About a year and a half ago, Penn State Dean Danielle Conway invited to be a contributing author to Incorporating Antiracist Principles in Alumni Affairs and Advancement (Volume 8) of the book series created by the Antiracist Development Institute’s (ADI). The book series is entitled “Building an Antiracist Law School, Legal Academy, and Legal Profession,” will consist of eight volumes, and will be published by the University of California Press.

“More than 100 colleagues from the legal academy, legal profession, and adjacent organizations are contributing to the book series as chapter contributors, editors, content reviewers, and workshop facilitators, representing 55 institutions across the country.” https://dickinsonlaw.psu.edu/adi-book-series.  

I agreed to write the chapter on Antiracist Metrics for Alumni Engagement, Fundraising, and Communications. In so doing, I started by trying to make myself more knowledgeable about the existing engagement and fundraising metrics. That effort led me both to author the blog post below and the two that will follow over the next few weeks, which I have permission to publish here from the ADI, and to author the chapter, which is now proceeding towards a second draft.

I thank Dean Conway for the opportunity to grow my knowledge of antiracism, alumni relations, fundraising, and communications and think through the intersections among the four from a design thinking lens.

Because the possibilities are so much more extensive than I had imagined, this posting is, by far, my longest blog post ever. In fact, I have divided the information into three posts: (1) Introduction to Advancement Metrics and Fundraising Metrics, and (2) Alumni Engagement Metrics, and (3) Communications Metrics. This post provides an Introduction to Advancement Metrics and then identifies the full range of Fundraising Metrics.

Introduction to Advancement Metrics

Few deans come to the job with extensive expertise regarding advancement, and almost none know more than the most rudimentary metrics, e.g., dollars raised, proposals made, and percentage of alumni donors. Candidly, when I started as a dean, those were the three metrics I knew, and I could not even explain the intended meanings of common terms in the field, such as advancement, development, engagement, and fundraising.  This blog post and the two that will follow are intended to serve as a resource for law school deans and their advancement offices.

Advancement office metrics align with the three categories common to law school advancement office work: fundraising, alumni relations, and communications. The inclusion of these three topics in this blog post is not meant to suggest that all law schools house all three functions in a single advancement department.[1] 

Fundraising metrics

Fundraising metrics are, to a degree, in a state of flux. Higher education advancement offices are moving from focusing exclusively on what might be called counting metrics, e.g., dollars raised, percentage of alumni who give, prospective donor visits, etc., to more nuanced measures such as return on investment, percentage of prospects contacted, number of active prospects in portfolio, and percentage of what are called “unique visits.[2]” There is no standardization in metrics used in higher education so the metrics identified and explained below are intended to be illustrative and neither exhaustive nor prescriptive.

Metrics for law schools typically are set by a university advancement vice president or president and may be set at a unit level (e.g., a university goal and a law school goal) or at a gift officer level or both.

Commitment Goals. This metric measures the sum of immediate gifts, pledges via pledge agreements, and bequests, i.e., the institution being named in a will or trust as a recipient of either a percentage of the estate or trust or a specified amount. The specific target factors in needs of the institution, capacity of the donor pool, recent results, and pool development, i.e., where in the fundraising process prospects are.

Cash Received Goals. This metric captures both immediate gifts, transfers of funds by a donor made at the time of committing to the gift, and performance of pledges, transfers of funds by a donor in performance of a previously-made pledge. Targets are set using the same factors as commitments, except that, as one might expect, pledges that are still being performed are a critical factor in setting these goals.

Major Gift Goals.  Major gifts are the largest donations an institution receives and are set at a specific giving level by the institutions. Higher education institutions vary greatly in how they define major gifts, but, for many law schools, that number is either $25,000 or $50,000 but may be as high as $100,000 or more.  Major gifts are so important because 80%-90% of funds donated come from 10-15% of the donors; consequently, major gift goals are set in relation to the institution’s overall commitment goal and, of course, donor pool.

Annual Giving Goals.  Annual giving refers to the results of organized efforts (often letters or emails) designed to secure gifts on a yearly basis to support, at least in part, the general operations of an institution. Annual giving also captures gifts made in response to a “Day of Giving” or the like. Annual giving is the other side of the coin from major gifts and refers to the gifts made by the donors who make smaller donations either to specific existing funds (e.g., a scholarship) or to an undesignated fund. Goals typically assume at least a small increase from the prior year’s results.

Percentage of Alumni Giving Goals.  The alumni giving percentage is calculated by dividing the number of alumni who give by the total number of living alumni. This metric often has prominence in advancement office reporting, in large part because U.S. News rankings of colleges and universities include this metric as a factor in those rankings.[3] (The U.S. News ranking of law schools does not include this metric as a factor.[4])

According to U.S. News, for colleges and universities, “[T]he average alumni giving rate during the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic years was 8%,” but the 10 colleges with the highest rates saw “alumni giving rates of 44% and higher.”[5] Because U.S. News does not weigh alumni giving in law school rankings, comparative data is not readily available. What is clear is the percentage of alumni giving continues to be a fairly universal metric for evaluating fundraising departments, and goals are typically set to increase or at least maintain the previous year’s percentage.

Goals for Visits, Donors Qualified, Yield Rate, Conversion Rate, and Unique Visits.  In most institutions, gift officers are assigned a portfolio of prospects that includes alumni who may have a wide range of giving histories, including some who have never given to the law school and some who are regular donors. It is generally understood that donors typically do not make gifts they regard as financially significant absent some personal interaction, a visit, with a gift officer and/or the dean. Consequently, visits to a significant number of donors in the gift officer’s portfolio are an important predeterminate of successful fundraising, and many institutions have made visits a metric.  If, during a visit, a gift officer determines that an inactive donor has the capacity and propensity to give such that further efforts by the institution are warranted, the officer qualifies the donor. 

Some institutions have moved away from visit goals because of the risk of an unintended consequence—a gift officer could make a large number of visits that are speedy and mostly meaningless to manipulate the officer’s results. If an institution does set visitation goals, those goals tend to be between 121 and 150 visits per year. 

Qualification goals are set based on historical institutional data as a percentage of expected visits.  Ideally, according to studies of successful fundraisers, only about 15% of a gift officer’s portfolio should include potential donors who need to be qualified.[6]

Yield rate is a measure of the success of donor interactions, i.e., the percentage of money asked for that is realized in gift commitments.  In other words, if a gift officer were to make asks totaling $10,00,000 over the course of a year, and the gift officer were to secure $5,000,000 in commitments, the officer’s yield rate would be 50%. Depending on the quality of information available and of prior qualification work, a yield rate of 50-75% is considered good.

The closely rated conversion rate measures success in terms of the percentage of solicited donors who give, in other words, the number of solicited donors who give divided by the number of solicited donors. This metric carries with it a significant risk of manipulation; a gift officer could successfully convince a higher percentage of donors to give by asking for only small gifts. Nevertheless, some institutions set conversion rate goals, figuring that working with gift officers to set the amount of asks can minimize the risk of manipulation.

Unique visits are calculated by dividing the number of prospects visited by the number of visits made. Implicit here is that, in any given year, some donors will be visited multiple times, especially as the law school gets close to closing a gift. The ideal and therefore the typical target goal, based on studies of what works to grow fundraising success, seems to be about 50% unique visits.[7]

Major Gift Solicitations Made.  This metric reflects the essential role major donors play in commitment outcomes and seeks to increase the likelihood that a gift officer focuses on securing major gifts. The university sets a target number of major gift asks. While there is some possibility that a gift officer might try to manipulate the data by making major gift asks of a large number of donors, if the university also uses yield rate, the risk is minimal. Targets depend on the number of potential major gift donors in the gift officer’s portfolio and those potential donors’ readiness for a major gift ask.

All Gift Solicitations Made.  This simple counting metric measures the total number of solicitations made by a gift officer. Goals are set based on standards at the institution and the size and nature of the officer’s portfolio. Solicitation goals between 25-30 per year are consistent with the number of annual solicitations of the most successful fundraisers.[8]

New Donors and Donor Retention Rate.  These two metrics focus on numbers of donors rather than quality of donations. New donors measures first-time donors, and donor retention rate measures the percentage of the donor pool that continues to give gifts or continues to perform pre-existing pledges. Together, new donors and retained donors equal total donors. As gift officer performance metrics, these metrics conflict with a general trend in philanthropy— total giving has increased on a per donor basis and overall, but the total number of donors has decreased.  Thus, setting goals that contemplate increases in these metrics may not be rational.

Event Conversion Rate. Institutions often seek to assess the degree to which events are an effective way to inspire alumni giving. This metric allows the institution to quantify that assessment. It is the percentage of alumni who attend an event (a reunion or a regional alumni event) who later chose to donate and therefore is calculated as the number of attendees who donated after attending the event divided by the total number of attendees and then multiplying by 100 to get a percentage.

Return on Investment and Cost Per Dollars Raised.  As you will see, these two metrics examine the success of a fundraising enterprise from opposite lenses. Return on investment is calculated by dividing revenue by expenses resulting in a measure of the fundraising benefits of each dollar spent. If the result is greater than 1, it means the fundraising enterprise made a profit; if the result is less than 1, the enterprise lost money.  Cost per dollars raised is calculated by reversing the numerator and denominator, i.e., dividing expenses by the revenue. If expenses exceed the revenue produced, the result will be a number greater than 1, indicating that the enterprise spent more money than it brought in. If the result is less than 1, the enterprise earned more revenue than it spent and therefore was profitable.  It would be unusual (and redundant) for an enterprise to use both metrics.

Campaign Metrics. The term “campaign” refers to fundraising that occurs over specified time frame and focuses on a specific, predetermined goal. Such goals may be a dollar target not tied to a particular project or initiative, e.g., in five years, raise $10,000,000 for the law school, or a dollar target tied to a specific strategic initiative, i.e., in five years, raise $40,000,000 to build a new building for the law school.

Obviously, the measure of success of all campaigns is the achievement of the dollar target.  However, nearly all of the other metrics explained above can be tied to a campaign, e.g., Return on Investment with respect to the Campaign, Campaign Gift and Major Gift Solicitations Made, Percentage of Alumni Giving to the Campaign, etc.

[1] In fact, law schools vary greatly in terms of where these functions are housed. In some law schools, communications operates as an independent department because law schools’ marketing and communications needs also include student recruitment and yield and current student communications. In other law schools, a university marketing and communications department handles all communications, alumni and otherwise.  For other law schools, a university advancement office handles all these functions with dotted-line reporting to the law school’s dean. Finally, for other law schools, alumni relations is housed exclusively in a university advancement office.

[2] Unique visits are calculated by dividing the number of prospects visited by the number of visits made.  Eduventures, Gift Officer Productivity: Defining New Metrics (Summary Overview for CASE) (2013).

[3] Robert Morse and Erin Brooks, A More Detailed Look at the Ranking Factors: Find out which data is used in our undergraduate rankings and what has changed, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/ranking-criteria-and-weights, (September 11, 2020).

[4] Robert Morse, Kenneth Hines, Eric Brooks, and Daniel Lara-Agudelo, Methodology: 2023 Best Law Schools Rankings: Find out how U.S. News ranks law schools, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/articles/law-schools-methodology (March 28, 2022).

[5] Josh Moody, 10 Colleges Where the Most Alumni Donate, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/universities-where-the-most-alumni-donate (U.S. News).

[6] See Eduventures, Gift Officer Productivity, note 2 above, p. 13.

[7] See Eduventures, Gift Officer Productivity, note 2 above, p. 8-9.

[8] See Eduventures, Gift Officer Productivity, note 2 above, p. 13.