Prospect Research: Breaking Free of Portfolios

Last updated: August 4, 2022

Guest post by Rachel Richards and Matthew White, USU Foundation

This is a follow up blog post to Rachel and Matthew’s webinar Prospect Development: Making an Impact.  Be sure to check it out here.

Breaking Free of Portfolios

“What if we got rid of portfolios,” our Vice President Matt White asked with a grin. Knowing his sense of humor, I laughed and said, “that would be an adventure,” and then waited for the joke’s punchline. “Just think about it,” he said.” Just think about how this would help us set goals, forecast future production, and ensure exceptional gift and engagement experiences.”

My initial thought was about the chaos and infighting that was occurring between our Development Officers. I was fielding regular calls from them where I would get to play referee between the different colleges because someone had contacted one of “their donors.” Wins were when we could calm the situations before they pulled in deans and department heads. Contact reports were frequently delayed in the database because they didn’t want other areas to know who they were working with. Collaboration was almost non-existent, and on the rare occasions it occurred, the Development Officers were rewarded by having their proposal credit split in half with the other Development Officer. The President and Vice President each had a portfolio of untouchable prospects who no one was allowed to contact or invite to anything without the express permission of leadership. Newly engaged prospects were taken away and added to the presidential portfolio. Portfolios were the barriers that kept everyone in line, kind of, mostly, okay, not really, but at least they knew they were in trouble when they went around the barriers.

Maybe a new adventure was what we needed. It couldn’t get much worse.

Memoirs of a former Development Officer Referee

Our Shop

Some quick details to give you context. Our CRM is Millennium. We also use Tableau and Blackbaud Fundraiser Performance Management. Our true endowment is at $270.9M. Our major gift level is $25K. We have twenty-five Development Officers and five Development Officer Analysts. We have a hybrid model with most of our Development Officers assigned to colleges but hired and paid centrally. We have a handful of Development Officers assigned to University-Wide. Our student body is around 27,000. Our alumni are scattered all around the country.

The Strategic End of Portfolios

Dissolving portfolios was a very intentional change. We didn’t have the conversation on a Monday and dissolve the portfolios on Wednesday. It was a six-month process where we looked at the data behind our portfolios, formed a focus group, and discussed what this would look like with our Development Officers and University Leadership. Our focus shifted from portfolios to very intentional proposals. To put on a proposal, we set a requirement that the Development Officers have a scheduled visit with the constituent within the last year and qualify them as a major gift prospect (Do they have capacity? Are they philanthropic? Do they have affinity toward Utah State University?). Proposals became more forward-thinking (see appendix A) and can be put on for up to five years. They are never used in a punitive way but with a focus on forecasting. Proposals should also be continually updated as new information is learned about the prospect. If they are not asked, we have them mark the proposals as not submitted so we know it was considered, but the timing/ask wasn’t right.

We created a focus group of Development Officers, including our strongest naysayers, to work with our research team to develop our contact guidelines (see appendix B). For these guidelines to work, we knew we needed contact reports to be entered promptly. We also emphasized that communication was a MUST to ensure this success. We also did not limit who could contact prospects (only 33% of our portfolios were being contacted); we did stress that all asks should be coordinated if multiple units were engaging a donor. Matt led a discussion with the Development Officers to talk about what a contact report should consist of and what the timeline needed for them to enter into our database. Initially, within a week was the guideline. We also stressed that “qualification,” “cultivation,” and “solicitation” were verbs, not statuses. It was later adjusted to be within three days as Covid led to more virtual and phone scheduled visits.


Qualification prospects moved from being assigned as part of a portfolio to a list of individuals we give them monthly to qualify. These leads are not off limits to other development officers, and we do encourage collaborative visits. Our University Wide and Athletics Development Officers are great at qualifying, and if the prospects are green per the contact guidelines, they are cleared to go. Kindsight [iwave] is useful in helping us identify and research new qualification prospects. The Development Officer Analysts use it and then shares their finds with the Development Officers.

Metrics for Development Officers

With the changes to proposals, we were able to develop intentional goal meetings. We use the proposals to drive our goal meetings and have five meaningful metrics:

  • 150 scheduled visits (prior to Covid, these were required to be face-to-face, but now they can be virtual or by phone if they are substantial)
  • Qualifications (higher for those without a proposal pipeline)
  • Proposals asked for $50K+ (lead)
  • Proposals closed for $25K+ (lead)
  • Dollars granted (collaborative)

We started rewarding collaboration with a collaborative dollar goal and allowing for goal counting to include collaborative scheduled visits and qualifications. This means when two Development Officers work together on the same gift, they both get full goal credit for dollars granted. Proposals submitted and granted are as lead/primary. This helps to ensure they still find and develop relationships with their own prospects as well. We compare our Development Officers’ performance with EAB and Blackbaud data gathered nationwide to verify our goals are where they need to be.

Metrics for Development Officer Analysts

The Prospect Research and Management Teams role evolved as well. We went from being viewed as data cleanup specialists to being valued strategy consultants. We are now Development Officer Analysts. We meet with the fundraisers monthly to talk through their contacts, proposals, strategies, travel plans, and metrics. Our goals are tied to theirs. For the Development Officer Analysts to meet expectations, 60% of Development Officers must achieve all five of their meaningful metrics. This goal has been exceeded every year for the last four years since this was instituted.

No Longer the Referee!

Enforcement of our guidelines moved from the Development Officer Analyst team to the Supervisors where it belongs! Suppose a Development Officer is not adhering to our contact guidelines. In that case, it is brought to the attention of their supervisor, who then uses it as a coaching opportunity to acquaint them with USU’s way of fundraising. The Development Officer Analyst Team is still empowered to have crucial conversations with Development Officers. Still, our Senior Development Officers, Associate Vice Presidents, and Matt lead the way in ensuring the guidelines are followed.

Additionally, we established a Principal Gifts Program. This program provides high-level collaboration on prospects who we anticipate will give $2M or more to the University over the course of their lifetime. Everyone is allowed to participate in our Principal Gift Strategy Sessions. Development Officers aren’t removed from their top prospects. Instead, they lead the discussion on the next steps and how we as a university can best help them.

No, this doesn’t always work. We can’t claim that we instituted this change, and it has been rainbows and sunshine since then, but it has improved collaboration significantly. It has helped create a more collaborative culture and it has helped give everyone a seat at the table.

Not One Size Fits All

Matt is fond of saying that we don’t believe in best practices. Our approach is working for us, but we are continually modifying it and adjusting it as needed. You are part of a unique shop with unique problems. Getting rid of portfolios wouldn’t work for everyone but we hope that some of our materials can help you. Please feel free to reach out with questions to Matt White ( and Rachel Richards (

Appendix A

  • Entities involved
  • Primary/Secondary Development Officer(s)
  • Purpose
  • School/Unit
  • Proposal Status
  • Target Ask Amount
  • Target Ask Date
  • Ask Amount
  • Ask Date
  • Expected Amount
  • Expected Date
  • Granted Amount
  • Granted Date
  • Comments (strategies for next steps)

Appendix B

Contact Guidelines

Development Directors/Officers and Advancement team members will adhere to the following guidelines when preparing to contact a prospect:

All guidelines apply to both spouses in dual households. Assigned Development Officer has two business days to respond to outreach. If they are out of the office for personal or sick leave, Matt White or Rachel Richards can coordinate on their behalf.

Red: Will Not Contact – MANDATORY that assigned Development Officer is contacted before any outreach

  • Prospects who are fulfilling a signed agreement pledge
  • All prospects in the principal gifts program
  • Prospects with a proposal in the system

Yellow: Contact the collegiate DO prior to reaching out to prospect for a scheduled visit or major gift solicitation

  • Constituents who have given a major gift ($25K or above) within the last 12 months
  • Constituents with a substantive contact report within the last year (personal visit or a visit with a next step)
  • Donors who have a lifetime giving of $25,000 or more to a unit
  • Advisory board members
  • If all giving has been limited to one unit
  • Has a documented planned gift

Green: Contact, take action

  • Prospects who have had no significant contact in more than a year
  • Households who have only made annual gifts (under $10,000)

Written by Guest

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