It’s time to rethink major gift officer metrics

It’s easy to count inputs. That’s why nonprofits have long used easy-to-count metrics to evaluate their frontline fundraisers. But those measures—such as the number of face-to-face contacts, the number of proposals submitted, the value of submitted proposals, and the size of the portfolio—often fail to capture the value of gift officers’ work. This is particularly true in the middle of a pandemic when safety is paramount and precludes in-person meetings and events.

This oversight can prove costly given the retention challenges with major gift officers even before the pandemic. Since March, budget cuts, furloughs, an unpredictable future and unrealistic expectations may have some major gift officers rethinking their careers or looking elsewhere. That puts the onus on institutions to keep good, experienced major gift officers with institutional knowledge and relationships. And it requires supervisors to rethink the metrics used to evaluate gift officers’ performance to ensure they’re rewarding positive behavior.

That’s why we’ve been working with our clients to refine their gift officer performance evaluation standards to better reflect the current reality and help them retain and reward the gift officers who can adapt their tactics, maintain focus, and realize desired outcomes. While the COVID-19 pandemic accentuates the need for this shift, the value will remain beyond this crisis.

Focus on outcomes

We’re helping our clients develop a more holistic, donor-centered way of looking at metrics that focuses on outcomes in addition to traditional inputs. That means assessing whether their gift officers’ actions are causing the right things to happen that move their prospects closer to making major gifts.

For example, institutions can look at how the gift officer is finding creative ways to make personal and meaningful connections with donors using technology for digital engagement. At the same time, they can look at whether the gift officer is adaptive to his or her donors’ communication preferences. While some may be comfortable with a video call and find it convenient—no travel or shoes required—others may need a brief video call tutorial or simply prefer an old-fashioned phone call.

A more holistic approach may mean giving more weight to particular activities than in pre-COVID-19 times. Gift officers may find necessary but not popular qualification visits easier, as potential donors may be more likely to make time for a video call than they would for an in-person meeting with a gift officer they don’t yet know. The evaluation metrics should reward those gift officers who adapt to virtual qualification visits and excel at getting qualified new donors into the major gift pipeline.

Measuring touch points

While most institutions have long-favored face-to-face meetings over phone calls and emails, it makes sense to give equal weight to all substantive, strategic contacts, regardless of the method, to better reflect the reality of the moment. Now, electronic communication enables safe and timely interactions without the more extensive calendar coordination and travel that’s required for face-to-face meetings that can lengthen the timeline and increase the expense.

Consideration of substance over form will be beneficial once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. For example, in my previous role at Boise State University, I worked with a prominent and successful alumnus who rarely took in-person meetings and was nearly impossible to reach by phone. Yet, he was quick to respond to email. Once I adapted to his preferred communication style, each email was highly substantive and productive, and he made several major gifts entirely electronically. His example certainly made us pay more attention to the substance of the communication than to the type.

It’s advantageous to adequately credit gift officers for other important steps that increase a donor’s likelihood to make a major gift such as creating multiple handholds throughout the organization. A donor’s relationship with the organization should never depend solely on a single person. High-performing major gift officers connect donors with colleagues and with the people and programs exemplifying the impact of their gifts. Donors are multifaceted people with multiple interests. Facilitating many substantive connections ensures donors’ relationships with the institution are far more interesting and meaningful and offer opportunities to engage a spouse and other family members.  Multiple handholds ensure that donors remain connected regardless of staff turnover and that the donors are more deeply engaged with the organization.

Another positive behavior not often included in gift officer metrics is teamwork. In practicality that could mean sharing information effectively by doing contact reports on time or consulting with colleagues for richer and deeper strategy development and then documenting those strategies.

Shifting expectations

A more holistic approach to metrics requires us to shift the way we evaluate performance. That calls for supervisors to regularly and frequently have critical conversations with individual gifts officers. A metrics report straight from the information system is an incomplete picture and one evaluative conversation a year doesn’t cut it. Regular conversations enable qualitative evaluation of what gift officers are doing and why—they also allow for coaching and course correction when necessary.

Expectations about strategy timelines, payment schedules and donor capacity and inclination need to be flexible in the current reality. While gift officers have accountability to the organization’s timelines, the global pandemic presents so many external unknowns and pressures that institutions need to be sensitive to donors’ needs and adapt expectations to the donors’ new normal.  Flexibility with a pledge payment schedule or allowing a deferred component to make up part of a gift may, most importantly, preserve a long-term donor relationship without reflecting negatively on gift officer performance.

Institutions may want to consider reducing gift officers’ portfolio sizes to realistically reflect how many donors to which a gift officer can effectively pay attention and to adapt expectations in the face of travel restrictions, staff reductions and budget cuts. Smaller portfolios avoid territorialism and “parking” prospects in portfolios simply to keep others from contacting them. High-performing gift officers have smaller portfolios allowing for greater focus, accountability and transparency, according to Eduventures’ High Performing Teams study.

What changes should your organization make?

There’s no one-size-fits-all set of metrics for major gift officers. However, what’s measured becomes what’s important and reflects the culture of the organization. The right metrics depend on any number of factors, including:

  • Individual gift officers’ portfolio size, capacity, and composition.
  • Each gift officer’s tenure in his or her role.
  • The training, tools and resources gift officers have at their disposal.
  • Supervisors’ willingness and ability to look beyond easily countable inputs to behaviors that lead to positive outcomes.
  • The organizational culture.
  • Most importantly, donors’ personal plans, timelines and circumstances.

If you’d like guidance on how to take a more holistic approach, and how to rethink your metrics for your desired outcomes, please reach out to me and my colleagues. We’d love to have a conversation to explore how GG+A might help.


If you need assistance sorting through the metrics you’re using to evaluate your major gift officers, please reach out to Laura at lsimic@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Laura Simic

Vice President

Laura Simic, Vice President, brings more than 35 years of experience in fundraising and executive leadership in public and private higher education to the GG+A team.  She has frontline development officer and two decades of executive leadership experience encompassing all areas of advancement including alumni relations, advancement services, communications, annual…