Want to start a fight in a fundraising comment section? That’s easy. Start talking metrics. Opinions are often passionate. And they often conflict. One author explains why 26 metrics are “essential.” Another writes, “Fundraisers need to focus MORE on creating memories and moments with their donors … and LESS about hitting those wacky metrics or year-end goals.”
Another questions, “If philanthropy is all about relationships, then why do metrics only measure money?”
So, what’s the answer? Is it “all about the Benjamins?” Or is it “all about the love?”
Consider for a moment another alternative. What if both sides were correct? They disagree. Strongly. But maybe the problem is this: Maybe they’re talking about different things.
Yes, they’re all talking about fundraising. But fundraising isn’t one thing. It’s different things. It’s different things with different – sometimes opposite – rules.
Fundraising is like a business that sells toothpicks AND aircraft carriers – at the same time. Would you like to buy a new wing for your local hospital? How about a mosquito net? Maybe a chicken or a heifer? Or perhaps endow a world-class engineering school? It’s all fundraising.
Here’s the problem. Even in the business world, small sales and large sales aren’t the same. Small sales are about quick, superficial transactions. Large sales require longer, deeper, more consultative relationships. The field of large sales is called Key or Strategic Account Management. These big-ticket processes are different than traditional small-ticket sales.
One researcher states bluntly, “The objectives of salespeople are the opposite of the objectives of Strategic Account Managers.”
In fact, moving between these two jobs can be difficult. He explains, “Salespeople who remain strictly focused on sales instead of customers (i.e., seeking to close short-term deals or working only to reach their monthly targets or their quota) might show a propensity to fail as future Strategic Account Managers …. If they have a short-term selling approach, then they most likely should not attempt to transition to Strategic Account Management.”
This isn’t just an individual conflict. It can be an organizational conflict. Not all sales organizations can succeed in the world of big-ticket sales. One study looked at why. Failure in big-ticket Strategic Account Management often came from the following:
Now, replace the word “customer” with the word “donor.” Voila! We’ve got the fundraiser metrics fight. Traditional sales isn’t wrong. Strategic Account Management isn’t either. They’re just designed to succeed at two opposite ends of the market.
The “one big thing” in fundraising is always the same: Advance the donor’s hero story. So, let’s talk storytelling. Suppose instead of managing fundraisers, we were managing writers.
First, suppose we’re managing a group of novel writers. Does it make sense to manage their daily work based upon their daily sales? What about weekly? Quarterly? Of course not. That would be silly.
Writing a novel takes a long time. The money comes in much, much later. Yes, we’ll eventually see who sells and who doesn’t. Sales are still important. But they aren’t helpful as a short-term metric to guide behavior.
Now, suppose we’re managing a group of social media “influencers.” They write Twitter posts. Does it make sense to manage their daily work based upon their daily views? Weekly? Quarterly? Yes, that makes perfect sense. We can instantly compare posts that worked with those that didn’t. We can coach, track, celebrate success, and identify failure.
But here’s the problem. The social media manager then shares the best metrics for managing “writers” and their “output.” He puts out rules for managing with daily, weekly, and quarterly data. He describes the most effective “writing.” It’s about making short, extreme, provocative statements. And he’s right.
The manager of novel writers reads this. He responds, “This is nonsense. That’s not what works in writing! You can’t manage writers that way.” And he’s right, too.
Each manager holds opposite views on how to manage writers. And they’re both correct. How? Because “writing” isn’t just one thing. Like “fundraising,” one word describes different things. They’re both right because they’re talking about different things.
I’ve argued for peace and understanding. Now, let me join the fight. In fundraising, the important issue is managing for large gifts. Why?
First, this is true because small gift metrics are easy. Results are quick. If you constantly A-B test, you’ll eventually get there. You probably don’t even need academic theory (or a professor like me). Darwin will figure it out for you.
Second, this is true because small gifts don’t matter that much. Fundraising doesn’t live in an 80/20 world. It’s more like an 80/3 world. An analysis of 3,576 charities found, “76% of gifts come from 3% of donors.” Less than one fourth of the money comes from donations under $5,000. For legacy gifts, it’s even more extreme. Most charitable dollars come from 0.1% of decedents.
So, I’m not going to disagree with small-gift metrics. I’m going to disagree with applying them to large-gift fundraising. I’m not trying to start a fight. I’m just trying answer a different question.
So, what’s the answer? To get there, it’s important to start with two facts:
I’m a data guy. I love numbers. In analysis, more data is better. But in managing people, the opposite can be true. So, the first goal of fundraising metrics isn’t, “Measure everything!”
It’s not even, “Measure all the important things!”
Instead, it’s, “First, do no harm.”
Analytic types – like me – can sometimes miss this danger. How serious is it? Consider this. One study found, “over 42% of fundraisers view their metrics as detrimental at worst or ineffective at best in reflecting important behaviors.”
Retaining good fundraisers is a challenge. Bad metrics can make it harder. Fundraisers dissatisfied with their jobs often cite unrealistic expectations. This is a problem for the bottom line. Fundraisers are expensive to replace. And they usually don’t become highly productive until about their fourth year at a charity.
Using lots of metrics isn’t leadership. It isn’t management. And it can be harmful. One study looked at 24 fundraising/marketing metrics at 210 large charities. Which charities used the most metrics? Those with the greatest “top management demands for accountability” of fundraising. They were also the poorest financial performers.
When metrics reflect a top-down distrust of fundraisers, they don’t help. Even in good organizations, less can be more. One study found, “gift officers that were more focused on fewer metrics … outperformed those professionals with equally weighted or mixed measurement models. In short, focusing on fewer but essential metrics results in increased productivity across a wide range of activities.”
Large sales result from long-term processes. Short-term financial metrics can undercut these. One study examined failed key account management programs. Reasons for failure included the following:
Another study explained simply, “because of the relational nature of their jobs, Strategic Account Managers are not measured using short-term indicators.”
The relationships are not about short-term transactions. They’re about creating long-term value. Other business researchers explain, “This investment in relationships with the company’s most strategic customers will only pay off if … the Key Account manager works with a mindset that allows value creation for both his own employer and the Key Account.”
What about fundraising? One study examined the practices of the highest-growth fundraising organizations. The findings were like those from key account management research in business. These high-growth metrics focused on the long term. They encouraged behaviors that created long-term value for the donor. The researchers explained, “our outstanding leaders aligned their organizational metrics with the longer-term drivers of donor value. There was less concern with metrics such as response rates and immediate return on investment. They focused instead on the standards and behaviors they knew would add value for supporters and thus build donor lifetime value. Their appraisal and reward systems were similarly aligned, to focus team member ambitions on the things that mattered most to longer-term growth.”
A short-term, transactional focus hurts large-ticket sales in business. But it may be even more harmful in fundraising. In anthropology, giving is not based upon the transactional “exchange” economy. Instead, it originates from the relationship-based “gift” economy.
This social/sharing world has different rules. Focusing on short-term or immediate payback violates those rules. Whenever a relationship becomes “strictly contingent” or transactional, giving stops. This is true across human cultures.
One anthropologist writes, “Ethnographers studying people as diverse as foragers (Mauss, ) and Irish smallholders (Arensberg, 1959) have long noted that attempts to [strictly] balance exchanges are tantamount to ending … relationships.”
Short-term, transactional behavior signals the absence of a mutual sharing or helping relationship. This kills generosity. Sadly, in many charities this “signal” is accurate. One study examined charity leadership views of seven fundraising metrics. The least useful for justifying a budget increase from leadership was this: “Predicted improvements in donors’ feelings of satisfaction with or commitment to the organization.”
Most fundraising managers felt this wasn’t even “slightly important” to leadership. The problem wasn’t just failing to add value for donors. The problem was not even trying to do so. This goal wasn’t even there to start with. The charities’ leadership simply didn’t care.
Not caring about the donor’s experience isn’t a numbers problem. It’s not a problem of what we’re measuring. It’s a problem of who we’re being. It’s a story-character problem.
The effective fundraiser delivers real value to donors. She advances the donor’s hero story as the donor’s “guiding-sage.” The universal hero story (monomyth) is an identity-enhancement journey.  In fundraising, this enhanced identity can be private meaning, public reputation, or both. Advancing the donor’s hero story can deliver big value.
If you don’t buy all that story mumbo-jumbo, let me translate. Metrics that lead in the wrong direction don’t help. What’s the right direction? In business, it’s about creating value for the high-capacity customer. In fundraising, it’s about creating value for the high-capacity donor.
In “business” words, the goal is this:
If we’ve got the wrong goal, metrics won’t help. They’ll just get us to the wrong place even faster. But with the right goal, metrics can sometimes help.
There are all types of fundraising metrics. But every charity uses this one: Money raised. It’s an important metric. It can be helpful. But it’s often used wrong. And then, it becomes destructive. This good metric can go bad.
In driving a car, fuel efficiency (miles per gallon [MPG]) is a good metric. If it drops unexpectedly, something is wrong. It might be your spark plugs, motor oil, fuel, fuel injector, air filter, or tire pressure. It might be the way you’re driving.
Suppose your job is driving a car. In the back seat is your manager. The car displays instantaneous MPG. You go up a hill. MPG drops. The manager complains. You go down a hill. The manager is elated. You accelerate for an on ramp. The manager screams, “Look at these numbers! This is awful!” You hit snow or rugged terrain. The manager threatens your job.
How soon would this get frustrating? Yes, a driver can influence this metric, but only a little. Mostly it’s controlled by the environment. Managing people based on metrics they can’t control is a recipe for frustration.
The problem isn’t the metric. The problem is the way it’s being used. Tracking money raised is similar. It’s good as a long-term diagnostic. It can act as a “warning” light. But it’s bad as a short-term “dashboard” metric to drive with.
Any new driver can show good short-term results in MPG. Just coast. Until the car stops, MPG will be great! But that’s not good – or sustainable – driving behavior.
Any new fundraiser can show good short-term results in money raised. Ask early! Ask often! Don’t ask too big! Just get to the “Yes,” right now! This quarter will look good. But this “coasts” on previous relationship building. It’s not good – or sustainable – fundraising behavior.
So, what are the alternatives? First, focus on the long term. If you want to focus on money, fine. But focus on lifetime donor value, not just next quarter.
I once received a call from a newly hired legacy giving manager at a major health-related charity. He was trying to figure out why their estate gift income had been dropping for nearly a decade. It had fallen consistently, losing tens of millions of dollars year-over-year.
He thought maybe it was demographics. No, I assured him, that wasn’t the problem. Then he thought perhaps it was competition. No, I argued, most people have never heard of your competition.
Finally, he recalled another change. About eight years before, a new development director had arrived. The immediate return-on-investment (ROI) analytics showed mailing to older donors wasn’t paying off. So, they quit mailing. The next quarter probably looked good. But the short-term metrics crushed their long-term results. Using lifetime donor value could have prevented this disaster.
Second, consider an alternate approach. Focus on fundraiser actions. The fundraiser can better control these. One study examined 270 university fundraisers. It found that, “Major Gift Officers with solicitation goals, rather than dollar goals, have better activity with prospects and hit dollar goals anyway.”
Metrics can help. They can encourage doing the hard stuff. In any job, some tasks are easy or urgent, but not that important. Others are important, but they’re hard and not urgent. Metrics, when focused on the hard stuff, can help. They can nudge behavior in the right direction.
What works in managing business sales? One study took an in-depth look. They answer with this: “When asked to describe specific sales leader behaviors that best enable salesperson performance, sales professionals – both sales leaders and salespeople – overwhelmingly referenced coaching …”
My daughters ran cross-country in high school. Once, the coach brought his four-year old son to practice. Wanting to help, the boy yelled, “Run faster!” It was cute. But it wasn’t coaching. Yelling, “Sell more!” or “Raise more money!” is just as unhelpful.
In coaching, metrics can be a useful tool. They can help the coach diagnose areas for investigation. This can lead to improvements. These come from training, shadowing, guiding, and practice.
The highest growth fundraising charities did use metrics. They measured outcomes. But they used these metrics in a special way. A bad number wasn’t a tragedy. It was an opportunity for learning. The researchers found, “Failure was redefined as the failure to learn from experience if something did not work out as anticipated, rather than the failure of a particular strategy or individual per se … The achievement of this organizational learning culture seemed to us to be absolutely critical in delivering outstanding fundraising.”
Metrics don’t have to be a top-down tool for punishment. They can even be a bottom-up tool for learning. The most powerful metrics can be those the fundraisers themselves choose, revise, and recommend to leadership. Metrics can be part of an empowered, participatory, learning culture.
Can metrics help? Yes. A little. Metrics can encourage the right behavior. They can serve as a “check-engine” light. But every metric can be gamed. Every one. Pick your favorite.
Do you like “money raised?” Gifts are lumpy. Getting a big one means you should stop asking until the next reporting period. A great year means you should change jobs. Who wants to compete against that baseline? The real secret to success? It’s “owning” the right donors. Get assigned to the right list and get territorial! Hard selling donors is bad long-term. But it sure makes the numbers look good right now!
Maybe you prefer “number of asks?” Just asking a lot is quick. Doing it well requires a longer process.
What about “number (or share) of gifts closed?” Make sure to ask small! Easy asks hit those numbers best.
What about “number of donor visits?” Just go see the old favorites every month. And make it short! Five minutes or a full afternoon counts the same.
What about “significant contacts?” Just focus on whatever is quickest. A letter? E-mail? Phone call? Just do lots of the easiest thing. Skip the hard parts.
The point of all this isn’t that metrics are bad. They can help. We’ll look at some great ones next. But metrics help only a little.
If we’ve got the wrong people, metrics won’t fix it. One study of salespeople found this: “only 6% of salespeople without the personality traits fitting that trade will perform above average by working hard to compensate for their lack of personality “fit.” Emotional intelligence and interrelated features (e.g., competitive intelligence and empathic listening) represent the first pillar of those natural abilities, and the higher the level of emotional intelligence (EI), the better the salesperson will perform … salespeople who do not score highly on EI have little chance of becoming successful Strategic Account Managers.”
The same is true in fundraising. Dr. Beth Breeze studied key personal skills in fundraising. The most important included the following:
Getting the right people “on the bus” matters. The highest-growth fundraising charities showed a common pattern: High fundraiser turnover at the beginning. Low fundraiser turnover later. The researchers described high initial turnover. They explained, “In most of our cases, the teams were substantively overhauled. Our interviewees reflected that the people who left or were asked to leave were usually either not up to the task or, critically, did not demonstrate the level of passion and commitment necessary for the new fundraising approach.”
But keeping the right people was just as important. They explained, “None of the organizations we interviewed, after the right team had been built, suffered from the high turnover rates that otherwise pervade the fundraising sector.”
The secret to success isn’t just about metrics. Metrics might get a fundraiser her next job. But they won’t keep her in this one. Metrics aren’t purpose, cause, or inspiration. They’re not coaching, identity, autonomy, or personal growth. Metrics can help. But only a little.
 DonorSearch. (2015, October 13). Nonprofit fundraising metrics: 26 essential KPIs to track. [Website]. DonorSearch
 Provenzano, S. (2021, February). [LinkedIn post]. https://www.linkedin.com/posts/samprovenzano_fundraising-repost-philanthropy-activity-6767134914912538624-zLy1
 Hodge, J. (2012). If philanthropy is all about relationships, then why do metrics only measure money? [Paper presentation]. https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/handle/1805/6058
 See Rackham, N. (1988). SPIN selling. McGraw-Hill. See also, Lacoste, S. (2018). From selling to managing strategic customers – a competency analysis. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 38(1), 92-122. (“… consultative-selling skills (‘offering their advice to help customers solve their problems,’ according to Agnihotri, Rapp and Trainor (2009, 474)) should be considered a prerequisite for creativity and intrapreneurial abilities, defined as “involving the sales professional as a valued advisor and viewing him as an industry expert” by Liu and Leach (2001, 147) … Thus, salespeople with advanced consultative selling skills might consider moving to a Strategic Account Management position.”)
 Lacoste, S. (2018). From selling to managing strategic customers-a competency analysis. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 38(1), 92-122.
 Wilson, K., & Woodburn, D. (2014). The impact of organisational context on the failure of key and strategic account management programmes. Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, 29(5), 353-363.
 The parallels go further. Much of what works in major donor fundraising is replicated in best practices in Key/Strategic Account Management. For example, one study defined successful Strategic Account Management programs using the following scale. (Replace “strategic accounts” with “major donors” and these are also ideal practices for major gifts fundraising success.)
“1. We always review the results of our solution with strategic accounts.
2. When we lose a strategic account, we always know the reasons why.
3. We jointly set long-term objectives with our strategic accounts.
4. We have relationships and dialog at the highest executive levels with all our strategic accounts.
5. We regularly engage our strategic accounts in our product/service planning process.
6. Our salespeople are definitely effective at producing year-over-year revenue growth from existing customers.
7. Specific criteria have been established to define a strategic account in our company.”
Sullivan, U. Y., Peterson, R. M., & Krishnan, V. (2012). Value creation and firm sales performance: The mediating roles of strategic account management and relationship perception. Industrial Marketing Management, 41(1), 166-173. p. 172.
 Levis, Bill (February 5, 2015). The 80/20 Rule is alive and well in fundraising. Association of Fundraising Professionals. http://afpfep.org/blog/8020-rule-alive-well-fundraising/
 Amperage Fundraising. (n.d.). The new 80/20 rule for fundraising. (referencing Fundraising Effectiveness Project Data). https://www.amperagefundraising.com/new-80-20-rule-fundraising/
 “in 2017, when only 2,902 estates with charitable transfers filed estate tax returns, these estates still produced the majority (59%) of all bequest dollars transferred to charity in the country.” James, R. N., III. (2020). American charitable bequest transfers across the centuries: Empirical findings and implications for policy and practice. Estate Planning & Community Property Law Journal, 12, 235-285. p. 250. Also see, a total of 2,813,503 decedents in 2017 at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db328-h.pdf
 Megli, C. D., Barber, A. P. & Hunte, J. L. (2014, December). Optimizing fundraiser performance. Bentz, Whaley, Flessner. http://www.bwf.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/December2014.pdf
 “Fundraisers who jump around hurt their careers and limit their potential to raise money (production jumps at 3.4 to 4 years of tenure, according to BWF data).” Megli, C. D. (2016, January 1). Outlook: Producing high performers. CASE. https://www.case.org/resources/outlook-producing-high-performers
 Bennett, R. (2007). The use of marketing metrics by British fundraising charities: A survey of current practice. Journal of Marketing Management, 23(9-10), 959-989.
 Which charities in the study were most likely to have sound financial performance? Those that had actually invested the most in fundraising/marketing. See, Id.
 Grabau, T. W. (2010, July). Major gift metrics that matter. Bentz, Whaley, Flessner. https://www.bwf.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/00090978.pdf
 Wilson, K., & Woodburn, D. (2014). The impact of organisational context on the failure of key and strategic account management programmes. Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, 29(5), 353-363.
 Lacoste, S. (2018). From selling to managing strategic customers – a competency analysis. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 38(1), 92-122.
 Peters, L., Ivens, B. S., & Pardo, C. (2020). Identification as a challenge in key account management: Conceptual foundations and a qualitative study. Industrial Marketing Management, 90, 300-313.
 Sargeant, A., & Shang, J. (2016). Outstanding fundraising practice: How do nonprofits substantively increase their income? International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 21(1), 43-56, 49.
 For the original formulation of this idea, see Mauss, M. (1923). Essai sur le don forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques. L’Année Sociologique, 30-186. (A recent English translation is Mauss, M. (2002). The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge.)
 Hames, R. (2017). Reciprocal altruism in Yanomamö food exchange. In L. Cronk, N. Chagnon, & W. Irons (Eds.), Adaptation and human behavior: An anthropological perspective (pp. 397-416). Routledge. p. 411.
Citing to Arensberg, C. M. (1959). The Irish countryman: An anthropological study. P. Smith; Mauss, M. (1967). Essai sure le don. The gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. Norton. (A translation of the 1923 essay).
 Bennett, R. (2007). The use of marketing metrics by British fundraising charities: a survey of current practice. Journal of Marketing Management, 23(9-10), 959-989.
 It appears that charities care less about donors than businesses care about customers. This study noted, “A conspicuous difference between the findings of the present study and those of at least one investigation completed in the business sector … is that metrics concerning market share and (donor) loyalty, retention and satisfaction were rarely presented to top management [at charities].” Bennett, R. (2007). The use of marketing metrics by British fundraising charities: a survey of current practice. Journal of Marketing Management, 23(9-10), 959-989. p. 980.
 This universal story, called the monomyth, includes specific steps. At the end, the main character returns as an honored and victorious hero bringing a boon to the original world. In the story, the hero,
1. Begins in the ordinary world
2. Is faced with a challenge (the call to adventure)
3. Rejects then accepts the call and enters the new world
4. Undergoes ordeals and overcomes an enemy
5. Gains a reward or transformation
6. Returns to the place of beginning with a gift to improve that world
This hero story progresses through
Original Identity  → Challenge [2, 3, 4] → Victory [4, 5] → Enhanced Identity [5, 6]
 Birkholz, J. & Hunte, J. (2014, October 30). The secrets of high-performing, long-tenured gift officers. [PowerPoint slides]. Bentz Whaley Flessner https://store.case.org/PersonifyEbusiness/Store/Product-Details/productId/165848717
 Peesker, K. M., Ryals, L. J., Rich, G. A., & Boehnke, S. E. (2019). A qualitative study of leader behaviors perceived to enable salesperson performance. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 39(4), 319-333.
 Sargeant, A., & Shang, J. (2016). Outstanding fundraising practice: How do nonprofits substantively increase their income? International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 21(1), 43-56, 51.
 EAB. (n.d.). What are the right metrics to measure major gift officer performance? [Website]. https://eab.com/insights/expert-insight/advancement/what-are-the-right-metrics-to-measure-mgo-performance/
 Lacoste, S. (2018). From selling to managing strategic customers-a competency analysis. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 38(1), 92-122, p. 110.
 Pudelek, J. (2014, July 10). Eleven characteristics of successful fundraisers revealed at IoF National Convention. Civil Society. https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news/eleven-characteristics-of-successful-fundraisers-revealed-at-iof-national-convention.html
 Sargeant, A., & Shang, J. (2016). Outstanding fundraising practice: How do nonprofits substantively increase their income? International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 21(1), 43-56.
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