Thursday, July 29, 2010

Myopic Metrics

A colleague told me recently of a university advancement office that requires each member of its regional staff to make 200 contacts and secure at least $2 million every year. The person in charge says it’s working because just about everyone meets their goals every year. Well, when you think about it, that’s the trouble with metrics and a sure sign they are not working. Allow me to explain.

If you impose aggressive metrics on a development staff, you say, in effect, “here’s how we’re keeping score.” If you’re a development officer, you’ll say, “Fine, then I will do what it takes to meet that score.” Since 200 substantive contacts is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, you will be forced to secure appointments with those most likely to agree to them. Yes, every institution has them, the loyal folks who can’t get enough of the place and will agree to meet once or twice a month is asked. If you have five of these folks in your portfolio, you can use them to rack up close to half your required visits. It would be far more productive if some of that time was spent pursuing new, high end prospects but they are very busy, and being chased by multiple organizations, so getting to them is much, much harder -- and your incentives don’t encourage you to stay in pursuit of the very best for very long. Yes, you will try to meet the best prospects you can and to make every interaction as substantive as possible but you always have one eye on the score card. The longer the year wears on, the more you worry about your progress toward the required metrics so you take the easy appointments or start to stretch the definition of a “contact.” One morning, you’re so frazzled that you have a traffic accident. As fate would have it, you hit someone who once gave a $100,000 to your institution. You file a contact report which reads, “Had a wonderful encounter with Beulah Bumpkin this morning. Despite her incredibly busy schedule, she made time for me on her way to work. Though she seemed discombobulated at first and complained of screaming neck pain, I was able to bring her around and talk about our new initiative in non-invasive imaging. Though she has not given in a long time and no one has been able to get an appointment with her, she clearly has far greater capacity so I feel good about creating the opportunity to rekindle what could be a very productive relationship. She promised to get back to me soon, or to have her lawyer call. Next step: Call back in two weeks if I don’t hear from her.” Come on now. Let’s tell the truth. Necessity is the mother of invention. Don’t we have the tendency to do what we have to do to make the numbers? And the more ridiculous the goal, the more ridiculous the extremes we will go to.

And then there’s that $2 million bogey. Now, it might make more sense for you to pursue some very promising prospects that might make a gift in 18 to 24 months of relationship building but you’ve got to make your numbers. You’ll focus on those most likely to give, even if it may be smaller amounts. Again, “the system” incentives are such you end up asking for $250,000 today rather than working with that prospect to develop a $1.5 million gift a year from now. And the other thing you will do is insist that gift accounting provide you a list with every gift that has come in from your region so that you can take credit for it. Now, if you had been instrumental in development of those gifts, you would have heard directly from the donors; you wouldn’t have to learn about it from the folks in gift accounting -- unless you’ve been reduced to taking credit for anything that comes in over the transom, regardless of or despite your efforts. Yes, yes, I know you’ll argue that you need to know about these gifts so that you can steward the donors but it that dark place in your scared soul, you’re just looking for anyway to meet your goal. A sure sign of metrically-mad development operation is a gift accounting operation under siege by the development staff asking for more timely, more specific donor information from their region.

And the person who put these metrics in place will argue until he or she is blue in the face that they work. Look at the numbers, they will say. Just about everyone has met or nearly met their goals. Great, I say, so how many new dollars are you raising and how many new prospects are you bringing in year upon year? And, in most cases, there’s not that much movement in the aggregate numbers. That’s because the operation is really raising that much more; its just found a better way to turn otherwise decent folks into credit-seeking hounds. The more ambitious the metrics, the more the system can actually work against the kind of assiduous relationship building that produces more significant, sustained support.

I’m not against all metrics, just the wrong kind. I don’t believe in individual dollar goals because they force development officers to sub-optimize the long-term potential of many donors and weaken their ties to institution by asking them to give too often to purposes that are not near and dear to their philanthropic hearts. I would advise development operations to focus more on substance, both in terms of what the institution is asking for and those it is seeking support from. I would ask the front line development officer to orchestrate 60 substantive interactions each year. And to orchestrate something, you have to work in harmony with others, be it on the development staff, on the academic side of the house and, perhaps, volunteers. I would try to create a culture of orchestration, not one of lone, hungry, frightened wolves.

Good metrics, ironically and unfortunately, create goals that are so realistic that some people can’t meet them. The measure of an effective system of metrics, then, is not that everyone is meeting them, no matter what, but that some are and some not, and that they are bringing out the best in the best people and exposing the weaknesses of the pretenders.

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