7 Steps for Elevating Prospect Research and Data-Driven Decisions to Achieve Fundraising Goals

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By Julie Fregetto and Jennifer Salmon

Being charged with developing a prospect development program to support a budding major gifts program was a challenge that required patience, collaboration, resources and a systematic approach. This was the case for completing a successful $250 million five-year inaugural campaign for a national religious organization, including both current and planned gifts.

The prospect research and management team began as a two-person team comprising a manager and coordinator. As the fundraising program grew, the positions were elevated and grew to a three-person team lead by the director of prospect development and supported by a research analyst and an events manager. The organization started with five major gift officers and grew to a team of more than 12 portfolio managers. By the end of the campaign, the fundraising team had more than tripled the major gift threshold from $2,500 to $10,000 and built a robust major gifts and prospect development program.

We followed four core values to how we grew the program and approached our work with the fundraisers:

  1. Start with the basics to build a strong foundation; garner buy-in and trust among your team.
  2. Develop a prospect development and research strategic plan that aligns with the larger goals for the organization.
  3. Be data focused and driven; use data to inform and inspire.
  4. Facilitate a customer service approach. Every organization and fundraising team and fundraiser is different and dynamic; always collaborate and communicate.

To reach the highest level of productivity and success, the prospect research and management team developed a strategy based on the framework of the four domains of the Apra Body of Knowledge. The four domains are: prospect research, relationship management, data science and campaigns. As we infused the tenets of each of the domains into our strategic plan, we developed a program in which we could breakdown into seven concrete steps we have outlined in this article.

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Step 1: Establishing the Foundation — Research Profiles and Prospect Lists

We built a solid foundation and reliance on prospect research with our fundraising colleagues. We were proactive in making sure the development team knew the value that prospect research profiles brought to the overall strategy development, what information we had to assist the team, how donors and prospects were currently giving, and the potential that existed for raising new dollars.

At this time, we also introduced prospect lists to our frontline fundraisers. This allowed us to lift up new prospects and existing donors who were not engaged in a strategic manner. We had a pool of loyal and existing donors before the campaign launched but had not been intentional in stewarding and cultivating our donors to increase their giving and ensure higher donor retention.

These donors/prospects appeared on our prospect lists that were created through a data-driven approach. Each prospect list was based on an established giving threshold that would vary based on the program focus. Lists were surfaced based on minimum major gift capacity and included other wealth and giving indicators identified by Blackbaud’s wealth ratings and analytics.

Step 2: Educating and Developing Processes — Pipeline Reports and Moves Management Meetings

Building a system of accountability and follow up is critical to building a prospect development program with major gift officers. This was done by introducing pipeline reports and facilitating monthly moves meetings with the major gift officers.

For some colleagues, they understood the moves management process; for others, they were still learning. It is important to meet each person where they are at in the process. Training, patience, and results are important.

Creating database and relationship management policies, reporting systems and consistent scheduling of moves management meetings to communicate these policies and systems was a priority.

Step 3: Individual Performance Metrics

At the beginning of the campaign, individual performance metrics for the major gift officers did not exist. As the campaign was launched, setting metrics for the major giving efforts was paramount to a successful program.

Establishing metrics for movement and activity was a process implemented over time. We introduced the individual metrics to the gift officers in stages, which made it easier for the gift officers to digest and adapt to the process. With each new stage introduced, they could ask questions to gain a better understanding of how critical metrics are to the success of a gift officer. It also allowed the prospect development team to address issues raised before we were too far into the process.

Step 4: Portfolio Development and Pledge Tracking System

We began to see how gift officer portfolios were performing and had a better sense of how individual fundraising efforts uniquely performed based on portfolio managers, programs, regional giving focus and gift sizes. As such, we were able to customize portfolios based on the fundraising performance of the individual gift officer.

Our work around prospect development started to become more sophisticated and insightful to the fundraising efforts. The leadership and team began to rely on prospect research and data analysis reports because we started to show results.

Momentum was building in beginning of year three of the campaign and multi-year commitments started to grow, initiating a new system for tracking and stewarding multi-year pledges.

Step 5: Giving Pyramids, Gift Tables and Donor Mapping Exercises

Our campaign was unique in that we did not have a silent phase. We jumped headfirst into the campaign, presenting simple giving pyramids and gift tables at the beginning as we focused on data collection and data integrity. In year three we became more sophisticated in what and how we presented the data to the team. We were now able to prioritize our top donors and prospects, identify key markets, develop realistic giving pyramids and gift tables, and equip major gift officers and volunteer leadership with visualization tools, such as donor heat mapping, to show what it would take to achieve the campaign goals.

We presented at the executive leadership and campaign volunteer leadership meetings, sharing viable pathways to success that built further confidence in the work of the prospect development and research team.

Step 6: Portfolio Analyses

We first learned of portfolio analyses at an Apra Prospect Development Conference. Our goal for each analysis was to:

  • Clearly track the movement of prospects through the prospect management process
  • Ensure the portfolio had the right donors/prospects to meet the fundraising goal for the individual fundraisers
  • Increase the likelihood that prospects were being effectively prioritized and managed according to the highest capacity and greatest giving likelihood
  • Evaluate the size, quality and composition of portfolios

We derived conclusions from the portfolio analyses to make data-driven recommendations for analyzing challenges and opportunities, sharing descriptive statistics, and sharing predictive future behavior of donors and prospects under management.

Step 7: Build Efficiencies and Refine Processes for Growth

Throughout the campaign, a level of flexibility was always needed, coupled with an openness to receive feedback and willingness to make changes. We received some resistance and pushback throughout the process, but by sharing our strategic action plans with the fundraisers first, we were able to work with the fundraising team to come to a place of compromise on most activities. The fundraisers felt heard, respected and part of the process, while we were able to meet our goals.

Policies, protocols, and training programs were ever evolving, encompassing all aspects of important work with the fundraising teams. We learned that keeping things fresh and innovative inspires colleagues. Introduce new efficiencies, dashboards and technology each year to trigger creativity, ideas and a consistent focus on data.

As we laid out our seven-step case, it gave us time to reflect on what core values, strategic steps and key learnings brought us to a successful close of a five-year campaign. The key learnings we walked away with is that it is necessary to share and celebrate “wins”, build strong and sincere relationships with colleagues, always remain customer service oriented, encourage collaboration among units and stay engaged in professional development and Apra.

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