The Best Caseload Size for Gift Officers – A New Formula

What is the ideal caseload size for gift officers? A quick internet search serves up a classic example of the term ‘conventional wisdom.’ Nearly every citation will mention the number 150.

But what makes this number appear to be so universally agreed upon? Is it based on research? Did they ask gift officers how many fundraising prospects they can realistically work with at one time? They most certainly didn’t, because none of them would have given a number anywhere close to 150.

So where does this 150 figure for the ideal gift officer’s caseload size come from?

It comes from Dunbar’s number, a quaint figure arrived at by Oxford anthropologist – not fundraiser – Robin Dunbar, who postulated that the human brain cannot manage more than 150 stable social relationships at once. Dunbar’s research had nothing to do with fundraising.

But somehow, nonprofits and fundraising consultants latched on to that figure and started using it to justify caseload quantities of 150 per gift officer.

You can see the obvious problems with this approach already – as if anyone has relationships only in their workplace, and only with clients! Gift officers are humans too. They also have family, friends, co-workers, and other people in their lives. Those are included in the 150 too – if Dunbar’s research is to be taken at face value.

So 150 isn’t just arbitrary. It’s wrong. You cannot manage 150 people on your caseload all at once – even Dunbar would say so.

David Lively, a researcher at Northwestern University who actually does know something about major gifts fundraising, developed a far more useful formula for determining caseload size for gift officers.

What Is Caseload Size?

Real quick, let’s be clear on our terms. A gift officer’s caseload is the number of people you are supposed to be actively working with in some capacity. So, these are names of real donor prospects that were given to you, and you were told to follow up with them and start soliciting them – develop the relationship.

The donor prospects on your caseload are not supposed to just sit there. You’re supposed to call them, text them, email them, follow-up with them, meet with them, and solicit them for major gifts.

Can you do all that with 150 people? That would mean doing something with five per day – including weekends – if you tried to make at least one ‘touch’ with each person on your caseload every month.

See what I mean?

Lively’s Formula for Gift Officer Caseload Size

Lively’s formula takes a more realistic and vastly different approach. His formula is:

Caseload Size = Time available / Time required for strategy development per donor

Now, take a moment to ponder that. Strategy development is not a gift officer’s only task. You also have to actually meet with donors. You have to work with others on your team. You have other job tasks too.

So, your available time here refers to time you can devote specifically to developing a personalized strategy to reach out to each donor prospect.

Suppose you have 20 hours a week for that and it takes 30 minutes to develop such a strategy for each donor in your caseload. That would mean a gift officer caseload size of 40.

NOT 150. Not even close.

And remember – that’s not including time spent actually implementing the strategy – just planning it.

What About the Other Prospects on My List???

No doubt, after reading that, gift officers are breathing sighs of relief and getting ready to hit the spa, and nonprofit administrators are choking on their food as they fulminate over the absurd impracticality of such a small caseload size.

“What will happen to the other 110 names on that gift officer’s list? Surely, you can’t be serious!” Lively is serious – and don’t call him Shirley.

Remember – can anyone realistically develop and manage a relationship with 150 donor prospects all at once? It’s not possible – not if you intend to do it well. That means, if you try to keep up the 150 charade, most of them will inevitably fall into what Lively dubs ‘portfolio slack’ in his book, Managing Major Gift Fundraisers – A Contrarian’s Guide.

What is portfolio slack?

Portfolio slack includes all the names on a gift officer’s caseload who have

  • Never been solicited
  • No strategies developed to reach out to or solicit them
  • No qualitative research to aid in such strategic planning (quantitative data from analyzing past giving or wealth screening won’t cut it)

Qualitative research would include things like interviews, focus groups, surveys, and digital behavior such as likes, follows, opens, clicks, and opt-ins.

So, these names just sit there. That’s portfolio slack. And there are probably some very valuable donors within this group, as well as a lot of dead weight.

Ask any gift officer – do you have names on your caseload who you have never reached out to?

If they have 150 names on their list, the answer will be ‘Yes’ nearly every time. More importantly, have these gift officers had time to develop strategies that have a reasonable chance of producing a positive outcome for all 150 people on their caseload lists? The answer there is, not a chance.

Major Gifts Fundraising Is Not about Metrics – It’s about Strategy

Too many gift officers still labor under the yolk of metrics. Calls, emails, texts, follow-ups, meetings, asks, rinse, repeat. Just keep doing. Look busy. Be busy. That’s good fundraising, or so goes the conventional wisdom.

But is it?

Often, these sorts of behaviors end up annoying prospective donors, driving them away, not attracting or engaging them. Such random tactics come across as interruptive, irrelevant, and badly timed. Donors who aren’t ready to give, aren’t interested in talking to get an update, or have other things on their plate at the moment, aren’t going to respond just because you keep calling.

They’ll just ignore you.

The point is – you don’t have time to effectively manage 150 names.

What you need to do is learn how to develop personalized strategies – based upon qualitative research such as the methods listed earlier – and use those to reach out to donors when the timing is right, for them.

Who Should Be on a Gift Officer’s Caseload?

No one should be put on a gift officer’s caseload unless work has already been done to qualify them and allow them to self-identify as wanting to go on a philanthropic journey with you, knowing that they’ll be expected to review a serious solicitation proposal when the time is right.

The gift officer’s job is not to persuade. It’s to guide a warm prospect where they already want to go, and help them do it in the wisest, most generous and satisfying way possible.

Qualification means the prospect:

  • Has a tangible, personal reason to give – their history, life story, passions, values, etc
  • Has assets to give, not just cash
  • Opted into the engagement process – knowing they will be solicited
  • Is ready to work with a gift officer to gain value

When donors are qualified first, and given a chance to self-identify their interest, the gift officer can now focus on developing strategies for reaching out to these donors. Lively’s formula for caseload size puts only these types of prospects on the gift officer’s caseload, not just data dumps from a prospect researcher.

Does all this take longer?


Will you need another way to pre-qualify donors before placing them on a gift officer’s caseload?


But – is your current caseload filled with non-responsive, unqualified, sometimes total strangers who don’t give, don’t want to talk to you, and in many cases never have?


In other words, your current approach isn’t working. Real (qualified) donors are being neglected amid a sea of (identified) prospects who were never going to give, and you can’t tell the difference, because all you’ve got to go on is a bunch of past giving data and wealth screening data that doesn’t tell you anything truly useful about these people.

This is one reason so many gift officers quit.

They get tired of all the rejection and stonewalling from people who never should have been placed in their caseloads in the first place since they didn’t opt-in for that. They didn’t self-qualify. So, they weren’t pre-qualified for a Gift Officer first.

Who Can Pre-Qualify Prospects If Not the Gift Officers?

This approach to major gifts fundraising hinges on finding another way to pre-qualify donors before placing them on caseloads for your gift officers.

How can this be done?

You can do it by automating the pre-qualification process as much as possible.

You can send out surveys without needing a person to do it. You can even follow up with prospects via email without needing a person to do that. Yes, a System exists that can engage and follow up with your prospects – and they will think a real human is interacting with them.

This process works slowly – at a pace that respects the donor – and responds based on how they respond and react to what they receive.

Given time, this approach allows donors to raise their hands to indicate they want more information, might be willing to give, are interested in talking to a person, or some other higher level of engagement. At that point, you would add them to a gift officer’s caseload and the gift officer will reach out to someone who has already made clear they want to hear from you.

What a difference!

This approach saves your organization piles of time and money, because it frees your gift officers from spending so much time on non-revenue tasks like scheduling meetings, following up, listening to voicemail recordings that no one checks, staring at spreadsheets, and watching air move.

That’s how you can have a caseload of 40 and actually raise MORE money than when you were using caseloads of 150. Because you’re waiting until prospects make it much further down the qualification and cultivation process before placing them on caseloads.

So what happened to the other 110 names? They’re being engaged by the fundraising automation software instead of a person, since they haven’t yet shown the interest or capacity to make a major gift.

Wait, what fundraising automation software?

Remember – this time-saving and money-saving approach requires the use of automation software to keep all your not-quite-ready-for-caseloads-yet donors engaged but not cluttering up your gift officers’ caseloads.

MarketSmart’s software does exactly this – it’s why we exist.

And our system works so well that we offer a 10:1 ROI guarantee to all our new customers.

Yes – you will make ten times as much money for your organization as you spend on our software – we guarantee it.

Interested in learning how it works?

Schedule a Free Demo of MarketSmart’s Engagement Fundraising System


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