“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” That’s how it goes with overfull portfolios.
For decades, advancement leaders followed the theory that assigning major gift officers 125, 150, or even 200 prospects would ensure broad cultivation. The best prospects would rise to the top, and fundraisers would simultaneously develop a pipeline of supporters they could turn to in later years.
The reality doesn’t exactly play out that way. EAB did an analysis of nearly 400 major gift officers’ performance, and while we found that larger portfolios means more gifts closed, the total dollars raised actually track downward as the number of assigned prospects increases. Bigger portfolios mean worse returns.
Portfolio Size Compared to Gifts Closed
Portfolio Size Compared to Total Dollars Raised
What’s happening here? At first, we hypothesized that experience was at play. The theory went that more experienced gift officers earned themselves smaller portfolios—and likely ones with more capacity to give.
But a look at the numbers told us otherwise. In the EAB sample, tenure had no bearing on portfolio size. A 15-year veteran of the field was just as likely as last month’s new hire to work a 200-person portfolio. Sometimes, it seems, experience doesn’t pay.
What we found instead was that smaller portfolios meant more focused cultivation on a few high-potential prospects. And that brought huge returns at the end of the day.
Dunbar and Development Don't Mix
Portfolios have become large and unmanageable
Major gift officers, like all humans, operate less effectively when their attention is drawn in too many directions. While the 200-person portfolio brought with it lots of visits and gift asks, the solicitations were haphazard and often far below prospects’ full capacity.
Fundraisers working smaller portfolios, in comparison, were able to develop incisive strategies for cultivating and soliciting their prospects. When the asks came, they were compelling, and they were closer to the prospects’ full capacity.
Northwestern University certainly found this to be the case when they reduced their MGOs’ average portfolio size. In the past, fundraisers held portfolios of about 115 prospects apiece. Yet they only cultivated about 40 prospects in any given year.
Advancement leaders decided to work with, not against, MGO habits. They shrank portfolios down to 30 to 40 total prospects. On top of that, they required fundraisers to have an ask date, ask amount, expected gift close date, and gift design in place for each of those prospects.
Wildcats Win with "Less Is More"
Portfolio size reduction yield manageable prospect pools
The result was astounding. Contrary to the overall trend we saw in our sample, Northwestern’s number of asks and gifts increased when portfolio sizes decreased. More importantly, total funds raised grew nearly six times over for a gain of 595%.
Northwestern embraced the mantra, “Work smarter, not harder.” As more institutions assign smaller, more focused portfolios, we’re expecting this “smart” work to pay big dividends.
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