Developing Major-Gift Donors at University of Detroit Mercy

Higher education institutions of all sizes rely on private gifts, especially major gifts, to help achieve their missions. But many advancement teams focus on finding major gift donors instead of developing them. 

Let’s say you have 100,000 alumni, and 10% (10,000) of them contribute. Out of that group, about 1,000 of them will have the characteristics to be able to make a major gift to your institution. 

What about the 90% of the alumni that are not contributing yet but have the characteristics to give a significant gift?

Arnold D’Ambrosio, Vice President for University Advancement at the University of Detroit Mercy, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about how to find major-gift donors and the benefits of predictive modeling for advancement prospecting.

Identify Major Gift Donors or Develop Them?

“I’ve been at the University of Detroit Mercy for about four years,” Arnold said, “and we happened to be in the middle of a hundred million dollar campaign at the time. The university was kind enough to let me borrow, for a year, a PhD colleague in behavioral psychology and statistics.” 

Together, Arnold and his PhD colleague started developing a predictive model to look at the characteristics of the past contributors to the institution, people who had given a total of $100,000 or more. Then, Arnold created a profile and applied it to the alumni that hadn’t contributed to the institution but who had high giving potential. 

“The first step in that process was, we cleaned up the data for the institution,” Arnold told us. “That took about 12 months, but after we cleaned the data, we ran it through a modeling software, and we came up with the characteristics (of a high-level giving prospect).”

That process revealed 3,800 new prospects that had all the characteristics to give a gift of 100,000 or more but were not identified yet because they had not contributed. Their universe of donor prospects expanded.

Predictive Modeling Vs. Wealth Overlays

Most institutions are slicing and dicing data. There’s a big difference between that and actually doing predictive modeling, where you’re saying this prospective donor has the characteristics that fit your particular pull file at your institution. And every institution is going to have a different profile, and they have touchstones that are really important for that institution. 

“That’s how you build a real profile on who can give you the most money and are the best prospects for you,” Arnold said. “Wealth overlays are not a tool for identification of prospects. They are a tool to fill in research information about the prospects that have been identified.” 

Not only that, but wealth overlay information runs at about 50% accuracy. So, you could have the wrong John Smith that’s come up through wealth overlay. When Arnold looked at the people that had given $100,000 or more, he found no correlation with their wealth overlay score.

“You talk about an a-ha moment,” he told us. “Because I was like everybody else, saying, ‘Oh yeah, get a wealth overlay, it’s great. You’ll find out all these wealthy people.’ Nope, that’s not what we found.”

How to Prioritize and Personalize Your Donor Outreach

Through the predictive modeling process, Arnold added 3,800 potential donors to the 1,200 already in play. With a total of 5,000 prospects, the team ran into two problems. Who to prioritize? How to manage the people who turned up in the search results?

To solve that problem, Arnold developed a unique scoring system associated with the prospect’s link to the institution, their interest level, and their affluence. He and his team worked with a company in Detroit called Core Focus to score 5,000 alumni in 2.5 hours.

“(It was) amazing,” Arnold said, “because now I knew who we needed to pay attention to.” 

How to Develop a Habit of Giving Among Alumni

Connect alumni relations, marketing, and fundraising using bridges of data.

“We’ve started engagement opportunities for our alums. And through the work that they’ve done, we have about 2,500 alumni that have said they want to be engaged” Arnold told us. “That information is in our database now, and we can use that information in order to build that relationship.”

If you’ve got a younger alum, they may not have a lot of money, right? Because they’re just not at that point in their life, but you can get them engaged with their alma mater earlier, by being a mentor to a student, in some other way. Encourage them to attend lectures or events so that engagement starts earlier. 

“But if you don’t have the data or you’re not putting that data into your system,” Arnold said, “it’s very difficult to track that relationship and how it’s growing.”

Next-Steps Advice for Institutions Looking to Secure Major Gifts

Start with your alumni base. That’s where your relationships and connects reside. 

“You’ve got gold,” Arnold said. “It’s three feet down, right under your feet, but you need a tool in order to identify that gold that’s down there. So, by using the data that you have in your system, you can create a unique profile in order to identify (that gold).” 

Universities that raise huge amounts of money have been cultivating high-value relationships, sometimes for 30 years. But most institutions have not cultivated their alumni for decades. If you’re one of those in the latter camp, you need a tool to collapse that time. That’s why it’s critical to find the best prospects first and get them into the hands of the major gift officers. 

“Your major gift officers are good people, they’re dedicated, they’re conscientious, but it’s going to take me as much energy to get a $10,000 gift as it is to get $100,000 gift,” Arnold told us. “So I might as well put that hundred-thousand-dollar or million-dollar contributor in your portfolio first. And that’s how you can make leaps, rather than a gradual increase.”


This post is based on a podcast interview with Arnold D’Ambrosio from the University of Detroit Mercy. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.