The surprising change that increased dollars raised by more than 600%

Best practice from the Advancement Forum

Advancement leaders should take a hard look at the portfolio sizes of major gift officers (MGOs).

After surveying more than 1,200 MGOs in 2014, EAB discovered that nearly 53% of them had more than 100 prospects in their portfolios. When we interviewed chief advancement officers (CAOs) about portfolio sizes, they frequently invoked something called "Dunbar's Number" to justify portfolios containing a large number of prospects.

"Dunbar's Number" comes from Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist who determined based on the size of a human brain that the number of people the average person could have in his or her social group was 150. Anything beyond this figure would be too complicated to handle at optimal processing levels. Dunbar’s number is often cited as the reason why portfolios typically consist of 125 to 150 prospects.

After conducting analyses of optimal portfolio sizes, we have concluded that Dunbar and development don’t mix. Setting portfolios that are the size of "Dunbar's Number" ignores the fact that already need to have about 50 to 100 stable social relationships in our personal lives, leaving room for only 50 to 100 meaningful relationships in our work lives.

When you consider all the other relationships an MGO needs to have (e.g., with colleagues in planned giving and stewardship, deans, and faculty), this leaves little remaining relationship bandwidth. It is unrealistic to expect that MGOs can maintain meaningful relationships with more than 50 to 75 prospects. Recognizing this reality, some universities have begun experimenting with smaller portfolio sizes.

Northwestern University has pioneered an innovative strategy with regard to portfolio size reduction. The university recognized that too many prospects were lying fallow in MGO portfolios. After conducting portfolio penetration analysis of 17 MGOs in the central development department, leadership learned that 65% of the prospects in these portfolios had not been visited over the course of a full fiscal year. These prospects, identified as high affinity and high capacity, were effectively being left out of all fundraising touches: they received neither visits related to major gifts nor communication about annual giving efforts.

Northwestern now allows portfolios to have as many as 50 prospects but prefers for them to contain 30 to 40 prospects. To be in the portfolio there must be an ask date, ask amount, expected close date, and gift design in the system.

In short, Northwestern is now tracking proposals rather than assignments. Between FY2012 and FY2014, the same fundraisers (before the policy change and after) have increased their number of asks by 170% and their number of gifts by 211%. Most importantly, the dollars raised figure rose by 595% for those 17 fundraisers.

A key point is that this figure of 30 to 40 prospects does not include prospects in stewardship. Another important point is that this tactic is most relevant for advancement shops that have a highly qualified prospect pool, since this tracks proposals rather than assignments. 


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