Alexa, Help Me Find Donors in This Crisis

By Donia Wright, research officer, Texas Christian University

The world has turned upside down. People are staying in their homes as much as possible. Gas prices have hit rock bottom. Face masks and Clorox wipes have been the most sought-after items online. Remote work and Zoom are now the most popular words in a Google search. Although it may seem like the world is ending, our development officers still need prospects because our institutions need money now more than ever. 

At Texas Christian University (TCU), we needed to come up with new ways to find good prospects for anxious gift officers. Four researchers and a director were responsible for supporting a development team of 35. At TCU, a major gift starts at $100,000, making our gift officers understandably nervous during times, like the present, of economic uncertainty. When we applied new, COVID-19 standards to our proactive research brainstorming sessions (a relatively new practice for our research department), we came up with some surprising new ideas. They may not work for all shops, but perhaps the following ideas and tips, all of which we implemented, and some of which produced immediate results, will help you frame your own discussions regarding proactive research during a global crisis.

Review Lower Ratings

Our CRM is filled with people rated below major giving capacity; and they’ve been rated that way for years. The data is stagnant. Now is a great time to dig into that data in order to refresh it and screen those prospects again. We discovered some great numbers of new major giving prospects just by looking at the data we already had and the prospects languishing at low rating levels.

In our CRM, we had 8,400 prospects rated at $25,000 or $50,000. We updated our screening data for about 3,000 of those. Of those 3,000 prospects, 400 came back with a major giving capacity over $50,000, meaning they will likely be assigned a rating of $100,000. Of those 400 prospects, 30 will most likely be assigned a rating of $250,000 or higher once they are verified by a researcher. 

Athletic Donors

Since our stadiums couldn’t be filled to capacity in 2020 (and some will remain empty), we had a lot of unhappy season ticket-holders. Most of them understood the situation and chose to apply their pledge balances to 2021 tickets. But, a select few chose instead to give that money to a fund helping students who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. These donors who had the financial ability to give back seemed to genuinely care for our students. We decided to screen them to see if any could be rated at major giving capacity — and some were!

Interested in learning how to better manage parental prospects? Check out "Managing Parents as Prospects: Automated Scoring and Prospect Management" by Alex Fujita Brandhorst and Michelle Zad-Langan.

Leadership Annual Giving Donors

Our researchers are constantly monitoring who is giving to the university. If a gift of $1,000 or more comes in, we look at the donor to make sure they are rated. Now is not the time to let someone fall through the cracks of research. Not all of these donors will be rated at a major giving capacity, but we all know that annual giving donors are the foundation of a successful campaign. By reviewing these gifts on a weekly basis, we’ve found that we can generally find one major giving prospect every week or two. While this seems like a small number, it adds up. 

Former Donors

In an attempt to preemptively find prospects who could make a major gift, we looked at consistent annual donors who had stopped giving to TCU in the past 10 years. In most cases, their decisions to stop supporting the university were unclear so we thought they should be revisited by staff to gauge their current interest in the university. 

This process was not as fruitful as we had hoped, but it did provide some good prospects for planned giving. After reviewing a list of 100 former donors, we were able to find 10 viable prospects, eight of whom we sent to the planned giving team. Annual giving donors may never become major giving donors, but a lot of them are very likely to leave something substantial in their estates to the university.  

First-Time Donors

Even during a social and economic crisis, people are still donating money — and some are donating to an institution for the first time. We take these gifts very seriously. Donors have many ways to give and many organizations to give to. While most people are giving to hospitals and social aid organizations at this time, any gift to higher education is an indication of a donor’s philanthropic priorities, as well as his/her capacity.

By monitoring the gift logs, researchers were able to screen donors who were giving for the first time to quickly gauge capacity. While this process did not turn up many new prospects, we were able to identify one or two a month, most of whom came in at a rating under $100,000. Most of these donors (especially alumni) were young and, therefore, could turn into major giving prospects in the future.

Corporate Donors

An often overlooked prospect pool is local businesses. Fundraisers often want to find that one great individual prospect — Warren Buffet! — instead of looking at companies that could become great partners for years to come. COVID-19 has negatively impacted many industries but there are some that are thriving: gaming, entertainment, technology, online shopping and pharmaceutical companies, to name a few. Now is the time to dig into your data to find who you know working in these industries and connect them to your institution. By making these personal connections, you can thereby connect the corporation to the appropriate college or department on campus to whom the company may be interested in giving. The corporate giving team at TCU relies on making these personal connections as a way to “get in the door” to large companies.


While the economic uncertainty of these times has negatively impacted many people, a lot of our donors are doing well — and some are doing very well. As researchers, it’s our job to find the ones who are doing very well. Brainstorm with your team to find which wealth indicators align with the data you already have. Trust your data and dig into it — the prospects are there.  


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This article relates to the Prospect Research domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge.






 Learn more about the author featured in this article on the Connections Thought Leadership Page.

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