See the Forest and the Trees: Internal Campaign Factors

Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part series on this topic. Look for part two to be published in Connections next week.

If someone “can't see the forest for the trees,” it means they get so caught up in small details that they fail to see the bigger picture. This metaphor is particularly important to keep in mind when preparing for a campaign. Fundraisers and researchers must consider both the internal (the “trees”) and external factors (the “forest”) in order to ensure a successful campaign.

The following is an overview of the internal factors to consider. In part two of this article, we will zoom out to cover the external factors.

Assess internal staff & resource readiness

Prospect research should play an integral role during the preliminary stages of an organization’s campaign planning. Some of the questions prospect research can answer include:

  • What are the organization’s strengths and weaknesses or opportunities and threats moving into the campaign?
  • How will campaign leaders and volunteers assist during the campaign? What is their capacity and gift readiness? Who are their networks?
  • Does the organization have sufficient in-house tools and resources? Should an external vendor be involved to assist with prospect identification?
  • What key performance indicators (KPIs) should be designed to measure outcomes?

Perform a SWOT analysis

Zoom in and examine the details of your organization. A SWOT analysis is a helpful tool to brainstorm an organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Once you have a list of factors affecting your organization in each of these categories, you can then assess those factors in regard to the campaign planning. SWOT analysis will allow you to anchor the fundraising strategy in its context by highlighting risks and strengths. Some examples of potential risks include resource shortages or competition from rival organizations. The SWOT analysis can identify strengths, such as new funding opportunities or expertise of the fundraising team.

Ensure pipeline readiness

A robust prospect pipeline is a major component of any major or capital campaign. This is where prospect researchers can really shine and demonstrate their significant value.

Using industry standards, the prospect research team needs to ensure that the number of prospects in the pipeline as well as the value of the pipeline meet the needs of the overall campaign goal. Gift ratios are also included. On average, once a qualified prospect is added to a development officer’s portfolio, is the ratio of prospects assigned to gifts closed 3:1, 4:1 or something else? Gift charts and their close ratios can differ based on programs, development officer expertise or an overall average of close rates in the past.

The campaign gift table is a master document that includes a list of prospects who have been identified and qualified for the campaign (and sometimes gifts already secured), as well as number of prospects that need to be identified at each giving category. If the campaign is comprised of different programs or initiatives, a gift table may need to be developed for each program. For a hospital, for instance, different programs such as cardiac, cancer care or orthopedics, among others, may all have different goals, current donors and future prospects that will align best with the program. Higher education organizations may have different goals per faculty or school.

Generally speaking, success of a major gift campaign depends largely on the ability of an organization to secure a lead gift. The lead gift should represent 10 percent of the campaign’s goal. Oftentimes, lead gifts are secured from individuals who have an existing close relationship with the organization.

Compare campaign goals to current donors

Some of the most beneficial projects a prospect researcher can perform within their function include analyses of lapsed and current donors. Understanding your donor base, both in numbers and value, will provide you with a critical understanding of the starting point in your prospect identification efforts and the gap to meet the campaign goal.

Campaign capacity and affinity ratings for current and lapsed donors will come in handy, as that information can be used in financial forecasting.

While looking at your current and lapsed donors, note those who are well connected within philanthropic or wealthy networks. Individuals in those networks may become your future prospects!

If your database has been utilized for a number of years, it most likely has a wealth of information that may not be used in day-to-day prospecting. Take a look at historical notes and codes to determine if they are still valid and up-to-date and if they provide insights into your donors’ interests.

If your database has sparse data, look for opportunities to enhance it for prospecting. Vendor screenings, peer reviews, file review and downloading what is in fundraisers’ heads are some ways to beef up your knowledge base.

Evaluate your pipeline and pool

Having a viable list of prospects at each giving category and stage of the fundraising cycle is essential within any fundraising operation. The first step in ensuring that your prospects are of good quality and that you have enough of them is to start by qualifying them to determine giving capacity, interest and readiness. Evaluate your top 100 prospects first. As you determine campaign giving capacity to each prospect, it will become clear how many new prospects need to be identified. You will also determine which of your current donors can give at a higher level than previously. Areas to consider include:

  • Are your donors giving larger gifts to other organizations?
  • Do your intermediate-level donors have many of the same parameters as your major giving donors (age, education level, giving patterns)?
  • Are there external indicators such as high income and/or higher gifts by postal codes that would align more so to major giving, among others?

A gift range chart is your organization’s way of mapping out future gifts. Essentially, you’ll take your total dollar amount goal and divide that amount across giving levels. In your gift range chart, you’ll list how many gifts of a certain size you’re looking to secure. The larger the gift, the fewer the donations of that quantity you’ll be aiming for. This is not meant to be a hard-and-fast rule but rather a guideline to help lead your fundraising efforts when you get to the solicitation phase.

Based on where each prospect falls in the fundraising cycle, you will be able to predict how ready they are to make a gift to your organization’s campaign. For example, those in the stewardship stage may be ready to re-enter the cultivation cycle and make a significant donation to the campaign. Other factors, such as life events, may play a role in the prospect’s readiness to make a gift. Having alerts in the media on your top prospects’ names will assist in determining the best time to reach out and ultimately make an ask.

Your prospects’ and donors’ networks are valuable sources of potential names to add to the pipeline.

As you actively identify new prospects for the campaign, you can incorporate giving ratios into the pipeline. This means that for every three or four asks, the organizations will receive one gift. While three to four asks per gift may be a standard for one organization, it does not necessarily mean it would be a standard for yours. The ratio of asks to gifts varies a great deal on the maturity of the organization, the campaign, the relationship with the prospects, and the development officer asking. What is the ratio at your organization? This can be determined by finding the number of asks the fundraising team has made in a given time period (usually a year) and comparing that number to the number of gifts that were secured.

Predict team capacity

Assess the donor database and associated processes to anticipate potential gaps before a large increase in volume of wealth screening results, biographical information, prospecting results and gifts. Performing a gap analysis, determining the number of prospects you have compared with the number of prospects you will need for your goal, will allow you to predict your team’s workload for the upcoming increase in activity.

*Note, this 4:1 ratio is a classic example. Prospects with higher affinity to an organization may have a better ratio (3:1, 2:1), while those prospects with a lower affinity may have a much lower ratio (5:1 – 10:1). Some organizations set up different gift charts for different types of prospects based on affinity or likelihood to give. Ideally, the “likelihood ratio” can reside in the database on the constituent’s record.

Quantify all your work. This means: track your actions, prospects identified, research profiles completed and database tasks. Knowing the prospect needs of the campaign will allow you to determine if your team has the capacity to support it. Don’t forget that it will take three to four qualified prospects, or more, to secure one gift. Comparing your prospects' needs to those you already have in the pipeline will help you determine if you and your team are ready for the task of ensuring the campaign has potential to succeed.

Other tasks to evaluate prior to the campaign include ensuring that you have all the relevant procedures in place. These include database-related procedures such as prospect clearance, entering actions and proposals, qualifying and disqualifying prospects, clearance, moves management and financial reporting. Working with the fundraising team, try to predict what new ones you might need as the campaign moves forward.

If there is staff turnover, prospect researchers are responsible for providing prospect lists to the new staff. Being able to pull prospect lists directly from the database makes that task easier.

Revise campaign goals

Research should be involved in supporting or refuting the argument to increase or lower the campaign goal. Reports on annual performance should help evaluate this. Annual performance reports should be run by solicitor, program and total amount raised.

Screen prospects

Prospect screening services can be useful to identify and increase the number of prospects in your pipeline. A reputable vendor will screen all or a portion of your database and assist your organization with adding names to the major giving pipeline. Once your prospects have been screened, prospect researchers are responsible for qualifying these prospects to ensure that the ratings are accurate. A good practice includes adding a prospect research capacity rating (on top of the one done in the screening process) as at times campaign giving capacity differs from annual giving capacity. Prospect researchers can recommend the best fit or project within the campaign, and find linkages and affinity to your organization.

One of the best ways to share the results of prospect screening with front line fundraisers is to provide names in small, manageable lists that are easy to incorporate into development officer’s pipeline. Develop procedures for tracking the movement of the prospect through the fundraising cycle and eventually to secure a gift. Keeping this type of activity in the database will allow you to determine the success rate of the screening process.

Report and define metrics

  • Have key performance indicators (KPIs) and other critical metrics been defined for the campaign?
  • Does the organization have a management dashboard that clearly communicates defined KPIs and is easily accessible?
  • Do staff members have easy access to the data that they need to perform their jobs on a daily basis?
  • Are gift officer portfolios balanced and appropriately sized?
  • Are gift officers able to easily gauge their success and progress toward performance goals?

Report development ideas include utilizing database “canned reports.” These are reports built into your existing database. They are simple to use, but not flexible. Your IT department can create queries that meet your immediate needs. Queries can be exported in an Excel or pdf format. The benefit of exporting into excel is the flexibility of sorting and manipulating the data, while PDF documents are used for viewing purposes.

Excel is vastly underutilized by most fundraising shops. It has many powerful, yet little known functions, such as pivot tables. Excel can be powerful in analyzing large amounts of data.

If you have staff that can create custom reports or dashboards for prospect research, fundraisers and leadership ― which can be exported from the database — determine which of these reports are the most helpful for preparing for the campaign, and have those developed first.

Examine organizational leadership

To honestly assess your organization, you need to examine its organizational leadership. Individuals that make up leadership include the executive director, staff, board of directors, senior volunteers and the campaign cabinet. The organization’s board drives the campaign. Your board will need to take the lead on initial donations to campaign. Hopefully, most of the board members are already donors to your organization and the campaign will allow them to support it in a different way. The board will need to connect your fundraisers to major donors and, in some cases, make the campaign ask too.

Board members may be your organization’s spokespeople for the media. They will, moreover, assist in building the case by sharing their reasons for supporting the organization. Their passion and dedication will inspire others to give.


Izabela Piasecka-Latour, MLIS, has been a prospect researcher for over a decade. She is proud to be a contributor to Apra Canada’s first book, Prospect Research in Canada: An Essential Guide for Researchers and Fundraisers (Civil Sector Press, 2016). Izabela is currently research associate with Tracey Church & Associates, Research + Consulting Services, where she provides research services to clients in the fields of health, higher education and social services. Connect with Izabela at

Tracey Church, MLIS, has been a professional researcher for over 20 years, has worked with over 300 organizations, and is the past president of Apra Canada. She is the principal researcher and consultant with her own company, Tracey Church & Associates, Research + Consulting Services ( Tracey is a part-time faculty member at Western University (London, Ontario) teaching the Prospect Research in Fundraising course in the Master of Library and Information Sciences program (MLIS). Connect with Tracey at

Want to learn more about campaigns? Watch Tracey and Izabela’s complete Prospect Development session.

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