University fundraising staff counts on metrics

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This report was written for Blackbaud.]

At the University of Virginia, fundraising officers are using data to help drive strategy and performance.

Two years ago, the fundraising operation team tracked the number of visits by development officers to prospective donors and found that the “mean and medium ask amount was falling below the major gift level for many major gift officers,” says Laura M. Phillips, the University’s director of prospect development.

Now, the fundraising operation team sets goals for the number of proposals to prospects that each development officer will make and close.

“Once we started reporting these metrics, officers became a little more self-aware of what they were doing and asking for,” Phillips says. “We saw our mean and median ask amounts go up into the major gift level more consistently.”

The difference was the kind of metrics the University was tracking, and how it was using the data, she says.

Development analysis

The prospect development office is responsible for mining data from the University’s database of 350,000 individuals, ranking and scoring prospects, and writing prospecting and development officer performance reports.

University analysts also work on developing prospect scoring techniques, as well as more complex statistical analyses to help distill the prospect pool down to the mostly likely giving candidates.

Analysts also produce tools that identify prospects through searches of the University’s contact reports using key words or phrases, such as “historic preservation,” “arts,” or “politics.”

Particularly for fundraising units at the University that may not be part of a particular school, those searches can yield prospects for special fundraising initiatives.

Phillips’ team then builds reporting tools for development officers, such as a matrix that rates the giving capacity and propensity of prospects, including prospects for major gifts, those of $100,000 or more, and for principal gifts, those of $5 million or more.

The prospect development team also helps frontline fundraisers develop a portfolio of prospects or find prospects for specific initiatives.

“We help them think more broadly, inside our database and externally with other resources, about how we might creatively identify prospects for initiatives that might not seem obvious since the initiative doesn’t belong to a school with an alumni base or other obvious constituency,” Phillips says.

Performance metrics

At the beginning of every fiscal year, chief development officers throughout the University give Phillips’ team the goals for the development officers they manage, based on five metrics:

• The number of visits each development officer will make to prospects.

• The number of proposals each development officer will solicit.

• The total dollar amount of those proposals.

• The number of proposals each development officer will close.

• The dollar amount associated with those closed proposals.

Each month, Phillips’ team gives the chief development officers reports on progress, including charts and other illustrations that show every single proposal solicited during the fiscal year.

As a result, she says, the University is able to ask for larger donations.

“When we only measured visits, we weren’t seeing that translate into money,” she says. “Now that we have proposal goals, we have seen more evidence of actual solicitation activity, and at a more appropriate level.”

Lessons for nonprofits

While the University of Virginia is a large institution, smaller nonprofits can apply some of the same strategies for using data to help drive fundraising strategy and performance, Phillips says.

“Start small and simple, because these things build over time,” she says. “If you’re a really small organization, hire one researcher to do prospect ratings that can help you understand your prospect pool.”

If a single researcher proves effective, a nonprofit should consider focusing on a good portfolio and prospect management, she says. Based on those results, a nonprofit with these tools or resources might then consider hiring a consultant to analyze data from its prospect pool.

The essential questions for higher education fundraising, she says, are whether development officers are talking to people and prospects with the capacity and propensity to give, and whether those donors are likely to give to an institution.

“Finding the answer to these questions is not always simple,” Phillips says. “Once you get that information, you need to find a way to harness the data in reports that mean something to you. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”

Nonprofits should also remember that data is only half of the picture, she says.

Equally important is “the direct interpersonal information that’s gathered by development officers in the field,” she says. “It is critical to document relevant facts that will help you understand and tell the story of your organization’s relationship with its donors and prospects.”

That approach, she says, “is essential for analysts, researchers, and development officers

working in your organization now, as well as those who will work in your organization in the future.”

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