How to Cultivate the Gift Officer Relationship

A wizard leans over the railing of a rickety old tower, surveying the land for any sign of a wealthy traveler. Lightning flashes, illuminating a distant wayfarer. The wizard flies to his crystal ball, waves his hands and reveals the wealthy traveler’s secrets.

As prospect researchers, we must fight perceptions like the one described above. I've been a prospect researcher at Make-A-Wish America for nearly three years. In that time there has been constant, fluid contact with our front line. Significant effort has been made to increase trust by showing them clarity into our processes.

Prospect research should not be viewed by gift officers as a magic science that can pull data out of thin air. It shouldn’t be viewed as a tool to reduce and eliminate the need for gift officers to spend time with their donors. To combat these misconceptions about prospect research, we must encourage relationships with our fundraisers through constant communication, playful interactions and thoughtful meetings. Better communication with gift officers equals better communication with donors.

An Ongoing Dialogue

Prospect researchers should be having regular discussions with our gift officers, and gift officers should then be applying these discussions to their donor interactions. In support of this, one philosophy we subscribe to at Make-A-Wish is that our interaction with gift officers is the beginning of a conversation, not the end. It is not a crystal ball that allows a researcher to divine the needs of the donor. Research can provide information that can allow gift officers to guide conversations, confirm uncovered details and help them come up with the ideal number for an ask of a donor.

The role of prospect researchers should be to work hand-in-hand with gift officers, giving them everything they need to succeed in the field. Here are some suggested guidelines and some thoughts to keep in mind: 

  • Take care to ensure that the philanthropy conversation with your fundraisers is a two-way street; be sure to listen to what they have to say. You should encourage your gift officers to think of themselves as field researchers: your intelligence on the ground, your eyes and ears on the front line. Prospect researchers work from behind the lines to provide valuable data, but it is the gift officers that directly engage, by confirming and enhancing that information.
  • Consider the wealth capacity check that a prospect researcher performs. They may find that a donor is fabulously wealthy, owns several homes and is the president of a major company. Based on this information, it seems likely that this donor may be able to make very significant contributions to an organization. In spite of that, what the researcher may not be able to see is that this donor is in the middle of divorce proceeding, and that their wealth is going to be tied up for the next year and a half. Therefore, this person is not going to be in any position to be able to make significant contributions for a long while. Or maybe the donor has three children away at college, and the tuition is eating into their discretionary income. This person will not be able to make a major gift for years. Or maybe a donor has international assets; these may not easily pop up during traditional donor research. However, a gift officer may be able to uncover this information in just five minutes during a meeting with the donor over coffee. Their informal interviews with the donor can provide strategic intelligence in the field that a prospect researcher could not possibly come up with on their own. 
  • To this end, prepare your gift officers. Try to anticipate the questions they may have, and address those in your donor profiles. When relevant, coach them with ideas of questions to ask of the donor. Give them background information so they know what to look for and confirm. Try to give them what they need in the format they need it in. Maybe they want a lengthy word document; other times they may simply need a text message. Take them out for coffee. Don't always expect the gift officer to come to you. Sometimes you have to go to them. Context is everything.
  • When possible, have in-person group meetings. One thing we have been doing at Make-A-Wish that has been quite successful at facilitating conversations is holding monthly large-group Prospect Management meetings. Remote staff are brought in virtually for this face-to-face meeting. We have themes like our recent “Superhero” meeting, complete with masks and toys. These are meetings I design to fuel creativity, stimulate imagination and allow the fundraisers to have fun connecting to the mission. We discuss donor research, actions taken and potential for new gifts. Make it easy for them to celebrate their victories and to crowdsource their stewardship strategies amongst the team.

Communications in Practice

One of my key partners at Make-A-Wish is Gift Officer Jessi Propst. I asked her to discuss our research relationship. She kindly provided the following response, illuminating how important these conversations are:

As is the case with any relationship, I look for good communication and trust with my research team. I find that being able to anticipate needs is very helpful, so I always try to learn as much as I can about what goes into my research team's work. On top of that, I try to help educate my research team on my job and what donor information I find most beneficial. To me, getting to know your team (as people and as professionals) is the key to being successful.

If a researcher and I look at a list of donors who have given $1,000, we can find hidden gems. What if one of these $1,000 donations is a test gift made by a quiet millionaire? There's a chance that with above-and-beyond, early stewardship of that gift, based on research and quality discussions with the donor, this relationship could grow to include a transformational gift to the organization. 

Good research is so helpful for building a relationship with a donor. You don't want to sound creepy because you know so much about a donor before you meet them, but you do want to use the information you have to help guide your questions. For example, if my research team has told me that the donor also supports animal causes, I might ask questions to find out if the person has pets. It's a great way to get a meaningful conversation started, and it can quickly lead to uncovering other causes the donor cares about.

If the lines of communication are wide open, and the researcher is asking the gift officer what they want, and their questions are anticipated, then a true conversation can be had. There will be no talk of prospect research being a dark art, because the researcher is a partner with the fundraiser. When you are partners, they will understand that there is no crystal ball that can perfectly predict donor capacity or intent. Once discussions are had and a donor has been properly researched, the supporting cultivation leg-work can be done, and opportunities can be seized on. The likelihood of getting the desired result from a donor is much higher when you break down barriers. You as a prospect researcher can help your fundraising allies bring in more meaningful gifts to your organization. In turn, they can obtain valuable information that could move the discussion in the right direction.

Again, prospect research is the beginning of a conversation about our donors, not the end. It doesn't take a wizard to know that.

Trevor Stasik has been a prospect researcher and donor data analyst with Make-a-Wish America since April 2014. He was previously in records management and financial services. He holds a CAPM from the Project Management Institute, and a BBA in finance and communications from Temple University.

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Want to learn more about relationship management? Check out the Apra presentation "Say What? Communicating For Results."

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