Voyage of Discovery: Introducing a Discovery Metric at the University of Toronto

By Devika Ramcharan, Director, Prospect Management, Division of University Advancement, University of Toronto

With the wrap-up of its successful Boundless campaign, the University of Toronto’s (U of T’s) Division of University Advancement embarked on a journey to expand the university’s major gift prospect pipeline while addressing some common questions. Despite the overall success of the campaign in meeting its financial goals, questions remained around how the university would be able achieve the following:

  • Encourage cold calling on unengaged prospects
  • Encourage fundraisers to engage a large pool of unassigned high-net-worth alumni and potential prospects
  • Recognize the fundraiser time and effort spent on securing and conducting qualification visits
  • Ensure fundraisers provided feedback and updates on recommended prospects

This article will take a closer look at the steps taken to introduce a discovery metric the first new metric introduced at U of T in over five years — and how our prospect management team supported the successful introduction of this metric.

The Working Group

Forming a working group was an essential first step. The group comprised of fundraisers and advancement representatives from various program areas and university divisions, and was tasked with reviewing the current suite of metrics to determine what additional metrics should be added to encourage continued prospect pipeline growth.

The group examined institutional data on discovery meeting activity, which was being conducted regularly but not in a rigorous and measured way. The group also reviewed findings from an environmental scan conducted with five other universities on their discovery/qualification metrics.  Armed with a list of questions, a subgroup comprised of representatives from prospect management, advancement research and members from the larger working group reached out to our peer institutions to gather information on lessons learned, discovery prospect definitions and proposed goal ranges. How to track the activity in our Blackbaud CRM was also shared and discussed.

Discovery Guidelines

One key piece of advice taken from other peer institutions was to adopt a simple definition of a discovery prospect. So much data could be considered and could make it overly complicated to identify prospects that fit specific criteria: Is someone a discovery prospect if their last gift was 10 years ago? If they had never given? Never been met with? Were simply not under assignment? It was immediately important to understand our pool of eligible prospects and what the definition would mean to limiting or expanding that pool of prospects.

Another important element that played a role in building the discovery guidelines was hearing directly from the fundraisers on their experience conducting discovery calls. Fundraisers shared their experience on contact attempts, their recommendations for various methods of outreach and their thoughts on when it was time to release (or disqualify) a discovery prospect. This shared experience, coupled with data, informed a stronger set of guidelines.

Database and Reports

Now that we had approached consensus on the terms of a new discovery metric defined as an annual meeting goal and tracked outcome (qualification with next steps or disqualification rationale), we had to think about reporting and updates to our CRM in anticipation of its widespread adoption. Prospect management’s objective was to translate the recommendations into reporting and data entry. It was important to keep in mind the ease of use for fundraisers while still being able to collect and report on key data points.

Leveraging what was shared from other universities, we collaborated with our advancement services team to implement customizations to the CRM, and tested the modified reports from a fundraiser and prospect management perspective. As with any significant changes that would affect how fundraisers interact with the database, we brought in a number of U of T fundraisers to get their feedback and made adjustments.

The major change for the prospect management system was the introduction of a new plan type, the discovery plan, to work alongside our existing major gift plans. This new plan type was intentionally made distinct from the prospect plans that typically constituted a fundraiser’s major gift prospect portfolio, to emphasize its role in representing and supporting a new pipeline of potential major gift prospects. The outcomes of this new plan were essentially limited to two: that the fundraiser qualify the prospect as a major gift prospect following a discovery visit, and open a traditional major gift plan; or that they disqualify the prospect, and record a rationale for that disqualification.

Notably, the implementation of the discovery metric provided an opportunity to overhaul an outdated fundraiser dashboard that was already in need of updates. The requirement to draw attention to the new discovery metric yielded an opportunity to make overall improvements in our reporting.


Recommendations from the working group were shared through various channels (i.e. advancement town halls, meetings with divisional leads and mid-fiscal check-ins) and at a steady frequency leading up to the formal rollout, which gave fundraisers and their managers time to think about setting their new discovery goals and what the adjusted definition of a discovery prospect would mean in bringing new prospects into their pipeline. 

The discovery metric was introduced at the beginning of our fiscal year, immediately followed by configurations in the database to track activity. The gap between the introduction of the metric and the database changes meant being flexible in not assessing fundraisers on their goals for the first year using it, and their performance in meeting this goal was not made a part of their performance assessment for this initial year of adoption. Looking back, we would not have changed this approach. This was the first metric introduced in more than five years and it was important to have buy-in and allow for a period of adjustment.

Are you and your prospect development team looking to expand its perspective donor pool into Canada? Learn about the types of information available and how to access it in "Looking North: Understanding Your Canadian Prospects in 10 Questions" by Agnes Pawelkiewicz.

During that period of adjustment, we received some expected feedback and questions from the fundraisers. Most notably, the prospect management team received questions about how a discovery prospect is defined and exactly what types of constituents were eligible for earning a discovery credit and meeting the new discovery goal. We had set some relatively tight criteria for discovery credit, with the intention of encouraging the pursuit of entirely new prospects that were engaged by the university for the very first time. The reality of major gift fundraising work and the way that fundraisers perceive their own work, however, didn’t necessarily match the criteria, and one of our priorities will be to reassess (and consider loosening) the criteria in the second year of the program.

At the fiscal year mid-point after implementation, we reconvened with a number of the working group members to share the immediate feedback we had received to determine how best to address this. Should we make immediate adjustments to the database based on the feedback? Alternatively, do we wait to complete a full year and continue to gather feedback before making changes? The working group recommended the latter, and as we approach the one-year mark, we are looking to act on the recommendations we have received.

Some key lessons learned during the implementation phase were that while the working group had wrapped up, it was important to lean on members for advice; to document and acknowledge feedback from fundraisers and develop a plan to address that feedback; and finally, allow for a period of adjustment and flexibility in assessing performance in meeting this new metric.

Initial Results

While it’s too early to come to any solid conclusions about the impact of this discovery metric on fundraising performance (it will likely be two to three years before we can point to any impact on revenue), some initial results look promising. An institution-wide “Advancement Inspiration Challenge,” led by our assistant vice president of divisional relations and campaigns, prioritized discovery visits and U of T fundraisers took up that challenge, using the new discovery metric and plan to conduct over 500 discovery visits with prospects in 2020.

Next Phase

This was a huge undertaking and a tremendous amount of appreciation goes out to the fundraisers who have not only embraced this new metric and applied it to their everyday work, but have leaned into discovery work during this unprecedented time in fundraising. The one thing we had never anticipated was how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would impact fundraising activity, and amidst this major shift in donor behaviour and priorities, new opportunities for discovery have arisen as barriers to meeting face-to-face have been removed.

As we cross the one-year mark of our new voyage into supporting discovery work, we look forward to sharing results on discovery activity, ongoing improvements and learning how fundraiser discovery activity can be best supported. The one thing we know with certainty is that our new discovery metric and plans will continue to accumulate valuable data on our prospects (and fundraiser efforts to engage them) that will provide us with future insights into this critical area of advancement!


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This article relates to the Relationship Management domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge.






Learn more about the author on the Connections Thought Leadership Page.

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