By Alex Fujita Brandhorst and Michelle Zad-Langan, University of Denver
Parents can be a tricky population to work with in fundraising. Time is of the essence in developing relationships with parents, as we typically only have four years to go from “Hello,” to “Thank you for your contribution in honor of Junior’s graduation!”
The cursory nature of this opportunity means that as advancement professionals, we must act quickly to accurately identify the top parent prospects (out of some 2,800 here at the University of Denver (DU)) in every incoming freshman class.
Historically at DU we have approached this undertaking with brute force efforts from our prospect development specialists. However, through the coordinated efforts of the Prospect Development, Gift Administration & Records Management and Business Intelligence teams, we have developed a new, automated system in our constituent relationship management (CRM) system for earmarking top prospects for rapid identification.
In the Before Times
For several years, we have utilized a three-tier system to target top parents capable of making gifts at the leadership annual giving ($1,000-$49,999) and major giving ($50,000+) levels, paying close attention to those who may require high-touch outreach from university leadership. Our Prospect Development and Parent & Family Giving teams collaborated in order to manually review and assign tiers to the incoming class of parents in the early summer. Our decisions were based upon ratings provided by external vendors and pre-discovery level research on all households that met a specific threshold of confirmed assets.
This endeavor meant that the Prospect Development team dedicated almost 100% of its time to parent research during the months of May and June. Other high-priority projects were moved to the back burner. Our first attempt to curb the time spent on parent research was to perform monthly reviews of incoming parents, beginning with early decision in January. We found this approach to be much more manageable, but we still devoted too much of our time to researching parents for tiering, many of whom were not identified as viable prospects.
Leveraging Past Lessons to Improve Processes
For the incoming class of 2024, we decided to develop an automated system to do an initial bucketing of the incoming parents into our established tier system. We deployed our efforts in this manner for several reasons: to create a more rigorous and standardized review process for identifying top tier parents, to preserve our resources in Prospect Development for other high impact projects and to increase the return on investment (ROI) of the time spent researching these parents.
To build this automated tiering process in our CRM, we leveraged our understanding of historic indicators of top prospects at DU. Together with the Parent & Family Giving team, we built a standardized rubric for evaluating new parents rather than depending upon the professional opinion of an individual analyst.
The tiering system we devised was based upon five criteria, weighted in the following order:
1. Confirmed public assets OR rated giving capacity (via our vendors, Blackbaud and DonorScape, respectively): Points assigned range from 25-40, with 40 being the highest possible score. Where multiple ratings exist with varying scores on a single constituent, our system preferentially selects the highest possible score in this area.
Additional points (highest possible = 12 points)
2. High school attended: 5 points. We maintain an internal list of top high schools, which are typically private schools.
3. Previous giving to DU: $100k+ = 5 points; $25k-$99k = 3 points; $10k-$24k = 2 points
4. Wealthy zip codes: 1 point
5. Legacy relationships at DU: 1 point
The highest possible score in this system is 52. Any parent whose automated score is over 40 is assigned to Tier 1. Scores from 35-39 are assigned to Tier 2, and scores 25-34 are Tier 3. All parents with scores 24 and lower were left un-tiered. We still manually review anyone with points in criteria 2-5 and assign a tier if necessary, in case assets are well hidden.
Looking for more articles that will help your organization understand potential prospects? Check out "Discovering New Prospects Using a Social Media-Driven Approach" by Jacob Astley.
Results Are in the Numbers
Once we had consensus on the above criteria, we then turned to validating the rubric we built. Luckily, we had several years of the manual tiering process results to test our new points system against.
In comparing the tiers assigned manually to the 2023 cohort, we found that the tier assignments agreed between the two systems over 90% of the time. All top tier parents were successfully identified using the new automated tiering system, and the new system more accurately identified mid-level prospects in the pool than a reviewer’s eye alone. Thanks to this new system, Prospect Development was able to restrict research efforts to only the top tier parents, and the Parent & Family Giving team qualified the Tier 2 and Tier 3 parents as they normally would with any prospect (sans extensive research).
Using this new tiering system, we were able to reduce the workload of our Prospect Development team and free up their time to continue on high priority projects during the crucial end of fiscal year period. Even though we spent time this year developing and validating this new system, we believe that we still came out on top in the ROI of this project, compared to continuing with our old manual process.
Of course, numbers speak the loudest. For our 2023 cohort, the Prospect Development team researched 350 parents. For Cohort 2024, we researched just under 200, saving ourselves approximately 30-50 hours of research time with approximately 10 hours of labor to create, validate and implement our new auto-tier system.
The best news? Our population of tiered parents within Cohort 2024 remained consistent with those tiered in Cohort 2023. We had 48 Tier 1 parents in Cohort 2024, compared to 42 in Cohort 2023.
In the future, we estimate that maintaining the automatic tiering process in our CRM will take approximately two to five hours per annum, though our 30-50 hours of research-time savings will continue — especially because we will not need to spot check lower-tiered individuals. That’s a trade-off that we at DU are more than happy to make!
This article relates to the Prospect Research domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge.
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