5 Steps to Spring Clean Your Major Gifts Portfolio

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This article is the second in a series by Ashlyn Sowell, Gettysburg’s associate vice president and campaign director. In her previous article, Sowell reviewed 4 lessons about campaign communications and volunteer management that she and her team at Gettysburg learned — from their volunteers. You can read that article here.

Today, Sowell, with input from Gettysburg’s director of prospect research, walks through critical steps in reviewing your major gifts portfolio.

We hope you will find this article useful and share it with your colleagues. We also recommend these related upcoming trainings:

After the winter of 2014, I think everyone is looking forward to spring. And with spring comes that throwing open of the windows, getting rid of clutter, and giving everything a good dusting.  It can also be the perfect time to review your major gifts portfolio to usher in new prospects and to let go of the old.

I was struck by the news in the VSE reports that just came out recently. Giving in higher education is up and the highest it has been in five years.  That’s great news and speaks volumes to the work done by gift officers in partnership with generous donors.  These donors are committed to improving the lives of others who benefit from education, research, and specialized programs at their beloved institutions.

But, the not so good news is that alumni participation in giving is down.

This made me realize that we need to reach the best potential donors and as many of them as we can for campaigns now and campaigns of the future. We need to help ensure the long-term success of our school and we have to be very strategic with our resources.

A portfolio review can help you use data to make sure that you are spending those resources of money, time, and staff talent in the right way. If you’ve never done a portfolio review, here is a step-by-step guide that I’ve crafted for you, with some input from Jessica Jones, Prospect Research Director at Gettysburg College. In this guide, I’ll walk you through specific tips for each of the five steps:

  1. Get buy-in.
  2. Set your time frame and responsibilities.
  3. Do your homework.
  4. Hold an effective meeting.
  5. Execute.

1. Get buy-in

Get buy-in from the gift officers, the prospect research department, and the boss. This will be most successful if everyone agrees that there is value in the process, that they can do the homework needed in advance, and that they can commit to the time required and to the decisions made in the review.

If the review is successful:

  • The gift officer comes away with a cleaner portfolio, possibly some great new prospects, and some focus on what they need to do next with their current prospects.
  • The manager gets an overall sense of the whole pipeline and where gifts may or may not be coming from, in the next 6 months to a year.
  • The prospect researcher gets valuable updates on prospects and knows where to focus their team next, on identifying new prospects or on more detailed work to prepare for specific asks and specific next steps.

And everyone has a sense of relief in letting some prospects go that just have not made a gift despite everyone’s best efforts.

2. Set your time frame and responsibilities

At Gettysburg College, we do a review once to twice a year with anyone who is carrying a major/planned giving portfolio. This includes our full-time gift officers, up to the vice president.

We try to set the dates at least one to two months in advance and spread the reviews over several weeks. That way, we can take into account the time needed for the necessary pre-work, as well as travel schedules. The research department will have a lot of reports to pull, and the gift officers need time to prepare as well.

3. Do your homework

The prospect research team needs to prepare the following:

  • Portfolio by rating with last contact date
  • Portfolio by priority year with rating and campaign expectation (Jessica shares that at Gettysburg we code our priority prospects in our database so we can easily pull who is in the solicitation pipeline for the campaign.)
  • Portfolio by stage
  • Portfolio by Echelon score (a screening by Target Analytics, you may have other types of wealth ratings in your database)
  • Portfolio by lifetime giving
  • Portfolio by last contact date

At Gettysburg, Jessica Jones prepares each report about a week before the meeting, so that the data is fresh. The gift officer and his/her supervisor each get a copy of the reports.

The gift officers agree to review the reports and any other data that may be useful. Some gift officers review their contact reports, travel schedules, and their notes on connections to other alumni/parents/friends. Many gift officers come in ready to drop prospects or with ideas about who should have ratings or campaign expectations increased. Remember that the review needs to include everyone, from prospects recently assigned to those that may be in stewardship mode for a number of years.

4. Hold an effective meeting

The tone of the meeting can vary from gift officer to gift officer. At Gettysburg, the director of major and planned giving comes in with goals for each of the gift officers’ portfolios. Goals range from decreasing the size of the portfolio to coming out of the meeting with more priority prospects. Experienced gift officers know their portfolio very well and are prepared to talk. Newer staff members may be in a cultivation mode with many of their prospects and have more questions. In either case, you want to be sure that they are seeing the best prospects and moving forward in the gift cycle to a solicitation.

The best meetings have more than two people in them, so that an interactive conversation can take place about the best next steps for the prospect.

Sometimes we start with the lowest rated prospects to see who we can drop. If the prospect has been visited a number of times and not stepped up, it might be time for a change or a reassignment for a better fit. Similarly, if the prospect has been contacted several times but has never agreed to a visit, it also might be time for a change.

Sometimes we start with the highest rated prospects to see exactly what the strategy is and how we can move forward. Is it time to bring in the president or a beloved faculty member? Is it time make the ask, and who can do that most effectively? Does the prospect want to see some firm details on a proposal (such as budget, timeframe, or impact)? Does the gift officer need help with a strategy?

Jessica points out that at Gettysburg, we have quarterly Campaign Pipeline Meetings that are coordinated by the prospect research staff, so this is the perfect time to add a prospect’s name to the agenda. These meetings may include our campaign consultant or lead volunteer from our campaign steering committee. Having these conversations can help the gift officer to articulate what the next steps are and how to move ahead. Our research team always takes notes and enters tasks into our system to keep us honest.


Gift officers are nothing if not passionate about their relationships. They may feel very strongly about holding on to a prospect where others see no advantage. They may even feel defensive about prospects in which they have invested time, but from which others don’t see any return.

We always remind gift officers that the portfolios are fluid and they can still have contact with donors (at events and other venues) even if they are not assigned. Also, if donors’ giving makes a big uptick, the researchers have automatic alerts to help get them back on the radar. It is important to acknowledge the emotion, but try and remain objective at the same time.

5. Execute

This is the critical step. After all, if you don’t execute the next steps, the portfolio review was just not worth the time! Gift officers and researchers have to find the time to do what they agreed to in the meeting and to report back or log it into the system.

In addition to her role at Gettysburg, Jessica is the Vice President for PREP/APRA, and she has seen a rise in schools that have portfolio reviews on a regular basis. We know that it might not sound fun to sit in a room for two hours going through the portfolio, name by name, with your manager and a prospect researcher, but it actually can leave you feeling invigorated and empowered…just like that spring cleaning.

Everyone wants to have the best prospects and to move forward, but it is easy to lose track of all the details when you are managing 150-200 prospects. An informed and decisive portfolio review can change that equation.

So throw open that window and clean up your portfolio. You’ll thank us this time next year!