Why Organizations That Institute the Greatest Demands for Accountability Perform So Poorly

For the most part, everyone agrees that metrics are good. Accountability is good – even for major gift officers. Generally speaking, measuring what you do improves performance and results.

But here’s the rub when it comes to fundraising metrics – it matters very much which accountability metrics you use. Use the wrong ones, and your fundraising revenue will start trending the other way.

One study looked at 24 different accountability metrics used by 210 large charities. Most of these metrics were the ones you use to monitor small dollar donations. The study found that using small-dollar metrics to hold major gifts fundraisers accountable hurt these charities – A LOT!

In other words, the organizations that instituted the greatest demands for accountability were also the poorest performers.

Think about that – more accountability caused worse performance!

But don’t miss the point – this isn’t because accountability is inherently bad for major gifts fundraising. It’s because you need to use a different set of metrics.

Here are five reasons the wrong fundraising accountability metrics cause more problems than they solve for major gifts fundraising.

1. Inflicts Unrealistic Expectations

Using the wrong metrics results in gift officers trying to meet impossible standards, or standards that don’t make any sense.

For instance, suppose a gift officer is expected to raise $25,000 per month. Six months go by, and they haven’t “raised” anything. But then, in month seven, they win a $250,000 gift. For those previous six months, their administrators are frustrated, putting pressure on them, trying to figure out “what isn’t working.” But then, when the big gift comes in, do they allocate that as an average over the last seven months and consider the gift officer as meeting their metrics? Or, is each month taken in isolation?

In general, financial metrics like this hurt more than help, because major gifts fundraising doesn’t work on an assembly line. This is about relationships. Many gifts don’t come in until over a year after the gift officer makes outreach to the donor. Sometimes over two years. For planned gifts, it’s often even longer.

Many accountability metrics feel arbitrary and artificial to gift officers. They find themselves altering their approach just to live up to metrics that are really just distracting them from the more productive and rewarding tasks they should be doing.

2. Unrealistic Expectations Increase Turnover

The above example is just one. Remember – the study looked at 24 metrics like these. And again, those fundraising accountability metrics do work for small-dollar fundraising strategies. If you’re mailing with print twice a month and with email six times per month, you can measure engagement, results, ROI, response rates, and so much more.

But with major gifts fundraising, this sort of accountability suffocates the gift officer, and eventually, they quit. This is one of the major reasons why turnover is so high in this profession.

Forcing the gift officer to focus on all the wrong things distracts them, robs them of their time and energy, and puts pressure on them to do things that aren’t what the job is about.

3. Turnover Increases Costs

Repeated gift officer turnover is disastrous for nonprofit organizations, for several reasons.

One reason is higher costs. It costs money to hire people. You have to recruit them, place ads, do multiple rounds of interviews, onboard them, get them plugged-in to your system, start HR, give them an office if they’re not working remotely, and all the other tasks that come with new hires.

All this takes time and resources that could have been used for other needs if the original gift officer had never left. It’s a detriment across the board.

Beyond the direct costs of hiring, there is also all the lost revenue from the previous gift officer’s donors and prospects not getting any attention while their position goes unfilled.

4. Turnover Removes Institutional Knowledge

Turnover also weakens the entire institution, especially if the person who left commanded a deep understanding of your history, value proposition, programs, stories, connections with other stakeholders and prior donors, and more.

That kind of intangible asset is very hard to replace. The sudden loss of expertise hurts everyone – staff, donors, leadership, and new gift officers.

5. Turnover Diminishes Donor Trust

And, donors feel the pinch from turnover more than almost anyone, because that gift officer was the person they were used to interacting with. Now, suddenly, they have to get to know a whole new person. Trust reverts to near zero, and has to be rebuilt.

This delays gifts, reduces their size, or both. And that delay causes a ripple effect.

Imagine one donor who would have made a gift in a couple months, while they were working with the previous gift officer. Now, they delay, and don’t give until six months later, after the new gift officer has to labor to reassure them their donation will still have the same impact that matters to them.

That’s great – you got the gift. But it required an extra four months, which means you didn’t get to use as much time in those four months engaging with other donors. The whole system slows down when trust is broken and has to be rebuilt.

What Metrics Should We Use for Major Gifts Fundraising Accountability?

Okay – so you get the problem. Use the wrong metrics, and everyone loses – staff, donors, beneficiaries, gift officers, admin – everyone.

But you still need to know how your gift officers are doing, right? Yes! You just need to use a different set of metrics that is appropriate for the work they do.

In our signature eCourse, Donor Story: Epic Fundraising, based on the lifetime of research from Dr. Russell James, you can discover over a dozen effective major gifts fundraising metrics. Here is a partial list:

1. Donor Ranking of Your Organization

How do potential donors perceive your organization compared to others they support? This is a huge factor in relation to the size of a potential major gift.

Imagine a donor who supports five organizations, and you’re one of them. But you don’t know that, so you presume they are all in for yours. But it turns out, had you asked, you would have learned they rank yours third out of the five. That means, in terms of major gifts, you have two organizations ahead of you who will have more sway in winning a gift from this donor.

Now, suppose you have another donor in the same situation, but they rank your organization at the top.

You can see why this is a helpful metric, because the donors who rank your organization at the top of their list are more likely to one day make major gifts. How many donors in each gift officer’s caseload fit this description? This is something you need to know. It’s a metric that makes sense for what a gift officer does.

2. Place in Consideration Continuum

You need a way to track the progress of all your supporters and donors.

Some are in the identification and pre-qualification stages. Others have been added to a caseload and are being cultivated. Others have donated once, and are in the stewardship phase for future gifts or planned giving.

You need to know where each donor is in their consideration continuum, for each gift officer.


3. Engagement Level

Are you monitoring engagement for each supporter? This tells you how receptive they have been to your communications, and indicates how open they will be to future outreach efforts.

You can measure engagement with clicks on emails, surveys filled out, requests for special offers like reports, videos, and information about a campaign or a need, events attended, hours volunteered, and things of this sort.

MarketSmart’s Engagement Fundraising automation reports this metric automatically, so no one on your team has to do anything to generate it. You can see each supporter’s rating right in your dashboard, so you know which supporters are the most responsive and engaged, and to what degree.

4. Value Delivered

How many valuable offers have you actually delivered to the prospects on your caseload? In other words, you might be offering them various opportunities, but how many are they taking you up on?

This metric reveals a donor’s responsiveness to individual outreach. And you can do this with fundraising automation, as well as with personalized outreach such as phone calls, texts, and in-person visits.

Donors who accept your offers are more likely to want to get involved in the future, including through major gifts.

5. Self-Reported Likelihood of Meaningful Gifts of Assets

With donor surveys, you can find out from donors if they have gifts of assets they are willing to donate. One metric could be, who has gifts of assets? A more valuable metric is, who has reported that they are likely to donate all or part of those assets?

6. Roadmaps Leading to Proposals/Solicitations

The best approach to major gifts fundraising is to create individualized roadmaps for how you will support each donor as they navigate their consideration process. Make it personal, unique to their life story, emotionally resonant, appropriate for their financial situation and stage of life, and an approach that aligns with their stated interests and goals.

Create these with your supporters’ input. Modify them as they request revisions. Then you’ll both be accountable to the plans.

A gift officer should be working on plans for each donor who has been opted-in to their caseload. You can measure this. How many plans have you created? How many are you working on? How many are you in the midst of implementing?

Like This? There’s a Whole Lot More in Donor Story: Epic Fundraising

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much you can learn about rethinking your approach to major gift fundraising.

At the heart of it all is helping the donor know and advance their personal hero story. This drives their need to give, their willingness to engage, and their interest in meeting with you.

When you and your staff take our eCourse, which is based on the teachings and research of Dr. Russell James, you will raise your game up higher than it’s ever been.

Your interactions with donors will increase in quality and depth, resulting in bigger gifts, and more gifts.

See when the eCourse opens up next


Related Resources:


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Get smarter with the SmartIdeas blog

Subscribe to our blog today and get actionable fundraising ideas delivered straight to your inbox!