Between fiscal 2012 and 2014, a group of 17 major gift fundraisers on the central Alumni Relations and Development team at Northwestern University saw a 211% increase in the number of major gifts raised and a 595% increase in dollars raised—by doing their work just a little bit differently. Refocusing performance metrics on purposeful donor engagement was their key to success.

But where do performance metrics and accountabilities fit in the framework of meaningful donor engagement?

Performance metrics and benchmarks often measure success and productivity by the total number of dollars raised. As many development professionals know first-hand, assessment by these measures alone is not entirely accurate, nor is it particularly inspiring.

In terms of assessing success, “Dollars can be misleading,” David Lively, Associate Vice President and Campaign Manager at Northwestern University explains.

A really large gift or several large gifts can mask a lack of productivity below the surface. So, for example, if you look at any institution and you see a big gift that’s episodic in year one or year two, and in year three or year four you don’t have a gift of equivalent size, everybody’s going to say, ‘What happened?’ The real base of productivity is the number of major gifts that you’re raising at all levels.

David sat down with his team to really analyze what was working for them. They discovered that raising contributions at all levels is key to long-term success. What the Northwestern team sought to do was increase the number of major gifts of all sizes, and focus less on the total dollars raised. Through the implementation of a weighted scorecard and accountabilities grid, the Northwestern team was able to shift their focus to what they believed really mattered.

The Weighted Scorecard and Accountabilities Grid

The accountabilities grid is a tool for prioritization. It is flexible enough to be molded to the needs of the institution.

“If you’re a pure frontline gift officer, you should be seeing more people and raising more gifts, but probably at a lower level,” David says. “If you’re at the top of the organization, you’re probably going to raise fewer gifts because you have significant management responsibility, but they’re going to be larger gifts because you’re working with your trustees, principal gift donors, university leaders, etc.” David and the Northwestern team valued and weighted each of these goals to help prioritize them based on the fundraiser’s role.

“[Getting commitments] was more important than making visits or trying to land a big gift,” David says. “Anyone can get lucky with a big gift, and frankly, the big gifts don’t necessarily take more time than the smaller major gifts.

One may argue that closing a first gift of $100,000 from a new donor may take more time and may be a harder commitment to raise than a seven-figure gift. Getting a first major gift from a donor is often much harder than getting a second, third, or fourth major gift from a repeat major donor.

By focusing the productivity measurements on commitments of all sizes, the team was able to identify over a multi-year period those fundraisers who were creating the right kind of engagement opportunities. These fundraisers were ultimately building a more sustainable portfolio of donors for future efforts.

The Portfolio

As the Northwestern team began to implement these new processes, they looked at portfolios and made shocking discoveries.

“We looked at the numbers and the thing that was the most compelling was that 55% of our assigned prospects that had the capacity to give $100,000 or more had not been visited at all for three years. And then we looked at assigned prospects who had the capacity to give $1,000,000 or more, and 45% of them had not been visited in person.”

This discovery was addressed by limiting the portfolio size significantly to between 25 and 75 potential donors. This seemingly counterintuitive response had surprising and unexpected results.

By limiting personal portfolios to just those being actively managed, Northwestern University effectively released scores of potential prospects to allow other team members to engage them. Releasing potential donors into an unmanaged pool increased the likelihood that these prospects would be solicited and ultimately make gifts.

Of course, change of this magnitude is never easy. But most of the initial resistance can be chalked up to a primal fear—fear someone else will solicit this person and fear of deviating from the way things are always done.

“I think a lot of people were skeptical at first,” David says.

I know a lot of people were anxious about it. But we were able to do it. It’s a dynamic process. Every year, with input from the fundraisers, we reshape and rejigger the numbers a little bit to improve and refine the system. Most of the team have embraced our goals and the process.

Better Outcomes: From Purposeful to Meaningful Engagement

“I think fundraisers often don’t take an analytical approach because this is a relationship business. But there’s also a science to it and if you can understand the data, you can wipe away a lot of assumptions,” David explains. “If you really understand what’s happening and you can be informed by the data, you can greatly improve your performance.”

The combination of being more purposeful in your work by having a small portfolio—and working effectively while partnering with these prospective donors—leads to much better outcomes.

The team has seen a significant improvement in morale, because fundraisers understand their job in a new way. “It’s not this nebulous thing,” David explains. “It’s not the effort making a lot of visits and somehow these substantial gifts come out of those visits. It’s actually thinking strategically and purposefully about the donor, and setting out the plan. And the thing that I’m most proud of is that we’ve got this incredible team and they’ve organized their work and now they see the fruits of their labor and it’s coming together very nicely. Of course, it also helps to have a group of unbelievably talented fundraisers with whom to work!”


To learn more about Northwestern’s unique take on metrics, please follow the link below to view a webinar that was presented by David Lively and Dave Nacol, Executive Director of Development at Northwestern.

View the Northwestern University webinar: Fundraiser Metrics & Portfolio Management