While there are many ways to describe prospect development as a profession, I like the image of a gardener tending the garden of prospects.
Gardeners learn which plants work well in low sunlight or don’t need a lot of watering. As researchers, we learn about our prospects’ interests, families and careers. Sometimes we have to prune the garden or harvest when vegetables are ready to be eaten. We watch life stages like a marriage or divorce, the birth of a new baby, health risk or an initial public offering that may impact the timing or amount of a solicitation.
But what if you have to grow that garden from scratch? You have soil, seeds and tools to start. Now you must determine the best strategy to plant the seeds and help them grow.
Building a major gift program can feel like a daunting task for a nonprofit — even more so if your nonprofit doesn’t have a built-in constituent pool. Educational institutions and health systems have a ready pool of people with a relationship to the organization, either as alumni, parents of students or grateful patients.
Some nonprofits don’t have the same resources or dataset of constituents that higher education and health do. How do human services organizations find donors? Or arts programs and botanical gardens?
To find out, I talked to two prospect researchers who shared their strategies for creating and managing major gift programs at non-educational and non-health nonprofits. Here are four recommendations on how to make it work.
Finding Low Hanging Fruit
When you first research a prospect, you typically open your donor database. Sometimes it’s a patch of golden daisies and sometimes it’s barren — but usually there’s low hanging fruit to be found.
If you’re building your major gift program, look at the constituents in your database. Don’t just look at the folks you know, but other people who may be flying under the radar too.
Tracy Church, principal researcher and consultant for Tracy Church and Associates, shares how she was trying to build a major gift program at CNIB Foundation, a Canadian organization providing services and advocacy for people with blindness and low visibility. Her first step was to mine the database and create a recency, frequency, monetary (RFM) score on each person. Armed with that list, her team prioritized the people who had the highest RFM scores and did a little research to decide which people to move forward in the pool. You may be surprised what new prospects you might find based on RFM alone.
Contact reporting mining is also a good resource. You can look for phrases or words that may indicate high wealth, such as private equity, venture capital, investment banking and more. Similarly, you can pull employment data (if available) and see if titles and firms catch your eye.
Church notes that CNIB had received planned gifts and were developing their planned giving program. When mining your database for planned giving prospects, it may be worth looking at that RFM score with planned giving predictors, like childless, loyal donors. She was able to make recommendations that some donors might be able to give blended gifts (a current gift as well as a planned gift).
Other methods include doing brief research on any donor over a certain threshold level, such as $500 or $1K to see if the person looks promising. Some of these donors are capable of more, while others are giving their highest amount. Without brief research, you won’t know which is which.
Nurturing the Soil
Once a garden is planted, it must be cared for regularly. Screenings are one way to tend to your database and find possible prospects. A screening can help find possible high net worth prospects by matching external assets and giving to people in your database. Lauren Woodring, director of prospect research and management at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), explains that while they are out of campaign they need to keep a pulse on constituents. They recently completed a screening of their members and are currently validating the data.
Church shares that they also screened the CNIB database and used the Major Gift Likelihood scores. Like PMA, they also did interim research on these screened prospects before rolling it out to gift officers. Since planned giving was also a big area for CNIB, they paid attention to Planned Giving Likelihood scores.
Talking to Other Planters
Planters sometimes get together to solve problems, like how to deal with slugs or why the geraniums aren’t blooming. Woodring recommends that researchers reach out to their colleagues within their regional prospect research field (and beyond). They may be able to provide insights on how to find potential prospects that you haven’t considered.
Similarly, Woodring notes an advantage of being at a smaller shop is getting to know her gift officers better. “Remember that having some of those informal conversations or going out for coffee with someone can really help your work be easier. They are going to trust your research more, you are going to trust their [feedback], and it just works better,” she says. With close relationships, you can learn what signs or attributes indicate a good major gift donor. This gives you specific traits to focus on when researching a prospect.
Looking at Other Gardens
Once you’ve tended to your database, look elsewhere for potential prospects. When I asked about buying lists, neither Woodring nor Church had elected this option.
Instead, they both looked for affinity by searching individuals and companies who gave to organizations similar to their nonprofit. For PMA, Woodring and her team looked at art organizations in the area, while Church looked at other blindness related charities in Canada to find new potential donors for CNIB.
Companies and vendors that a nonprofit works with may be another prospect pool for your organization. “We looked at vendors that actually make products the services team would use [at CNIB],” Church shares. Your organization may have companies they regularly work with who might have an affinity to your cause, just as mobility aid companies might be interested in supporting CNIB.
Church also notes new funding avenues may open up for CNIB, as society increases its awareness of and engagement with accessibility, diversity and employment equity. For instance, parts of Canada are remote and underserved with many Indigenous individuals who might benefit from CNIB services. Church says that the nonprofit might be able to find funding by looking at increasing services for Indigenous communities. That offers a whole new area of possible funders at individual and institutional levels.
Woodring also says they looked at high net worth individuals in Philadelphia where the museum is located, as well as any lists from the Philadelphia Business Journal, such as the highest paid CEOs. She notes it was tricky to find art donors since auctions and sales are kept private. To find prospects she uses ArtNews, a publication that releases a top 200 art collectors list each year that they monitor for new names in the region.
Woodring shares one lesson to keep in mind: “You can find the best prospect, but they might just not be interested in your organization.”
Just because you aren’t at a higher education institution or a hospital system doesn’t mean you can’t find good prospects for your institution. Planting your garden of prospects takes time. It takes creativity, as well as a strategy to plant and cultivate potential major gift prospects.