Prospect Research & Management

Major gift fundraising is not a big mystery. Donors make big gifts because they believe in the charity’s ability to bring change. Major gift fundraisers are “teachers” who lead prospects to this belief. Gift officers create a “syllabus” for each donor and a “lesson plan” for each call. They schedule and make visits. It is simple, but far from easy.

Teaching teachers is difficult. Some newcomers succeed, but many fail. How can something so simple be so hard? Simplicity itself misleads many into a dead-end. Some common barriers in major gift work are avoidable. What could be easier than focusing on the few who can make major gifts and seeing them? Yet, not seeing donors is the most significant and common barrier to success.

What’s going on? Most major gift fundraisers have other duties—special events, reports, meetings—that appear more “urgent” than making visits. Visits are urgent only when scheduled; until then, they are movable. Fundraisers fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent and lose focus. The solution is found in this harsh truth: a part-time major gift officer is an oxymoron.

There are no easy solutions, but some simple aspects of major gift fundraising are inherently difficult. One example: building a roster of prospects with whom the officer can visit. A roster only comes from seeing enough people to build relationships with those capable of a major gift.

Some inherit such a list. Most must build their own. This involves cold calls, lots of them. Who enjoys the frustration, pain and inevitable rejection this entails? Hence, many avoid cold calls and never become skilled in making them. Therefore, they remain painful. Let’s focus and clear that hurdle.

One grueling experience is dialing and re-dialing; talking to voicemail; leaving unanswered messages etc. The most common reaction: “My list is no good. Give me better names.” Many would gladly trade cold million-dollar prospects for warm ten-thousand-dollar prospects. Unfortunately, many do make this swap—a recipe for failure.

If raising major gifts is the goal and the list has indications of real wealth, it probably IS the right list. Little is gained by accepting a less capable, but warmer list solely to get more appointments with fewer calls. A better strategy is to keep the more capable prospects and set about to methodically solve the “appointment problem.”

Set metrics that reflect the best practices in the industry.

Most research suggests that a major gift officer should be able to make twenty personal, face-to-face visits per month. Target that goal or some reasonable number, and hold your feet to the fire.

Each of those twenty visits starts by getting an appointment. If you can’t get appointments, isolate the nature of the problem:

  • Are you making enough attempts to get appointments?
  • Are you unable to connect, or being refused?
  • Are there better approaches?
  • Are your attempts poorly timed?
  • Are you working far enough ahead for busy calendars?

There are many variables within our control that impact potential success.

Make “enough” cold call attempts.

Manuals for insurance industry salesmen often suggest that it takes ten calls to get a sale. Telemarketers suggest that it may take 30 or more attempts to make a phone contact. Automated dialing is premised on these high ratios.

In major gifts enough has more to do with the return on investment than a fixed formula. The more capable, the more worthy prospects are of many attempts. This is especially true for major gift officers who do not have appointments!

Review your history. How many average contacts do you require to fill your goal? How many are you actually making? This is not a question of absolute standards. It’s a question of doing the job. The more attempts you make, the more likely you are to succeed. Your job is “getting appointments”—until you have enough. Then your job is making the visits.

  • Lessen research to free time for dialing. Many gift officers spend more time researching prospects than attempting to contact them. The goal is to get the appointment, not to establish the relationship. The visit is about the relationship. Focus on research AFTER you get the appointment, not before.
  • Build a routine. Make reasonable attempts to contact; then move on. Repeat the effort after a few days. Keep your work fresh but constant. Track details as you rotate your work. Note strategy while the phone is ringing.
  • How many attempts are appropriate? It’s simple: make enough to succeed. If you don’t have appointments, nothing else is as important as getting appointments.

Use techniques to improve the odds of turning an attempt into an appointment.

Try a letter of introduction before calling. Try different messages, signatures, or timing. Learn about the impact of the letter from successful attempts.

Encourage the prospect to take the call with valid reasons. Follow success.

Resist talking about the organization and yourself if they don’t need to know more to give you an appointment. Get to the point; get the appointment.

Never send letters in large batches. Send as many as you can follow up.Use the letter to position the visit. Ask for the favor of time. Offer an opportunity to provide information for the president who is seeking input from the institution’s influential constituents. Grant a favor rather than ask for one.

  • Use an influential author for the letter, someone recognizable to the prospect.
  • If the letter comes from you, change quickly if results warrant it.
  • Keep the letter brief and business-like. Make the message clear: “John Doe will call Wednesday (date) between 2:00 and 3:00 to arrange an appointment.” Be prompt in following up.
  • In follow-up calls, reference the letter and its author.
  • If you reach voice mail, set a specific time to call back. Repeat as necessary. Never leave a call-back number. Responsibility is yours. Repeat often; finally, leave a phone number or email address, but promise to call again at a specific time and date.
  • Try an email note to ask for a good time to call again. Track promises to call; do not undermine your credibility.
  • If possible, use someone with connections to call the prospect.

Pay attention to the timing of the call.

The timing of the call is critically important. These prospects are busy people. Busy people may be at work, in meetings, or on the road. An ordinary work day limits your potential to access those unavailable during office hours.

  • Vary your routine to try evening, early morning or weekend times. Be persistent!
  • Try office and home numbers to broaden opportunities. Consider the address to which the letter was mailed. Be consistent.
  • Busy people have full calendars. A rule of thumb is to allow 4 to 6 weeks when seeking appointments.

Build connections with prospects and work on improvements.

You may connect with prospects but be unable to secure the appointment. Consider the conversations with those you reach. Is your lead-in strong? The name of a well-known leader or common acquaintance may add sizzle. Follow up on the message in the letter. Build on the connections.

  • Ask parents whether their child is happy at the college and getting what s/he wanted. What can the college do to enhance the experience? Discuss benefits for the family and the student.
  • Explore “perceptions” of your organization with non-donors. Ask how the organization can better respond to community needs. The basic strategy: Explore advantages for the prospect. Market into their connection and values.

Your conversation is a stump speech. Politicians start campaigns with ideas. They try out ideas, track responses, and determine what works. They change the speech accordingly. Do the same.

Improvement comes from methodical practice, self-conscious and self-critical practice. Note your insights; draft your pitches, sketch your rationale.

It is possible that your lack of success is due to the quality of the list. Use connectors to improve your chances—prevalent interests, common acquaintances, current donors who know the prospect. If wealth is the primary criterion and there are no contacts closer, stick with what you have.

You must either inherit a warm list or create your own to reach 20 calls per month. Many institutions have formal programs of “discovery visits” patterned on the described techniques. Shape first contacts as opportunities for prospects to influence the direction of the organization. Carry a clipboard and take notes. Or do a formal survey for a first visit. Set the next visit at a specific time to further explore ideas “put on the table” today.