Overcoming the "Overhead" Label and Embracing Analytics

This post has been shared with APRA Metro DC by Joshua Birkholz, Principal at Bentz Whaley Flessner. He consults leading nonprofits in higher education, healthcare, and human services in comprehensive campaigning, organizational structure, data-driven strategies, and productive business practices. He is widely regarded as a leading innovator in 21st-century development strategies.

Josh will be sharing his insights on advancing data-driven cultures in nonprofit organizations at our 2016 Annual Conference in his session, "Please Can I Help You Make More Money? Making the Case for Analytics". To see the full conference program, click here.

Overcoming the "Overhead" Label and Embracing Analytics
By Joshua Birkholz
Principal, Bentz Whaley Flessner

For more than 15 years, I’ve sung in the choir of analytics evangelists proclaiming the power of predictive science. I’ve seen programs transformed, new major gifts emerge, participation rates climb, and revenues double in only a few short years. Data science may be the greatest positive disrupter the fundraising industry has seen since the comprehensive campaign. But if you are reading this article, you are likely among the thousands who have tried to walk this road only to hear your leadership respond, “We can’t afford more overhead.”

So here is where you resist the urge to say, “You mean over your head.” While that may be true and gratifying, you are facing the resistance endured by all purveyors of progress. The fear of the unknown is more powerful than the promise of success. Although most large or major gift oriented development programs are now complex businesses, the current generation of leadership cut their teeth building relationships from the “society culture.” They’ve seen people wear sweaters on their shoulders unironically. Their success was aligned with the belief that fundraising is only a relationship business.

The truth is fundraising is a relationship business. Every data scientist would agree with that. But even with relationships, choices have to be made.
  • We have lots of constituents. Which ones warrant individual attention?
  • Wealth is less obvious now (colder shoulders, fewer country clubs). How can we be sure the right ones are in portfolios? 
  • If a fundraiser has only 160 hours in a month, how much time do we allocate to relationship building, portfolio cleaning, program meetings, and team building?
  • Which cultivation activities actually drive gifts? 
  • How do we guide constituents along the path of relationship deepening before they warrant face-to-face officer deployment?
Where you will find common ground with leadership is in the complexity of pressures. Even though many of them climbed the ladder through successful fundraising, they realize their business became much more complex than when they started. They have pressures you can help solve, but they don’t see analytics as part of the solution set yet. This is where your insights will serve you well, young Padawan. Start to observe the short- and long-term pressures facing your organization. I would expect these to include hiring and retaining strong performers, addressing unfunded priorities, organizational pressures for discretionary funds, building philanthropic culture among newer constituents, doing more with limited staff, and stretch goals from the president.

After you have determined the top institutional issues, begin to address these areas with analytics. Even if you do not have the budget or the mandate, do it anyway on your own time. I dare you to make your organization better for free. What’s the worst that would happen? 

How much did you pay for college? Did you work for free as an intern when you were just getting started? Now you have a job that could be better, but they won’t invest in you to make it so. Perhaps you should invest in you.

Your investment will surely pay off. In a few short years, you will be among the next generation of leaders. You will have achieved great heights through understanding the complex operating methodologies of modern fundraising programs. And you will remember when that young employee tries to convince you to invest in their virtual reality CRM, an artificial intelligence gift processing system, or a productivity-accelerating hoverdesk, that it may not be overhead. It might just be over your head.


This post is sponsored by APRA Metro DC's Chapter Sponsor, Bentz Whaley Flessner, a full-service development consulting firm that collaborates with colleges, universities, medical centers, and other leading nonprofits to build successful nonprofit programs. APRA Metro DC thanks BWF for supporting the professional development of our chapter members.

Ask a Manager: Unexplored Partnerships

This special edition of Ask a Manager has been answered by Chris Pipkins, Associate Vice President, Advancement Information Services at James Madison University. Chris will discuss the role of planned giving in a campaign and provide a case study for expanding researcher's efforts into planned giving at our 2016 Annual Conference in his session, "Expanding Research's Scope: Loyalty, Value and Planned Giving". To see the full conference program, click here.


Question: Where is there opportunity for prospect development professionals to better partner with key, under-served areas within advancement? Why do you think we've overlooked them?

Answer: The opportunities for prospect development professionals to partner are “large and contain multitudes” as Walt Whitman might have said if he were talking about our profession. Historically, Research offices have played a central role in building major gift cultures and operations at institutions relatively new to large comprehensive campaigns. We have been doing so predominantly
because Pareto’s 80/20 rule and Giving USA data historically tell us that it is the relationships we foster with individuals that lead to the greatest charitable outcome for our institutions.

Our profession has moved significantly from “research” (reactive profiles, capacity analysis, suspect identification) to “prospect development” (system tracking, system development, workflow and portfolio optimizations as well as prospect-by-prospect strategy development and pipeline management) and these have traditionally been the domain of individuals within the five-year pledge terms of major-gift giving.

 My sense is that with the rise of the $1B campaign over the last decade and with it the rise of eight- and nine-figure lead gifts, the nature of the prospect and leadership-gifts has brought about a change. I suspect that across many institutions these lead gifts extend beyond five years and contain multiple parts, including estate considerations.

I know as director of prospect research from 2000-2008, I overlooked corporate and foundation relations and planned giving because of a need to build major gift infrastructure, because our prospect management systems require Planned Giving and Corporate and Foundation Giving to be shoe-horned into the individual prospect tracking systems, and because, in the case of planned giving, the profession hadn’t fully considered that program’s place in a campaign.

For example, it was not until the 4th and most recent edition of CASE Reporting Standards & Management Guidelines, published in 2009, that estate giving was incorporated into the guidelines as part of campaign counting. I’ll discuss some of this history at the APRA DC Annual Conference.

Despite its exclusion from CASE standards throughout much of the 2000s, estate or testamentary giving has been baked into the campaign planning and in actual practice for most of that time, factoring in between 20% to 30% of a comprehensive goal and/or total. In the end, however, institutions are large and contain multitudes.

I’m not sure they’ve been overlooked so much as prioritized based on the needs of the institution on a situation-by-situation basis. Some institutions may have very young constituencies and a strong corporate culture in which case developing strong corporate prospect development practices have taken a higher level of attention than planned giving. Still others may have prioritized forecasting, trend analysis and data analytics to drive strategy to meet increased pressure on ROI.

One of the exciting things about the APRA DC conference this year is the DC chapter’s focus on these very themes. David and Lori Lawson, always engaging and insightful, address ROI and Impact. Josh Birkholz examines Analytics. Steve Knight and Agie Yatsko integrate the profession’s two core functions, identification and prospect management. The opportunity for research professionals abounds.

-Chris Pipkins, Associate Vice President, Advancement Information Services, James Madison University