To Keep or Release: That Is the Question

This article is a summary of a project started in 2015 by the team formerly known as Prospect Management & Research Analysis at the University of South Carolina. We organized the initial project in 2015 and continued through 2017 when we both accepted opportunities at other organizations. We hope our project summary will provide guidance on your portfolio review journey.

Let’s set the scene. It was January of 2015, and the University of South Carolina had six months and $67.6 million remaining in “Carolina’s Promise,” the University’s and South Carolina’s first $1 billion capital campaign. At that point in the campaign, the development officers’ focus was to ask for gifts and to close gifts. The prospect management and research analysis team, however, was already looking ahead to July 1 and beyond, when “Carolina’s Promise” would be complete. We wanted to carry out a comprehensive portfolio consultation project.

Our main inspiration for designing a portfolio consultation project was bloated portfolio numbers — 23 percent of the development officers had 43 percent of the primary manager assignments. It was the final months of a capital campaign, and we knew that pipelines would need to be refreshed.

Kicking off With Team Input 

To get started on the right foot for a big project like this, we scheduled a prospect management committee meeting and presented a draft proposal of our idea. The prospect management committee was a group of diverse development staff members who helped guide processes and policies for prospect management and research-related items. They provided valuable feedback on the proposal for the project, including the project’s name. We initially called it a portfolio “review,” but after speaking with the prospect management committee, we changed the word to “consultation” to better reflect the collaborative intent of the project.

Once we agreed on what to call the project, we needed to determine where to start: Whose portfolios should be reviewed first and who could be an advocate for our project?

We scheduled a test consultation meeting with a development officer to see how the discussion might flow and get feedback. The test consultation gave us an idea of how long reviewing the portfolio would take, along with how we should organize the meetings. We received valuable input from the development officer, who said reviewing her portfolio was something she’d always wanted to do, but hadn’t known where to start. The process had always seemed overwhelming to her. Our favorite part of her feedback was her comparison that likened releasing prospects to finally being able to break up with a boyfriend.

Sharing How Portfolios Will Be Reviewed

Another important aspect of getting our project up and running was articulating how each portfolio would be reviewed. We wanted to be transparent about the process so everyone would understand what we were analyzing when we made our recommendations. For each prospect in a development officer’s portfolio, we reviewed:

  • Recency and frequency of giving to USC
  • Total giving to USC
  • Contact notes in the database
  • Velocity of giving
  • Wealth assets
  • Giving likelihood scores
  • Gift capacity ratings
  • Charitable donations
  • Affinity for USC

Once this information was analyzed, the prospect researcher made a recommendation of “Keep,” “Release,” or “Needs Attention.” In the cases where the researcher wasn’t sure what to recommend, they would indicate the prospect “Needs Attention.” These were prospects that needed the development officers’ input on whether the prospect should remain in their portfolio or not.

Timing Is Everything

The timeline was another important consideration. We had to take into account the overall project timeline from a big-picture perspective, and ultimately decided on a six- to seven-month timeframe. This accounted for scheduled staff time off, the team’s day-to-day work, upcoming events and the fiscal year-end schedule.

It was also important to consider how long it would take to review each portfolio, along with how far in advance the completed review document would be sent to the development officer. These were important elements in scheduling each researcher’s review workload and being respectful of the development officer’s time.

One of our expectations for the consultation meeting was that the development officers would review the document beforehand, so that the conversation would be productive and efficient.

Putting a Plan Into Practice

During each consultation with a development officer, we went through the spreadsheet of portfolio recommendations and started with those the researcher recommended to “Keep,” because we felt those were easier to get through quickly. We only discussed those the development officers recommended to “Release.” The majority of each meeting was focused on the “Needs Attention” recommendations; the directors of development helped us fill in the blanks on information we weren’t able to figure out using our database or further research.

After the consultation meeting, the graduate assistant for prospect management made any manager assignments changes that were needed. The researcher who did the review updated the stats summary worksheet, and the development officer’s portfolio was re-run and emailed to them and their supervisor.

Often, there were questions or issues raised during the meeting that required follow up, which we made sure were addressed in a timely manner. For example, the director of development may have heard about a donor’s upcoming wealth event or job or family change that could change their strategy. We would discuss how the course of the strategy could be altered and do further research after the consultation to confirm (or not) the details.

Staying Organized

You may have wondered what we were referring to when we mentioned the “stats summary worksheet.” At the beginning of the project, we quickly realized we had to have a way to keep up with the project: how many prospects we were reviewing, how many were released, etc. This data enabled us to provide timely updates to development leadership about the progress of the project and stay on track. Using Microsoft Excel, our process was low-tech but functional. As each consultation was completed, we would highlight that row (seen below in blue). We soon discovered how motivating it was to see more and more highlighted rows!

The document we used to review the portfolios was also very important. We used the standard portfolio report, so a lot of necessary information was already filled in. The researcher reviewing the portfolios added the “Recommendation,” “Notes” and “Director of Development (DOD) Notes” fields and filled them in as each prospect was reviewed. The “DOD Notes” field allowed the director of development to fill in any thoughts or questions when they reviewed the recommendations prior to the consultation meeting. 

*Not pictured: separate column for DOD Notes

Continuous Improvements to the Process

As we completed more consultations, we made a few tweaks we felt would improve the process and contribute to our overall data integrity. We started including a chart to illustrate how the portfolios were being rebalanced, which also helped visualize how many of our recommendations the development officers agreed with. We also standardized the format of the spreadsheet used to review the portfolios. We wanted the product to be easy to read and understand, and to make sure that each development officer was getting the same quality spreadsheet.

Another important addition we made about halfway through the initial project was to indicate in the prospect’s record that they had been released from the portfolio. This created a lot of manual data entry, but our graduate assistant helped tremendously, and we felt it would provide necessary answers down the road for questions as to why the prospect wasn’t in a portfolio any longer.

A Milestone Achieved

Drumroll, please! In the end, the entire project took seven months. The first review was done in May, and the last in December. During that time, a total of 3,545 constituent records were analyzed, of which 59 percent were kept and 41 percent were released. A lot of prospects that didn’t need to be in portfolios were released.

What We Learned

We learned quite a bit throughout those seven months, and made further changes to improve the process in the subsequent two years. Most importantly, the benefits of our project were recognized division-wide:

  • The project helped move away from the hoarding mindset of a particular development officer or division “owning” prospects (note we didn’t say “solve!”).
  • It helped overcome a false sense of abundance — big portfolios don’t necessarily mean great portfolios!
  • It helped deal with a false sense of scarcity — there are good prospects left, and almost everyone had room in their portfolios for new prospects.
  • It focused and aligned our work across divisions — the project helped foster a climate of accepting new leads and helped us hone in on the divisions with not enough prospects.
  • It helped our deans set and understand appropriate fundraising expectations.
  • Final project data helped to substantiate requests for additional staff.

From the prospect management and research analysis team’s perspective, the benefits we felt were most important included:

  • The opportunity to have valuable dialogue with development officers about prospects
  • Learning more about development officers’ strategies concerning their prospects and donors
  • Updated solicitation outcomes
  • Realigned manager assignments; there were numerous prospects who were transferred from development officer to another because that was what was best for the donor
  • Numerous updates to constituent records: marriages, divorces, job changes, etc.

Not "Just a Cleanup"

Our team’s primary motivation for this project began as cleaning out portfolios — we saw that too many development officers had too many prospects, and to lead a systematic and strategic process of reviewing their portfolios would add to the value we were already providing the Division of Development.

We found that 99 percent of the development officers truly wanted and appreciated this project. We assisted in clearing the tracks for them by helping make the decision to “break up” with a prospect in order to make room in their portfolios for better prospects. By enabling them to manage their existing prospects, we helped them be more open to new prospects, which ultimately leads to more (and larger) gifts.

Acknowledgements and Thank You

We would be remiss not to give a shout-out to those who helped make this project a success. Kristin Richardson (now at Virginia Commonwealth University), Lindsay Rogillio (now at Virginia Commonwealth University), Abigail Mann, Matt Bundrick, Lori Ann Summers and Jancy Houck all gave much needed support and made invaluable contributions to this project. Many thanks to Christopher Resh (UNC General Administration), as well, for his tremendous editing help.


Beth Inman is the national director of prospect management at JDRF based in Charleston, SC. She was formerly the senior director of prospect management and research analysis at the University of South Carolina. Beth is a native of Charlotte, NC, and holds a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a master’s degree in art history from the University of South Carolina.

Vicki O'Brien is the prospect analyst for Best Friends Animal Society headquartered in Kanab, Utah, where she and her colleagues are working to Save Them All by 2025. Previously, Vicki was employed at the University of South Carolina as associate director of prospect research and analysis. She holds her undergraduate degree in political science from Francis Marion University and her graduate degree in public administration from the University of South Carolina. 


Interested in learning more about relationship management? Join your colleagues for unparalleled virtual learning and networking at Plug In to Relationship Management, a virtual event held Nov. 1-2, 2018. Visit the event page here to learn how you can get industry-leading education on the critical topic of Relationship Management, from the convenience of your office or home.

Recent Stories
Apra Connections Chapter Capture — Q2 2022

Prospect Identification as a Tipping Point to Hire for Research

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, C'mon In: Onboarding for Success and Retention