Director of Donor Development, CureSearch for Children’s Cancer
Most major gifts officers (MGOs) get into fundraising—at least in part—because they like talking to people about causes they care deeply about. We don’t know of any who chose fundraising because they wanted to track how many conversations they have each month! It’s easy for those of us who have spent a career building relationships to dismiss metrics at first—as something cooked up by higher-ups to turn MGOs and their donors into numbers in an Excel sheet.
However, it’s becoming more and more clear that metrics are not the opposite of relationships. If fact, they are the foundation of relationship-based fundraising: they hold us accountable to spending as much of our time as possible with the donors who sustain our mission. They ensure that, no matter what else comes up, we make the time to connect regularly with donors and get to know them.
In today’s competitive fundraising environment, nonprofit leaders increasingly depend on metrics to keep fundraising programs on track to be healthy and growing. They look to metrics such as:
How many donors are we working with?
How often are we interacting with them?
How often are we meeting with them?
How is all this meaningful interaction translating into opportunities to ask donors for support?
How are those translating into gifts?
How are all of the above trending over time? By team? By donor type? By fundraiser?
As these metrics become essential for fundraising programs, fundraisers are asking: how do they help me in my work? Why should I embrace them?
We spoke with Melisse Skelton, Director of Donor Development at CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, to hear how she uses metrics to make her job as a fundraiser easier and more donor-centric. She shared with us six reasons MGOs should embrace metrics as key to their own success.
1. You’ll sleep better at night.
There is no more motivating—oh okay, and terrifying—number to an MGO than a personal fundraising goal. Fundraisers tell us their (every-increasing) annual goals keep them up at night. Each year, their funds raised total resets at zero and they wonder all over again: how am I going to achieve the goal?
Metrics are your roadmap to your goal. As a fundraiser, you can break down:
#/$ of gifts: How many gifts will I need to reach my goal?
#/$ of asks: Assuming that only 1 in 3+ donors will say yes to my ask, how many asks do I have to make?
# of meaningful interactions: How many conversations do I have to have with a donor to get to know them enough to make an ask? To move from an ask to a gift?
# of visits: How many of those conversations should—ideally—be in person?
By taking the time to ‘do the math’, a fundraiser can come up with a doable set of metrics to aim for every month. As you start doing the outreach you planned, you’ll start seeing the gifts come in. (Plus: You’ll sleep better at night knowing you’re on track!)
Don’t believe us? Ask Melisse. For her, embracing metrics marked a turning point in her career. She realized that metrics provided a framework for measuring progress throughout the year. With her thinking organized, she was able to plan her year and make time for all the activity she needed to do. The first year, Melisse saw a 300% increase year-over-year in the number of gifts closed.
In the following year, she knew her donors better and could project upcoming asks more accurately. Knowing her pipeline and what she needed to do to move relationships forward, she had confidence she could achieve her goal. That left her bandwidth to focus on—and enjoy!—spending time with the donors.
2. Metrics get keep you focused on donors—without missing anyone.
Before adopting a metrics-driven approach, Melisse she said was visiting donors and making asks but felt: “I was doing the right things, but not getting to where I needed to be.”
Now, she sees that by relying on her own memory to steer her toward donors, she was missing engagement opportunities—and even ‘neglecting’ donors for long periods of time.
Eager to increase her meaningful interactions with donors in her portfolio, she became more attentive to her donors. She would look over her portfolio regularly to identify people who needed a little TLC. She’d then think about a personalized touchpoint—a handwritten note, an interesting article, a quick phone call—that she could make to help the donor feel appreciated by the organization.
Her goal: to spark a conversation (by phone, by email, etc.) that connect her with the donor, personally. She’s looks for opportunities to ask questions and get know donors better as people and as philanthropists.
To get started, she might ask: “How do you like to hear from us?” “What areas of our work would you like to stay up-to-date on?” “How do you prefer that I communicate with you?” A simple conversation—but a meaningful interaction.
3. Metrics get you out of the door having important conversations.
Melisse saw that the more she interacted with donors, the more donors said “yes” to spending time with her in person. They knew her and trusted her—and they wanted to talk further with her about the cause they cared about. Therefore, they were willing to make room in their busy schedules.
Melisse has found that setting stretch goals for the number of donor visits per month helps her:
Remember to meet with donors for reasons other than asking them for money. She meets with them to share updates on projects they care about, to introduce them to other members of the team (including leadership, program staff, and volunteers), and to share with them how their gifts are making a difference.
Remember to look ahead on her calendar to make sure she has a number of donor visits lined up for each week. If she doesn’t, she looks through her portfolio to determine who she should meet with next and immediately contacts them to request the visit.
Some fundraisers say metrics keep fundraisers chained to their desks entering information. Melisse has found the opposite: She’s out of the office more and can easily identify who in her portfolio is ready for a continued conversation.
4. The more conversations you have with a donor, the more natural the ask.
Now that she spends more of her workday interacting with donors, Melisse knows the donors in her portfolio on a personal level. As a result, she has seen the quality, timing, and success of her asks improved.
By the time Melisse makes an ask, she has spoken with a donor multiple times and—ideally—has met with the donor at least once without making an ask. She is comfortable with the donor and understands their interests and goals for involvement with her nonprofit. That means, when she makes the ask, she knows she is really serving as a partner to the donor—offering the donor a way to fulfill their philanthropic objectives.
Regular outreach makes her more in tune to donor’s own timing, too. If you know a donor well enough, you know when they prefer to give during the year. You know if a major life event is coming up—and that their focus may be elsewhere for a while as their child gets married, for example. Asking donors at the right time serves both the donor and the MGO. “It’s so much more comfortable and natural when the ask fits into their life,” says Melisse.
It’s no secret that making an ask can be awkward—and that can be scary. But getting to know philanthropists as people, too, can take both the awkwardness and the fear away.
5. It’s not busywork. It’s the job.
MGOs are hired to build relationships with donors, and that’s what metrics hold you accountable to doing. Even if you aren’t tracking the number of interactions, meetings, and solicitations to keep yourself on track to a metrics goal, you should be doing them and recording them.
Melisse points out, as a fundraiser it’s impossible to create a personalized experience for your donor without good notes on when you’ve spoken with them and what you learned.
In addition, as fundraisers, we owe it to the cause, to our team, and to the fundraiser who comes next to enter important details about our interactions with donors into a database or CRM tool. We serve as representatives of the nonprofit, and the information we gather belongs to the organization to use in moving forward the relationship. If we leave our role and have not been tracking, the valuable information and experiences we gathered leave with us—and the next person has to start over.
“If you have an MGO not tracking their interactions and meetings, that’s an issue,” says Melisse.
6. It’s easier than you think.
Most MGOs are already using at least some version of metrics—they’re just using them in the background. It’s easier than you think to use those metrics to put yourself in the driver’s seat of your work.
Maybe you know that you want to have three meetings a week or what your financial goal is for each quarter. Melisse found that it was relatively easy to shift from this information living in a spreadsheet or her head to formalizing those goals and tracking into a clear system. The difference was, she says, that “it went from being done on an ad hoc basis to taking those donor names preemptively doing this work and adjusting as needed—instead of purely reacting to the donors.”
Plus, let’s be honest, there’s almost always a reason to reach out to a donor. New mission news, new projects, new leadership, new events—there’s always something happening. Utilizing a metrics-based system simply allows major gifts officers to see their tasks stack up into results—and to use that information to plan ahead.
Luckily, the actual tracking part is getting easier too. In 2019, there are myriad ways of easily and instantly tracking that data. With a good CRM tool, you can do a lot of the tracking from an app on your phone immediately. Melisse’s tip: “I just enter it in my phone after I leave a meeting.” If the technology in your nonprofit is not as advanced, you can always do it the old-fashioned way: putting the information into an Excel sheet. Really and truly, it does not matter what format you’re using metrics in. It only matters that it is the system that works best for you and your organization.
Overall, spending a little bit of extra time when there are slow times to set metrics goals, put them to work, and capture an extra bit of data will pay off. Putting together plans will help you achieve your goals. You’ll treat your donors better and pave your way to career success.
Melisse Skelton is Director of Donor Development for CureSearch for Children’s Cancer responsible for developing and implementing a strategic plan to raise vital funds in support of CureSearch initiatives and programs. She oversees CureSearch's major gifts, foundations, and annual giving efforts, and works with the Board of Directors and Executive team to engage donors to achieve high levels of philanthropic support. Prior to joining CureSearch, Melisse worked with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as a Director of Donor Development where she served as a major gift fundraiser for the Silicon Valley & Monterey Bay Area Chapter of the organization. She engaged with high-level donors, led a team of development professionals, and provided leadership to staff within the region. In addition to her time at LLS, she worked in campaign development roles at the American Cancer Society and the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. Melisse holds a bachelors degree from the University of California at Davis, and currently resides in Santa Clara, California.
Aperio Philanthropy LLC is a full-service fundraising consulting firm, specializing in relationship-based fundraising. Aperio exists to build the capacity of nonprofits to generate sustainable, growing mission funding. By distilling proven best practices into a clear investment roadmap, Aperio simplifies the path to growth. Aperio’s strategic counsel, turnkey resources, and project management services provide the support needed to move forward on that path—and turn bold visions into reality.