Establishing Effective Major Gift Metrics for Your Independent School

Establishing Effective Major Gift Metrics for Your Independent School

In independent schools that GG+A serves, we often see advancement teams struggle to establish helpful and realistic systems for managing major gifts work. A common reaction to this challenge is that advancement staff decide instead to “manage” the best prospects by tracking them in spreadsheets or, worse, in their heads. (No, not their heads of school; their minds.) If you endeavor to deploy a disciplined and attainable set of major gifts metrics in your independent school advancement program, but you don’t know where to begin, here are a few recommendations.  

Assemble a Reasonably-sized Pipeline of Major Gifts Prospects  

Perhaps the most common mistake I see in schools’ major gifts efforts is attempting to manage too many prospects. This tends to happen for two reasons: the advancement team adds all capable donors to the pipeline without regard for whether they have sufficient staffing to manage them, and/or advancement staff feel they can’t afford not to manage specific constituents who are important to the school in some way – even though they are not major gifts prospects. No matter the cause, the result is the same: the pipeline becomes unwieldy, and the advancement team overwhelms itself to the point they become ineffective.  

Good gift officers welcome the feedback that metrics provide them, because they want to be able to judge on a continual basis whether they are meeting and exceeding the expectations of their role.  

Managing your top prospects effectively requires both focus and restraint, so create a pipeline of prospects with which advancement staff can and should conduct at least one substantive meeting (in-person or virtual) per 18 months. Most high-performing independent school programs define a major gift as $100,000 or more, contributed within five years, for a purpose other than – and in addition to – annual giving. Using this threshold should help you home in on the constituents who are appropriate for your pipeline. 

If you have additional prospects who are just below that capacity threshold or not inclined to give in the immediate future…but you don’t want to lose sight of them…create a secondary pipeline for unmanaged prospects – a “farm team” for the major donor pipeline, if you will. Review this group once a quarter; you can always “send down” a managed prospect to the farm team and “call up” an alternate.  

Organize Prospects into Manageable Portfolios 

An appropriately sized portfolio for a full-time gift officer is 75 to 90 qualified prospects, yet few schools boast positions devoted exclusively to major gift prospect management. After all – doesn’t everyone in an independent school advancement team supervise other team members or a program such as planned giving or stewardship? Doesn’t everyone help with reunion weekend, the gala, or a group of volunteers? (I remember fondly my days of working with prospects between recess supervision shifts!) 

When constructing portfolios – and the metrics based on them – time allocated to those other responsibilities should be considered. 

  • A chief advancement officer who is managing staff and programs as well as supporting the head of school and trustees typically can’t manage more than 45 to 55 prospects effectively.  
  • An associate director of development or director of major gifts who is also leading a program or supervising others should have approximately 65 to 75 constituents in their portfolio.  
  • An annual giving, constituent engagement, or stewardship director might manage 30 to 40 prospects given the demand of their primary programmatic responsibilities.  

Keep in mind that those managing prospects who are local (for example, parents in a day school) might have a slightly larger portfolio, and those who must travel to see their prospects might manage a smaller group. Finally, consider each portfolio dynamic, not static. Don’t set it and forget it; set it and review it – regularly.  

Create Metrics that Support Gift Officers 

In a recent meeting with a client team that is establishing major gifts metrics for the first time, the associate director said, “I’m looking forward to having metrics.” Yes! Good gift officers welcome the feedback that metrics provide them, because they want to be able to judge on a continual basis whether they are meeting and exceeding the expectations of their role.  

Many of the best gift officers I know are competitive at heart – they love securing support for their school. Metrics provide them with a framework to measure their own performance and success, even when a solicitation doesn’t yield the desired gift. Consider defining metrics in these areas:   

  • Meetings with qualified prospects: I typically recommend that a frontline fundraiser should be expected to conduct, annually, one-and-a-half times as many meaningful meetings as the number of managed prospects in their portfolio. (This means a gift officer managing 60 prospects would have a metric of 90 meetings per year.) The purpose of these meetings can vary based on where prospects are in the solicitation cycle, and they must be documented in a contact report.  
  • Qualification meetings: I also recommend a minimum number of discovery/qualification meetings. An appropriate number might be 12 per year for the most senior members of the advancement team, who already have robust, well-developed portfolios and 24 per year for more junior members of the team who are vetting constituents who have joined the community recently or have been newly identified by research or peers as potential prospects.  
  • Proposal submissions: A gift officer should deliver, annually, a major gift proposal to 20-25% of their managed prospects (or 12-15 proposals annually for the gift officer managing 60 prospects). This metric ensures that each managed prospect is solicited for a major gift every four to five years.  
  • Planned giving: New planned gifts – either intentions secured or intentions that were already in place but discovered by the gift officer – are another metric I like to see tracked, to ensure that gift officers are discussing planned giving with all prospects. Securing affirmation of a planned gift or a new intention from 10% of one’s portfolio annually is a fair expectation. 
Invest in an Advancement Services Director 

Every high-performing major gifts program has advancement services staff who are the partners to frontline fundraisers who make major gifts efforts measurable and – therefore – successful. However, too few schools have invested in this vital role for supporting gift officers’ effective prospect management.  

Database managers and gift processors collect data and produce reports about what has occurred.  Conversely, advancement services professionals enter, track, and analyze data that guides the prospect activities that need to occur. They are key partners for any member of the fundraising team working with major gifts prospects, helping frontline fundraisers to manage their prospects effectively and drive prospects toward successful solicitations.  

If you’re skeptical about the value of this role, watch this short webinar, The Maestros of Major Gifts, in which I interviewed three advancement services managers at independent schools. You’ll soon realize why they are vital. 

Bottom line  

Start small and be realistic. It’s better to have a well-organized and smaller major gifts program with appropriate metrics than a disjointed, amorphous effort that struggles to drive outcomes and leaves gift officers rudderless in the sea of major gifts prospects.  

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President, leads GG+A’s Independent Schools Practice Area. She specializes in in developing high-performing major gift programs, preparing for and executing capital campaigns, sustaining and accelerating annual giving, coaching frontline fundraisers, and training boards in fundraising and campaign best practices. For guidance on your independent school advancement program, contact Liz at efarr@grenzglier.com. 

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About the author

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…