News & Press: Member Insights

Have metrics killed fundraising?

Thursday, October 2, 2014   (0 Comments)

By: Laura MacDonald, CFRE, Benefactor Group

Laura MacDonald, Benefactor GroupRecently, I had a fascinating lunch conversation with a senior advancement professional. He’s worked in higher education for 30 years, and was reflecting on the changes he’d seen. He told a cautionary tale:

I planned a trip to visit several alumni in a distant city. A young development officer asked me to visit with one of her prospects and to deliver a gift proposal. When I sat down with the alumna, two things were quickly evident: she had significant giving capacity, and she was nowhere near ready to make a significant pledge to her alma mater. So the proposal stayed in my portfolio as I proceeded to talk about her interests and identify the best ways to deepen her engagement. 

When I returned to campus and met with my young development colleague, I told her about the conversation and outcome. When I said that I hadn’t delivered the proposal (and why) she was crestfallen. You see, she was counting on that proposal to meet her quarterly goals—even though she admitted that she realized the prospect wasn’t ready to make a gift. 

The young development officer’s behavior shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, she’s been told that her performance evaluation relies on metrics such as contact reports filed, proposals submitted, gifts secured, and total funds raised. Rather than counting on her judgment, the college is merely counting tasks.

Measuring the performance of development officers on something other than total dollars raised is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s an antidote to the days when ineffective staffers could hide in a unit on a far corner of the campus, counting on others to make goals. Utilized correctly, performance metrics can identify development officers’ strengths and weaknesses and inform everything from their assignments to professional development strategies. But metrics can be overused or misapplied. Many institutions, including my colleague’s described above, are still finding the right balance. 

So what should be measured?

Some activities can be counted, and should be. These include prospects assigned, contacts (which must be documented in writing), requests, gifts, new prospects and donors, and – perhaps the most important – donors retained.

Other actions are a bit more nuanced. Was a new fundraising initiative launched? Were professional development goals achieved?

There are other important factors that are tougher to measure: did the development officer deepen donors’ engagement? Incite their passion? Pass up the easy “ask” in favor of a more meaningful gift in the future? These are factors that can’t be captured with simple codes or measured with a simple report from the database; this is where the manager needs to have their fingers on the development officer’s pulse. 

Have metrics killed fundraising? No. But they aren’t a substitute for engaged leadership. Just as the greatest gifts result from an engaged relationship rather than a transaction, the strongest fundraisers are nurtured with thoughtful coaching—and that has to go beyond numbers.

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