What Gets Measured Gets Done

by David Lively

When discussing fundraising metrics with colleagues in the profession, fellow fundraisers are often put off by the notion of measuring their work quantitatively. “Fundraising is an art,” they routinely claim. Certainly, there is an art to fundraising. However, art is a discipline that must be practiced. Even Picasso felt the need to draw every day. Every art has some science behind it—you cannot create a painting without paints and the attendant chemistry required to create them! Indeed, there is also a science to our work.


Every art has science behind it. Fundraising is no exception.

In fact, we work in a world of numbers. Development is among the few areas within higher education administration that is easily quantifiable. We have top-line and bottom-line fundraising goals, and we are regularly measured in purely numerical terms.

Major gift fundraising is about forging relationships between a prospective donor and a gift officer’s institution, but with a purpose—not simply for the sake of the relationship itself.

What to Measure

So what do you measure? How do you measure the quality of a visit? You can’t, at least not using the currently available tools. However, you can determine the quality of work when visits lead to major gifts. Relationships take effort to build, and counting visits doesn’t remotely reflect the effort and strategy needed to do so.

You can’t measure the quality of a visit, but you can determine the quality of work when visits lead to major gifts.

Fundraisers must make forward progress—building momentum, in the physics metaphor—when meeting with prospects, not just develop strong relationships. Each meeting must be purposeful. In other words, gift officers should always execute a strategy that moves the prospect closer to a gift discussion. Remember, we must earn the right to ask for a gift.

How to Define Success

Behavioral economists have illustrated that making small changes in incentive structures may influence human behavior rather dramatically. As a manager, you must focus on incentives to understand how best to motivate your fundraising team. As the old adage goes, “What gets measured gets done.” In other words, how should you define and reward success in order to get optimal or maximum performance (outcomes) from your fundraising team?

Metrics is a buzzword that tends to make most fundraisers nervous and leaves most managers confused. According to a recent study by Bentz Whaley Flessner on fundraising metrics, 60 percent of gift officers find their goals to be “inappropriate.” Further, 42 percent of fundraisers view metrics as “detrimental at worst or ineffective at best in reflecting important behaviors.”

Too often metrics are simply the measurement of activity (input or output) with no supporting incentive structure. Our work generates lots of data points to analyze, but too often we don’t know what precisely to do with them. For example, we may each have several clearly articulated goals, but we rarely employ a performance assessment construct that appropriately weights the actions we value—or should value—most.

  • Should visits alone, regardless of their substance, be an important metric?
  • If a fundraiser raises one mega-gift but does nothing else of substance (with other prospects) the remainder of the year, should we value those dollars raised more than the work of another fundraiser who raises a dozen major gifts that cumulatively add up to less money?

The best way to measure the quality of visits? Determine the final outcome of each relationship. 

Visits are often used a proxy for productivity. Even worse, they are often used as the “effort measure” for fundraisers, as a trusted colleague recently put it. Moreover, he suggested, “[This] was my main problem with it. So if you didn’t raise any money, your boss could say, ‘Oh, but you were out there hustling, so I can’t fault you. Keep doing that.’ Which didn’t teach anyone anything and went hand-in-hand with being a ‘nonprofit measure.’ For folks like me, it was nonsense because I wanted to be measured on real stuff and I hated having an out.”

One last comment on visits: There is no material way to measure the quality of a visit when the goal is to have as many as possible (i.e., quantity is incented over quality). The single best way to measure the quality of visits is to determine the final outcome of each relationship. Did the visit lead to a gift? If so, then that should be the ultimate measure of success.

David Lively is senior associate vice president and campaign manager at Northwestern University.

899798790-def-lThis piece is excerpted from Managing Major Gift Fundraisers by David Lively, available in the CASE Store.




Hear more from David Lively: Join him and a talented line up of faculty for Leadership in Development, Dec. 12–14, 2018, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Get a better understanding of your competencies as a leader and manager, hone mission-critical skills and gain new strategies to help your advancement shop thrive. Save when you register by Nov. 2.



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