundraising and marketing.

She earned her masters in Public Affairs from the LBJ School at the University of Texas at Austin and her masters in Social Work at UT Austin as well.

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