Focusing on Top Prospects in the Chaos of a Campaign

Last summer, my supervisor and I presented a session titled “Focusing on Top Prospects in the Chaos of a Campaign” at Prospect Development 2015: Apra’s 28th Annual International Conference in New Orleans.

We wanted to explore why top prospects and mega gifts are different than “regular” major gifts. I’m beginning to think that the difference is as different as between a major gift and an annual gift. I’d like to share some of the key highlights of our presentation. For context, I work in higher education fundraising, but I believe that all types of organizations run into the principal gift conundrum in some way or another. The work of raising mega gifts is quite different, and our habits and systems support the more common ways of fundraising. It takes a creative mind and a soul full of energy to move beyond that.

Let me explain. I have a room full of Legos in my house. Maybe some of you do, too. Generally, when I buy Legos, they are bought in a kit — with the right amount of pieces and instructions to build.

But besides the high cost of Legos being like major gifts, what is my point? Well, our fundraisers are very comfortable with asking donors for gifts in the form of “kits”: scholarships, professorships, endowments, etc. In your organization, that might be a table sponsorship or sponsoring a tiger for a year. Our donors, generously, respond to these very well packaged kits.

But when you’re looking at a donor who has more capacity, someone you can dream big with, the “kit” gift isn’t always the right way to go.

If you’re focusing on top gifts — principal gifts — you need to have the skill set to build something much more, like a Lego Colosseum. It’s part art, part science and much deliberation. These gifts tend to be intentional, deliberate, long-term, strategic, flexible and, for most of the time you work on them, not very rewarding. This is different for fundraisers raising “regular” major gifts; the prospect management systems/techniques are also different. For a Lego Colosseum, you need to figure it out yourself. There’s not a template to solicit a principal gift; they’re complicated and creative, and they take time and energy.

The University of Washington’s Story

Here’s a story of how we at the University of Washington (UW) tried to help our fundraising team keep their eyes on the largest, more transformative gifts during a campaign.

Our prospect development (PD) team partnered with our campaign director to visit each chief fundraiser (each of our schools/colleges have one leader who manages their whole team). The PD team gathered the top 10 to 30 prospects for their unit by capacity ratings. These were the prospects that could make the transformative gifts that would shape their campaign — generally far above a typical major gift level. We sat with the chief fundraiser and asked the simple question: How much do you think this prospect will give to your unit during the next campaign (a 10-year timeline)? This number would be their unit campaign rating.

After these meetings were complete, the campaign director had a good snapshot of where we were on each unit’s campaign, and the chief fundraiser had a limited list of prospects to start engaging, knowing that they have a 10-year horizon. All was hunky dory. We stored the campaign ratings in our database.

These ratings sat in our database like the jar of specialty olives sits in the back of your pantry. We looked at them occasionally, but we never pulled them out. We never used them. And the same for our fundraisers. They would think about those loose relationships but set them aside for later. After all, a campaign of 10 years is a long time — plenty of time to get to those prospects later.

The Science of It

So, why do we procrastinate? I’m so glad you asked! It turns out that Scientific American did some research on this conundrum. Here are the results of a 10-year study on procrastination in equation form. You’re welcome, PD quant nerds!

U = E x V / I x D

U = the desire to complete the task
E = the expectation of success
V = the value of completion
I = the immediacy of task
D = the personal sensitivity to delay

Here’s an example. Let’s say my “U” is that I really want to run in a marathon. I’ve never done that. That takes some training. So, how likely is it that I will procrastinate on achieving my goal of running a marathon?

E = 2 (I don’t expect to succeed)
V = 8 (it’s important, a bucket-list goal)
I = 2 (no deadline, self-imposed)
D = 1 (no one is watching me)

So, my U is an 8.0. That’s a pretty high likelihood that I will procrastinate. But what if I change my Immediacy and Sensitivity to Delay:

E = 2 (I don’t expect to succeed)
V = 8 (it’s important, a bucket-list goal
I = 8 (my BFF signed me up for one next summer)
D = 8 (there are milestones you have to meet before running on a specific date)

Now my U is a 0.25: much lower likelihood that I’ll procrastinate! Let’s look at a big gift:

E = 5 (50/50)
V = 8 (we need to get big gifts)
I = 2 (I have eight more years in the campaign)
D = 2 (my dean would rather I got “regular” major gifts now)

U = 10.0. Looks like I’m not going to work on that big gift today. I’ll do it tomorrow! Or over the summer when things are quieter. Right?

Our fundraisers are working hard day in and day out, but there are more things more “urgent” than the big gift. They know how to ask for a professorship, a table at the auction or for buying equipment. They’ve got pressure to bring in gifts/pledges now. It’s hard to work on something with no immediate reward. People work best when they have things they can control in a yearly timeline.

Does this type of procrastination sound familiar? It’s like saving for retirement. Intellectually, you know can’t start saving at age 60 for retirement. But, right now, your car needs a new head gasket. And you have to fly to your friend’s wedding.

Perhaps it is like climate change. I get quarterly reminders of how much electricity I use in comparison to my neighbors. That has never stopped me from turning on a light I needed to read my book.

The incentives for this type of long-term creative investment are different. This is where we in PD can help leadership.

UW Creates the Great Wall

So, back at UW, we’ve got our dusty jar of fancy olives/campaign ratings. Mid-campaign rolls around. Where are we at? The campaign director and the principal giving (PG) team need a handle on progress for prospects they don’t know well — the ones handled by the unit fundraisers.

It was the head of PG that came up with a great idea: Every fundraiser needs to put their significant campaign asks on a physical timeline. That way, she could see that if the ask was to occur next month, we were already behind. Plus, we knew that because of procrastination, many teams still were probably cloudy on when that ask might happen. After all, 10 years (now it was less than five) is plenty of time.

At a retreat of chief fundraisers (some 28 of them), a large butcher paper timeline was put on the wall. Each fundraiser put the name of their prospects from the early campaign exercise with their ask amounts on a colored Post-it note. They were to add it to the timeline in the proper quarter.

We called it the Great Wall. Then, we polished it.

There were a lot of lessons learned by this exercise, but for the most part it has really helped UW focus and move forward on these very hard, creative, important gifts. The exercise of the Great Wall helped us with procrastination. Now, we look like this:

E = 5 (50/50)
V = 8 (we need to get big gifts)
I = 8 (set timeline, false deadlines)
D = 8 (short-term steps I need to take)

Our U is 0.625, which gives us a much lower chance of procrastination. It truly led to more concrete plans and visions for these significant solicitations.

Here’s how it helped many of our different types of advancement staff:

  • For VP: kept them informed; no surprises; confidence
  • For volunteers: helped them see where they could help
  • For big unit heads: gave them the ability to see goals and hurdles
  • For small unit heads: gave them a chance to get help from leadership
  • For the principal giving team: helped coordinate strategy, reverse engineering
  • For fundraising management and PD: created behavior change
  • For the campaign: created a plan for reaching goal (or not)
  • For deans and campus leaders: helped them understand the need for effort surrounding their vision
  • All: helped articulate what is happening (or not happening); peer pressure

In any project such as this, there are benefits and drawbacks. Here are some of the benefits we found:

The Great Wall led to:

  • Discipline and creativity
  • Better coordination/donor-centric asks
  • Fundraisers getting out of the “endowment” rut
  • Good behavior
  • Understanding that hope is not a strategy
  • More strategic and proactive reverse engineering
  • Discarding the “Oprah” asks — the ones that were just dreams without substance

Some drawbacks:

  • The Great Slide: Once fundraisers realized the deadlines were “false,” some started pushing their asks out.
  • Unit colleagues were overwhelmed. The process wasn’t 100 percent clear, especially for fundraisers who needed more help with strategy.
  • It shows the gaps, many outside of advancement (some units struggled with vision).
  • There is not always a connection between needs and prospects.
  • Because of the longer timeline of the Great Wall, the fundraisers who put their asks up on the wall may not be the ones here for the rest of the campaign. They didn’t always feel ownership of their predecessors’ asks.

You can’t create the vision for a big gift in PD. But if you’re paying attention, you can create the path to that big gift, and help reduce the barriers that we all have.

Special thanks to Mark DeFilippis, Brock Silvey, Bond Lammey, Amy Turbes, Heather Campbell, Craig Leonard and Jessica Balsam.

Susan Hayes-McQueen joined the University of Washington in Seattle in 1996. She has worked as a fundraiser, implemented a relationship management system and now serves as the senior director of Prospect Management, Research & Analytics. In her role, she heads a team of 18 information professionals who work with more than 185 fundraisers in more than 25 schools, colleges and campuses.

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