Refocus Your Independent School Advancement Team on Metrics That Matter

Refocus Your Independent School Advancement Team on Metrics That Matter 

In a world overflowing with numbers and exhortations to be “data-driven,” how can independent schools avoid the temptation to measure everything and focus instead on the metrics that really matter for the achievement of their fundraising goals?

GG+A independent schools experts Mary K. Carrasco and Elizabeth Kolb Farr recently sat down with Ann Snyder, Senior Director, Communities Engagement at CASE, to address this and more.

In their conversation, they discuss the one piece of donor data many of their colleagues are tempted to measure (but shouldn’t!), the importance of re-educating stakeholders around meaningful data points, and details of a new partnership to support independent schools in their benchmarking efforts.

(Watch the webinar of their full conversation and read some of the highlights below. Answers are lightly edited for length and clarity.) 

Q: We’re going to lead off with a provocative topic…. What are we accustomed to measuring in independent schools but shouldn’t be? 

Mary Carrasco (MC): Any kind of percentage of participation that doesn’t correlate to dollars. We need to be focused on how we get new dollars and new donors.

Elizabeth (Liz) Farr (EF): Hallelujah!

Ann Snyder (AS): I second that wholeheartedly. I would also say the biggest mistake schools often make is measuring themselves against their closest admission competitor. While it might have a similar academic profile or sports teams that are competitive against yours… it may or may not have anything to say about what your philanthropy program can do. So, stop looking at the school across the street.

EF: We received a couple of questions about faculty and staff participation and whether that’s valuable to track. I think it’s valuable to ask faculty and staff to participate in annual giving and give them the opportunity to show their support and enthusiasm for the school. But I actually don’t think it’s particularly valuable to track faculty and staff participation. Instead, I do think it’s valuable to track board participation, and just track that against yourself. A hundred percent of your board members should be supporting your school. Full stop. It doesn’t matter whether another school’s Board isn’t participating at 100 percent – yours should.

Audience Question: But what if your parents and other key stakeholders are motivated by participation? 

AS: Then go for it. You’ve got to use every tool in your toolbox. If parents are motivated by it, then use it. We’re not saying you shouldn’t pay attention…. You still know what those numbers are. But understand that just because you have 80 percent participation doesn’t necessarily mean that that helps you meet your goals.

MC: And I think we can re-educate towards donor acquisition, retention, and reactivation rather than a percentage of participation…. If we talk to our volunteers about acquiring new donors in their class, retaining the donors that have given before, and reactivating past donors, that’s going to be more productive.

EF: I would also emphasize the importance of re-educating them. Help them understand what matters. I would put the board of trustees in the same group. The reason the board cares about participation is because we’ve been feeding them participation numbers and telling them to care about it for decades.

EF: So, what should we be tracking? What are two or three key data points that we think are the most important and most valuable to measure, and why? 

AS: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between data that is in indicative of something going on in your program and data that is predictive of what your outcomes are likely to be. So, when we think about participation, I think of it as an indication of something. Most likely, an alumni participation percentage is indicative of how strong your program was 20-30 years ago, when your alumni were there. Your parent participation might be indicative of how happy parents are with the school…or with your culture of philanthropy. But it’s not predictive of what will happen in coming campaigns, the next year’s annual fund, or any of that. Board participation, by contrast, is somewhat predictive. If the board is all in, they are leaders in your community who are, in fact, influencing other gifts…. So, when we think about the things we should be measuring, largely, I think we need to be paying attention to things that are predictive.  

MC: If you think about measurements as what you’re dedicating resources to, that helps…. That doesn’t mean you don’t know the other numbers. And that doesn’t mean that, from time to time, other numbers aren’t useful. What you have to consider is, how are you measuring progress towards your goals? I would say what we should be measuring is the fundraising progress as a percentage towards the goal over time. So, at this point last year, what percentage were we toward our goal? I think new commitments and new cash always have to be measured and then the number of qualified prospective major gift donors. If you think about the pipeline towards those gifts that are going to have the greatest impact on the school, then that that’s where you want to dedicate your resources.  

EF: I think also…donor retention, donor upgrades, donor acquisition. These are three key benchmarks against your own program – not against others, but just against your own program – that can help you, as Ann wisely pointed out, to predict. What’s our future fundraising if we are gaining donors each year and holding on to most donors and managing to upgrade those we have? The number of qualifications; the number of proposals sent; the number of visits per month, per quarter, per year – are all very valuable to track. But I think it comes right down to dollars. Measure dollars. Dollars pay bills. Dollars are what your institution needs. Participation does not pay bills. Donor numbers don’t pay bills.  

EF: So why should an independent school benchmark its data against peer institutions? 

AS: The reason to benchmark against similar institutions is to learn from them… if their conditions are similar, and they unlock the secret of young alumni fundraising, you want to learn their secrets. Perhaps the same thing could work for you. So, CASE has a very easy way to do that.  

Q: How can we learn more about resources available through CASE? 

AS: If you are a CASE member, and you fill out DASL (Data and Analysis for School Leadership) you will be able to, through a two-click process, determine who your closest five peer institutions are based on a proprietary algorithm produced by CASE experts that look at all the data points that we’ve been discussing…That data will go into our reporting platform, and we’ll produce a graphical program summary….The best part is, you can right click on those graphics and plug them right into a PowerPoint presentation for your board, so that you’re not looking just at participation or what your closest admission competitor did. You are looking at hard data of institutions like yours, and then you can reasonably answer questions about how you might get from point A to point B in your next campaign.  


You can watch the full webinar, “Advancement Benchmarking in Independent Schools: What Should We Measure and Why?”  

Or click the links below to access:

  • A PowerPoint presentation about the partnership between CASE and the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)

With growing pressure on school advancement programs to increase revenues but limited staff resources to devote to analytics and benchmarking, tools like these can help your team understand the most productive metrics for your fundraising strategy – focusing on the benchmarks that predict dollar outcomes and that measure the efforts of the staff and the strength of the advancement program.

If you are interested in learning more about fundraising analytics for your school, please contact Mary Carrasco at mcarrasco@grenzglier.com or Elizabeth Kolb Farr at efarr@grenzglier.com.

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About the authors

Mary K. Carrasco

Senior Vice President

Mary K. Carrasco, Senior Vice President, brings more than four decades of experience to GG+A and the firm’s Independent Schools Practice Area. A respected leader in the independent school advancement community, Mary co-founded the CASE Independent School Leadership Group and chaired the 2012 CASE-NAIS Conference as well as the 2016-2020…

Elizabeth Kolb Farr

Senior Vice President and Independent Schools Practice Leader

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President, joined GG+A in 2017 and, in 2021, assumed leadership of the firm’s Independent Schools Practice Area. Liz serves the firm’s independent school and higher education clients, supporting them in identifying and seizing opportunities for fundraising growth. She holds particular expertise in instituting and orchestrating…