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From Jack of all Trades to Master of One: How to Successfully Transition From Fundraising Generalist to Major Gifts Officer

Resource Center - Foundation

by Suzanne Duncan, MA, CFRE

Suzanne Duncan

Leaving my generalist job at a mid-sized charity six years ago to move into the world of major gifts was one of the scariest, disorienting and most rewarding things I have ever done.

After 10 years working in small, social justice-oriented charities where I had lots of input, autonomy and control, I moved to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Foundation in 2010. I became a member of a big major gifts team, digging in deep in a whole new world of fundraising opportunities and challenges.

Today, I have raised more than $39 million and have been part of major philanthropically-funded initiatives that are transforming care and research for people living with mental illness. Most importantly, I have found a way to have major impact in a field that I am passionate about. But it wasn’t easy.

Different Skills, Different Approach

Walking out of a generalist environment—particularly in a smaller shop—and into a major gifts role is not necessarily a natural transition. For one, the skill sets required are quite different. A generalist is a project manager and has lots of disparate projects on the go: from a mailing to an event to a board report. A major gifts officer is laser-focused on relationships, and instead of grant charts and project plans, he or she is trained to think about webs of influence and relationships.

The working environment is also quite different:

A small shop, generalist environment cultivates -

A bigger shop, major gifts environment requires -

  • Big picture thinking
  • Action-oriented
  • Getting it done
  • A drive towards purpose
  • Collaboration
  • Role ambiguity
  • Self-direction
  • Being hands on
  • Deep specialization
  • Focus on outcomes
  • Being strategic
  • A drive towards goals
  • Being a “lone wolf”
  • A defined role
  • Hierarchy
  • Delegating

So how does a talented fundraiser transition their very different approach to an unfamiliar environment? They do what all good fundraisers do. They start with a plan.

A Personal Plan

Fundraisers are masters of creating plans that help our organization and our donors reach their goals. We understand that there are many steps to reaching our goals, and we are trained to marshal our scarce resources in support of that plan.

In this case, it’s time to turn those planning skills inward and create a strategic plan for your major gifts career—a plan for you, not for your role or for your organization. A personal strategic plan will help you be clear about your goals and objectives. It will also help you identify how you will meet your gaps, whether that’s a gap in information, skills, credibility, relationships or culture.

There are four qualities that I have found incredibly helpful to cultivate in my life and it’s from those qualities that that my personal strategic plan grew. The qualities are:

1. Being strategic

  • Reflect on your career goal. What do you want to achieve in your life as it relates to your work? Do you want to lead an organization? Help drive a research discovery? Develop mastery in a particular fundraising strategy? Live a life that you can be proud of? Your goal is your own and will be different from everyone else’s. The most important thing is to be honest about it and to define what success looks like.
  • Think about the short, medium and long-term objectives that will help you to get closer to your goal. Start with the long-term objectives. First define what “long-term” is to you: 1 year? 3 years? 5 years? Then be very honest about what those objectives are. Get a promotion? Raise $5 million? Leave and take your skills back to a smaller shop? Be comfortable in your role? Once you define a few long-term objectives, work backwards to identify smaller objectives that will get you to your long-term ones.
  • Use these goals and objectives to ruthlessly prioritize your life. If an activity is not in service of the plan, and it doesn’t build social capital (see Be Useful below), then don’t do it. We all know from experience that trying to take on too much and being unfocused spells disaster for our organizations. The same logic applies to our lives.

2. Be humble

  • Humble is not about hiding or downplaying your strengths, it’s about being honest about what you are good at. It’s about asking for help to get better at the things you are not good at.
  • Think about your own strengths. What talents do you have? What areas of fundraising are you good at? What positive qualities do others perceive in you? Write it down. It will help you in the Be Useful section below.
  • Think about your weaknesses. Where do you need to improve? What new skills do you need to learn? What qualities are valued in your environment that you need to start to emulate? One way to do this is to look at the influencers in your environment—are there certain qualities or skills that they possess that you should consider fostering in yourself?
  • Now go back to your plan and create a short road map that describes your weaknesses and some next steps to bridge those gaps. Consider people who could mentor you, books you could read, courses you could take, superstars you could job shadow.  

3. Be organized

  • Chances are if you were succeeding as a generalist, you are probably already very organized, so this part should be easy. You need to adopt an organizational style that works for you, even if it’s over and above the system that your organization uses. Even with relationship management databases, you can feel like things are slipping through the cracks. Set up your own Excel workbook, email system or paper based to-do list. Adopt whatever system helps you stay on top of your job.

4. Be useful

  • You need to stay focused on your goals and objectives, but there are times when you will reach your goals faster if you build your social capital—that is, your networks among your organization that build trust and cooperation.
  • Examine your list of strengths and skills. Are there things that you are particularly good at that will help the organization reach its goal? Make your boss look good? Build rapport with a key colleague or influencer?
  • Be strategic about where you choose to get involved. There’s a big difference between being useful and being helpful. Being too helpful can spread you too thin. Being useful is in the service of your overall plan, it’s focused and it helps you advance in your career.

Remember Your Work Ethic

Thinking through these qualities and documenting a plan will help you achieve your goals by keeping you focused and honest. But there’s one step left: Work hard. As a generalist you probably cultivated the ability to work harder than just about anyone else in your organization. In a small shop, you had to. If you didn’t get your work done, programs were cut, people were laid off and the mission suffered.

Retain that work ethic in your new environment, even if it means some late nights and some extra reading on your commute. The nice thing is that because you have a plan, you know that the extra work won’t be in vain, and it won’t be forever.

This approach works. Five years ago, I realized that my goal was to meaningfully contribute to CAMH for as long as I could, even if that meant changing roles. I built a plan just like the one I've described that helped me stay focused on that goal. I worked the plan. Last year, I took on a new role of Associate Vice President of Donor Relations CAMH Foundation—a job that ensures that I have maximum input and impact on the Foundation, the hospital and the people we serve every day. I couldn’t be happier, but I do think it’s time to create my next plan!

Suzanne Duncan, MA, CFRE, has been helping social service organizations reach their philanthropic potential for the last fifteen years. At Eva’s Initiatives, YWCA Toronto, Frontier College and The WoodGreen Foundation, she connected visionary donors to innovative projects. Suzanne was a major gifts fundraiser at the CAMH Foundation for 5 years. She recently became the Associate Vice President of Donor Relations for CAMH Foundation and is responsible for curating and creating the ways that donors engage with CAMH and ensuring they feel the impact of their giving. Suzanne has volunteered her services to charities including Expect Theatre, the Redwood and the Association of Fundraising Professionals of Greater Toronto. She also redeveloped the Introduction to Fundraising course at Ryerson University, where she is an instructor.


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