Starting from Scratch: Building 30 Portfolios in 6 Weeks

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By Ashley Mick and Fallon Morris

When we became prospect development analysts, after gaining experience in other roles at the Louisiana State University (LSU) Foundation, we started working with major gift officers who had existing portfolios and several years of experience behind them. Portfolio scrubs had been completed annually, and occasionally we had the opportunity to refresh a portfolio when a major gift officer vacated their position and a new hire was brought on in their place.

But ignorance is bliss, and we realized we’d never built a portfolio from scratch — that is, until the summer of 2020. Our prospect development team was charged with rebuilding portfolios for our vice president of development, five senior directors of development, 14 major gift officers, nine mid-level gift officers and our annual giving program. It’s safe to say no one on our team had ever done that before!

Our New World

In the spring of 2020, the LSU Foundation was experiencing global (you know the kind) and local upheaval. As we all figured out remote work for the first time, we also experienced a reduction in force that brought our staff of 150 down to just over 100. A shift that significant meant several other things needed to happen to ensure a leaner, meaner team could stay on track to our $1.5B campaign goal. We took the following steps:

  • Cohorts were created to join two to five academic units together, to share the efforts of a four- to six-person development team.
  • Under our regional leadership model, each major gift officer represents their cohort’s units in Louisiana and Texas, and represents all of LSU in one assigned travel region.
  • To support LSU’s most immediate needs, especially in student support, all our gift officers need to focus on raising and retaining spendable cash

Our leadership implemented large-scale changes in our structure and operations, and now we needed to build the portfolios that would make these shifts fruitful. We needed to throw out our old methodology that prioritized discovery, qualification and capacity for a new methodology based on proven giving behavior.

Our New Methodology

Previously, we prospected based on an entity’s geo code (a major metro area and surrounding environs), their unit of graduation or highest giving, their capacity rating and their GOLD Score (our in-house affinity score). To make the most actionable assignments possible, we needed to take new pieces of information into consideration.

We shifted to using state-wide or even multi-state travel regions (rather than city-based geo codes), a fundraising unit (defined by a more sophisticated formula that accounts for giving behavior and degree status together) and a new “weighted capacity,” found by assessing capacity rating and GOLD score together. The average cash giving in the last five years was used in making major gift and mid-level assignments, when cash giving had traditionally only been considered for annual giving assignments.

These new criteria (weighted capacity, travel region, predicted unit) were custom fields that didn’t exist in our database. We knew we couldn’t be afraid to do the right thing for our organization just because we didn’t have the right tools, so our analytics team created a massive spreadsheet populated with everyone in our existing database and all of these new data points.

Our New Assignments

To no one’s surprise, 10% of the assignments took 90% of the work. It was easy to take every entity without a current major gift assignment and average giving in the last five years between $1 and $499, and assign them wholesale to our annual giving program. It was also easy to take entities with current major gift assignments and recently accepted, open or planned proposals and recreate their major gift assignments based on predicted unit and travel region.

For another roughly 5,000 entities, the art of prospecting came into play. We emphasized recency and consistency of giving in mid-level portfolios, which are heavily focused on cash retention; we prioritized weighted capacity and larger prior gifts for major gift portfolios. The depth and breadth of a prospect pool in each region or a given unit can vary greatly, so we tried to be flexible in making assignments and not adhere rigidly to the same thresholds across different regions and units.

All told, we created:

  • Almost 2,600 assignments to 20 major gift portfolios, including our senior directors and vice president
  • Almost 2,900 assignments to nine mid-level portfolios
  • Over 47,000 annual giving assignments

Our New Portfolios

Out of the roughly 5,000 prospects that had been shuffled among members of our development team, many were active relationships that gift officers felt attachment toward. And no matter how much we want it to be, the information in our database or a spreadsheet is rarely a comprehensive portrait of a prospect and their holistic relationship with LSU and the LSU Foundation. We knew we couldn’t just distribute the lists we’d made on our own and hand down new portfolios without any insight from our development team.

It was an additional time investment, but we invited input from all our gift officers on the assignments that we suggested moving out of or into their portfolios. They made suggestions around any relationships that needed to stay in their portfolios, or filled us in when our formulas misidentified a prospect’s fundraising unit. Our vice president of development signed off on each transition that was different than we had suggested. Getting our gift officers’ buy-in and making them a part of the process was crucial to the success of their new portfolios.

Our Accomplishments

Our prospect development team is proud of the portfolios we built. A little over a year later, our portfolios average around 90 qualified major gift prospects, with warmer giving than their prior portfolios. With portfolios of fewer than 100 prospects in focused territories, we expect our gift officers to achieve higher pipeline velocity and ultimately help more of our donors realize their philanthropic goals.

This process taught our team three things that we can take with us in our future work:

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