Feeding the Pipeline: Designing and Refining a Proactive Referral Process

Due to necessity, all types and sizes of prospect research shops are shifting efforts toward proactive research in addition to reactive requests. This means that researchers now find themselves in need of a way to communicate their referrals to frontline fundraisers.

The Impetus for Our Proactive Referral Project

Like many operations, our prospect research team at the University of Arizona (UA) Foundation previously worked in a nearly 100 percent reactive manner, responding to whatever needs arose from frontline fundraisers or organization leadership. A comprehensive wealth screening changed that. The screening showed us that we had more than 400,000 records with capacity ratings, and senior leadership saw the need for more research staff to capitalize on this data to support our 80 development officers. While the screening and a subsequent capacity analysis revealed a tremendous untapped potential, we needed a way to actually get these newly identified prospects’ names onto fundraisers’ desks and into the prospect pipeline. 

We began verifying capacities and determining portfolio assignments. These efforts brought us a heightened awareness of the capability within our database, and so we were tasked with interpreting the new data. Thanks to our supportive senior leadership, we had enough resources to make the data interpretation achievable and enough staff to start pulling new prospects who were not previously on anyone’s radar. Over the course of the project, our team grew from two prospect researchers to nine.

As a result of the work we did, we were able to provide at least 10 referrals for each frontline fundraiser in our organization. All in all, the project took over a year as we looked for and fully researched prospects before sharing them with fundraisers. Additionally, we scheduled, prepared for and held meetings with each recipient of our referrals.

Working With and Listening to Our Fundraisers

We scheduled 6-month follow-up meetings with gift officers who received prospects. In these meetings, we discussed their feelings on the referral process, the impact of their prospects’ locations, and any upcoming projects that may need referrals or other support from the prospect research team.

One of our most important lessons learned is that each development officer has a different approach for not only their overall work style, but also the fashion in which they want to receive and use referrals. Many fundraisers, particularly for prospects who do not have a natural constituency with our organization such as alumni, sought a way to get a foot in the door or a specific connection to our organization that would help them gain access to the prospect and pique their interest. Our research could serve as that foot in the door. But while some fundraisers prefer to have as much information as possible about a prospect before even approaching them via phone or email, other fundraisers approach their referrals as cold calls, preferring to build their relationships organically without research.

We asked gift officers what information is most important to them in receiving a referral. The most common responses included information on donations to other organizations, information about their families, and past and present connections to UA.

Documenting, Organizing and Tracking Our Referrals

We needed our referrals to be traceable and visible to anyone who came across the constituent records of those who had been referred. In the case of our database, tracking the referrals with an action on constituent records made the most sense. Data captured in each action, stored on the potential prospect’s record, included the date, the name of the researcher who made the referral, the college or unit that received the referral, and a note on why this person appeared to be a good prospect.

Even if a prospect never responds or makes a gift, this information is still valuable. If someone else comes across the prospect in the future and finds some of the same seemingly promising information about them, they will be able to see on their record that it has already been explored.    

Additionally, some development officers were automatically assigned as Primary Relationship Manager (our terminology for what others may refer to as “solicitor”) for certain prospects upon receiving their list of referrals. This way, their connection to the prospects was public, and our hope was that it would ensure that no other frontline fundraisers would reach out to a prospect without consulting their original Primary Relationship Manager. Moving forward, we made automatic assignments more often in order to avoid issues with fundraisers accidentally stepping on each other’s toes or referred prospects appearing in lists of unassigned prospects.

As with any list of potential prospects, some turned out to be unfeasible. If this was the case, the prospect was unassigned and a note was made on their record. In our shop, we always want to make sure no one spends time doing a deep research dive into a constituent when it has already been done. Documentation of previous research referrals helps prevent this potential waste of time.

Next Steps: Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Our next step moving forward is implementing a liaison model in which prospect research and prospect management staff are assigned as a team with specific frontline fundraisers on campus and within our development program. With this method, we have started to send one-off referrals as we come across them rather than cultivating large referral lists.

A year after the inception of our referral project, we found that 50 percent of referrals were acted upon by those who received them. While this was better than previous proportions of action on referrals, we concluded that large referral lists may not be the best use of our time. We inferred that it would be more feasible for fundraisers to manage and feel excited about smaller groups of referrals provided at more frequent intervals. With this method, proactive referrals can be a monthly or quarterly opportunity to interact with our fundraisers and act as a constant strategic partner.

What We Learned and How We Changed

Our project helped us learn many lessons and provided a solid foundation for our new liaison model. The process helped with a huge culture shift for our group: Not only do we spend more time on proactive research, but we also have a proactive mindset during everyday research.

We now maintain running lists for each college and unit on campus, and if we come across a potential new prospect, whether it is in a lifestyle magazine at the dentist’s office or in a news story, we record that name so it is considered and further researched as a potential prospect. While we no longer use this exact large-scale method of sharing referrals with our frontline fundraisers, the process helped us to become more visible within our organization and provided a beneficial opportunity for communication and partnership with our development officers. The ability to meet in person with our development officers and put a face to a name was important for both sides of our referral transaction. It helped us feel involved in the cultivation of prospects and provided a chance for frontline fundraisers to share their future prospecting needs with us.

Are Other Institutions Going Proactive?

While this article outlined the proactive referral process used by our prospect research team at UA, we also distributed a survey to find out what our peers at other institutions were doing. We asked survey questions such:

  • How many proactive referrals does your team produce each year?
  • What types of information do you typically include with your referrals?
  • How large is your prospect research staff?
  • What portion of your team’s time is spent on proactive referrals versus reactive requests?

Ninety-five percent of respondents were sending proactive referrals in some way, but the quantity and methodology for these referrals varied greatly. This inconsistency among referral processes was illustrated perfectly by the most popular response to our question on the number of referrals provided each year: “Not sure.”

However, some of our colleagues shared information on their sophisticated tracking mechanisms and goals for proactive referrals. Debra Thomas, senior director of development research, and Terri Whitehouse, assistant director of donor research, reported that The University of Louisville uses a monthly referrals model with a per-research goal of 16-20 referrals. With this model, they produce 200-400 referrals per year and monitor their team with a “Researcher ROI Report.” Thomas described her team’s proactive referral model as a “game changer” that has helped transition their research team from a provider of service to a development colleague.

We hope to impart onto readers our experience and lessons learned with our proactive referrals process and encourage our counterparts to make proactive referrals part of their daily work culture with fundraisers, especially with our average survey respondent spending nearly 40 percent of their time on proactive work. Rather than being thought of as a massive project, proactive referrals can be a perfect opportunity to present and maintain your research team as trusted partners with referral recipients.


Sadie Slager is a prospect research professional specializing in higher education development settings. She currently works as a prospect research analyst with the University of Arizona Foundation, after having worked for two years in prospect for her alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University. Sadie works on reactive and proactive prospect research and is always on a mission to eliminate dirty data anywhere and everywhere.

Are you intrigued by the University of Arizona's proactive referral project? Apra University has a 2017 webinar recording that goes into great detail about how the creators of the project implemented it! The webinar features three members of the University of Arizona Foundation's prospect research team — including the author of this article, Sadie Slager.

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