Prospect Development in Practice

The themes and issues dominating the evolution of the prospect development profession and community were prevalent throughout all the keynotes, educational sessions and networking events that comprised Prospect Development 2016, Apra’s annual international conference that took place in Nashville, Tennessee, in July. In particular, a comprehensive, interactive Prospect Development Round Robin session encapsulated the predominant themes and critical topics, while allowing attendees to engage in discussions about what’s next with their prospect development peers.

The Round Robin session was facilitated by Liz McHugh, president of EMcHugh Consulting, and Michael Quevli, senior consultant at Blackbaud, who — along with a number of experts who volunteered to serve as topic leaders — led an in-depth exploration of prospect development’s opportunities, potential roadblocks and growth. The outcome for session attendees was not just an exchange of information, but also an in-depth, custom-designed presentation based on the outcome of the discussions.

Topics covered included the integration of analytics into prospect research, optimal methods of prospect identification, successful portfolio management and the cultivation of strong relationships with gift officers. The facilitators shared excerpts from the proceedings with Apra Connections to allow members to explore the important intelligence that has the potential to improve their insights and prospect development work.

The Integration of Analytics

APRA’s members have made analytics a routine and powerful component of prospect development, a fact that loomed large at Prospect Development 2016. Large donor pools can be difficult to sort through; prospect prioritization is key, and analytics is the ideal tool for prioritization. The use of RFM (recency/frequency/monetary), engagement and likelihood scores place prime prospects in portfolios, all while expediting the research process. The scores accomplish myriad tasks, such as building event lists and justifying research recommendations.

Newer fundraisers tend to more highly value the integration of data mining than those who are more established. The efficacy of data examination is sound, but it stands that more established fundraisers are not as interested as those newer to the scene. Table leader Jennifer MacCormack, associate director of advancement analytics at the University of Washington, recommended educating interested fundraisers on analytics incorporation rather than wasting valuable time attempting to persuade those who are vocally skeptical.

In general, the best ways to bolster the role of analytics in fundraising are by introducing analytics jargon into the “linguistic landscape,” using data mining to create event lists and the like, and developing simple scoring that is easy to digest.

Optimal Prospect Identification

Table leader Tara McMullen, a senior researcher for the Helen Brown Group, offered various ways to effectively mine data. She suggested looking at industries that prospects are working within, as well as companies for which they’re working, examining previous giving to your organization and interest-related coding within databases. Resources like relationship science can be especially useful in looking for board connections.

How can one measure the value of their various prospecting efforts? McMullen suggested creating a “watch list” to track key prospects for particular initiatives, and ultimately comparing the results of research to the results of direct contact on a two-capacity rating system to track how much total potential wealth has been identified by prospecting efforts. After prospects have been identified, professionals should track progress through the pipeline and record every footprint.

Certain obstacles will inevitably arise with regard to new methods of prospect research. Professionals should devote ample time to proactive activities and less time to reactive work. Database systems can be problematic in terms of coding and tracking. Other potential issues prospect development professionals must address include not enough fundraisers to tackle the large pools of prospects unearthed, not enough prospects being uncovered at a level high-enough for gift officers’ satisfaction and lack of education about research. Follow-up after prospect identification is absolutely crucial.

Successful Portfolio Management

Jill Meister, director of prospect research and management at the University of New Hampshire, led a discussion on successful portfolio management in which she offered various methods of healthy portfolio upkeep, including limiting portfolio size, yearly and bi-annual portfolio reviews, coding factors such as interest and non-responsiveness, and more.

Keeping a good portfolio is about maintenance, but above all it’s about freshness. Meister stressed not letting any prospects fall through the cracks. She focused on the importance of developing new metrics, looking into relationship mapping, reviewing special events lists and screening reunion years annually among other things.

Cold calling can often be viewed in a negative light, so Meister suggested various ways to spruce up the practice: Prepare talking points and ice breakers in advance — even a script — and verify contact information for efficiency. Above all, present information that you want to build a relationship. Communication is key, so treat cold calling like the important medium it is.

Working Well With Gift Officers

Emily Walsh, associate vice president of development research and resources for the University of Arizona Foundation, spoke about the importance of cultivating strong relationships with gift officers. She advocated for bridging the gap between prospect researchers and gift officers by regular interaction and efforts that will help maintain clear expectations on both sides. Two-way dialogue is critical for sustaining and improving these relationships. Both parties should feel free to ask questions and voice concerns.

Above all, simply being available and responsive will go a long way in strengthening prospect developer/gift officer relationships. Make an effort to show enthusiasm for the partnerships and examine what is working and what isn’t; be willing to make changes to adapt. Engage in frequent and consistent communication for optimal results.

Each gift officer is different, and the more you work together, the more you can build the necessary communication channels. Certain gift officers may want all the information, while others may not understand the complexity. It all boils down to evaluating your specific partnership and cultivating the best possible relationship.

Having an established shared location at work can be very helpful. Face-to-face meeting should be the most often-used form of communication, rather than relying too heavily on email. If your gift officer partner asks something, do not say “no” immediately: Be solutions-oriented and creative. Ask questions, exhibit enthusiasm and be consistent. That will take you far.

Apra would like to acknowledge and thank Liz McHugh (elizabeth.mchugh54@, president of EMcHugh Consulting, and Michael Quevli, senior consultant at Blackbaud (michael., for facilitating the Prospect Development Round Robin and for contributing their expertise and resources to this article. Special thanks to the table leaders who assisted in facilitating this valuable discussion.

Recent Stories
Apra Connections Chapter Capture — Q2 2022

Prospect Identification as a Tipping Point to Hire for Research

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, C'mon In: Onboarding for Success and Retention