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Using your database to find major donors

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In his column this month Peter Wylie explains how to use your database to find major donors.

Author: Peter Wylie

I had planned to write this month’s piece on a different topic. But then I met a young woman (as in early 30’s young) at a neighbor’s brunch just the other day. Sharp lady. Got her PhD in economics from a prestigious west coast school.


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“What do you do now?” I asked her. “I teach. I’ve become an expert on how universities and non-profits manage their endowments.”

Like so many such conversations at social gatherings, ours got cut short with the usual interruptions, “Honey, we should be going’s” and the like. But I did have enough time to garner some compelling information, some of which (as luck would have it) is even related to the general topic of this column.

Here are some of the things she recounted:

Huge size discrepancies. The endowments of a few schools in the States are gargantuan. So big that these institutions could easily offer free tuition (which will never happen) to many generations of future students. A slightly larger group of schools have comfortable endowments, but nothing like those at the top of the heap. And the rest of the crowd?

If they’re private schools, they will continue to struggle to compete for top students and faculty. But sadly, many of them are likely to fall by the wayside because they simply can not offer the things that only money can buy, whether those things be new fitness centers, the latest in scientific equipment, and on and on. (She didn’t talk much about endowments at public higher education institutions, but I got the impression the same pattern-if not magnitude-prevailed in that arena, too.)

Big, unanticipated bumps in revenue. In the private sector, there are definitely windfalls. A huge increase in profits or the landing of a monster contract that will ensure job security for thousands of workers for years to come. Those things happen, and when they do, of course, it’s time to break out the champagne.

Nonetheless, I’ve never heard of a profit making entity getting an unexpected gift to the tune of 350 million dollars.

But as we all know, this kind of thing can and does occasionally happen in the non-profit world. And when it does happen, the institution faces a problem that the-for profits don’t face. Aside from the question of what do we do with all this money (often spelled out by the donor), there is another one: “How does this influx affect our endowment investment strategy?”

According to my young friend, the answer is often: “We don’t know because we really haven’t given it a lot of thought.” Luckily they have him and his firm to get help from.

Money wasted on vendors. It was at this point in our conversation that I began to see some real overlap between things I’m concerned about and she’s concerned about.

While I constantly see universities and some non-profits spending big dollars on third party enhancements of their databases that they don’t use, she sees clients paying money manager fees that could easily be cut to a fraction through some aggressive negotiation and/or screening of competitive firms.

But the wastage she sees is much more likely to be in the hundreds of thousands (or more) range. What I see is likely to be in the tens of thousands. But waste is waste, right?

Developing in-house staff capability. This is where she and I really hit a consonant chord. (And it was what got me to take a bit of a detour with this month’s piece.)

Both of us see universities and non-profits not making enough investment in training and time allocation for junior staff who (were they such training and time to use it) could save their institutions large amounts of money and help them generate that much more revenue.

What I’m constantly harping on with my folks is this: “Get somebody on your staff who likes numbers and analysis and free them up to dig into your donor database to ferret out useful information. It will pay for itself many, many times over.”

And when it comes to an endowment? How much of a no-brainer can it be to have at least one staff person (1) become an in-house expert on investment strategies in general; (2) an expert on the performance of your endowment over the years; and (3) a keen student of future investment possibilities?

Happy New Year!

Permission is granted for the reproduction and publication of this column as long as long as the following information is attached:

(USING YOUR DATABASE TO FIND MAJOR DONORS is a monthly column published by UK Fundraising ( and written by Peter Wylie (PB********@ao*.com), a consultant who trains advancement professionals in the basics of data mining and predictive modelling.)

Books by Peter Wylie