Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a director of development who wants advice on how to quickly and efficiently find the best major gift and planned giving prospects:
Dear Charity Clairity,
We recently purchased donor analytics and now have a database overlay indicating who has major gift and planned gift likelihood. It appears we have a lot of potential, and now my boss wants me to start researching all our top prospects individually. I understand, but nothing has changed about our staffing or job responsibilities. It’s just me as DOD, an associate development director, a part-time events manager and an assistant who handles the database and donor acknowledgements. Everyone already had full plates. What’s the best thing for us to do next?
— Want to Do it All; Just Can’t
Dear Want to; Just Can’t,
Your predicament is one I hear often. Do more with the same amount, or even less, resources. It might work in the short term, but never in the long term. You’ll get to the point where balls are dropping fast and furious, you feel like crap because you can’t keep up, and the more failures (and negative feedback) you accrue, the more you feel like quitting (and others on your staff feel like quitting). And many do (the turnover rate in nonprofit development leads to tremendous loss of talent and negatively impacts the building of relationships essential to major donor development).
I suggest you go back to your boss and revisit the reason you invested in donor analytics in the first place. Chances are it was to (1) demonstrate (to yourselves and/or your board) you have hidden treasure in your own database, and then (2) to develop and implement a plan to take the next best steps.
If you’d discovered very few likely major donor prospects in your database, you would know you need to work harder on things like new donor acquisition and board recruitment, seeking candidates with different networks than those you’re currently tapped into. You, however, appear to have discovered gold!
That’s great news. The logical next step is to invest in mining that gold.
You don’t want to delay, because your data is fresh now. This means being as aggressive as possible within your current system, while planning strategically to change that system so it’s more capable of using the resources at your disposal.
There are a number of ways to approach this, and they begin with short-term and long-term staffing configurations. The best way to propose organizational change is over a period of years. Here are some things you might suggest to your boss:
- We bought the research; now we need to free up some staff time to better target identified mid-range and major gift donors. What can we do to allow you, me, the associate director, and even the events manager to each take on from X to XX assignments? [Look at the number of prospects you’ve identified and pick the highest number you can manage. In the short term, this may mean leaving some good prospects untapped in favor of tapping the great ones. An industry standard is one major gift officer – doing nothing other than qualification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship – can manage a portfolio of no more than 150 donors. Research and data entry is extra, so plan accordingly.]
- Let’s divide our scores into segments, see how many prospects we have in each, and figure out a level/score we won’t go below for the present. If we have more hot prospects than we can handle given current staffing (i.e., prospects currently significantly underperforming and representing obvious “money left on the table”), let’s consider taking something off of someone else’s plate (e.g., an administrative assistant; program director, volunteer coordinator, or anyone who has good verbal skills and enjoys connecting with people) to better target and close mid-range gifts that would raise huge dividends.
- Let’s develop a list of cultivation “moves” and “touches” we can use to draw these discovered hot prospects closer to us. This may involve engaging program staff to help with tours, town halls, and other events. Their job descriptions will need to be modified accordingly, and their supervisors will need to be on board with these changes.
- Let’s develop a reasonable one-year budget for donor cultivation to include meals, transportation, token gifts, design, printing, and mailings.
- At the end of the year, let’s revisit what worked/didn’t work and consider hiring a dedicated major gifts officer to build individual cultivation plans, assure asks are made of top prospects, and continue the stewardship that strengthens relationships over the longer term. Their job will involve serving as “moves manager” to hold board and other staff who take on assignments feet to the fire.
Note: While it is tempting to think you can simply assign major gifts development to board members and/or donor volunteers, this seldom works unless you have a dedicated staff person to support them. Making assignments, scheduling visits, following up, putting together materials, offering coaching, and cheerleading – it’s all essential and it all takes time. Done inefficiently or ad hoc it’s more trouble than it’s worth, resulting in disgruntled volunteers and few closed gifts. Ultimately, you’ll likely want to do this as the peer-to-peer model of fundraising is a highly successful one (donors who are approached by board members know they aren’t being paid to ask for a gift!).
Whenever you’re tasked to raise more money, more energy must go into changing how you do things. With major gift development, this means bringing in a new level of sophistication to get to the next level. That’s why you invested in donor analytics. That’s the way to turn “just can’t” into “yes, we can!”
— Charity Clairity
Please use a pseudonym, like “Want to; Just Can’t” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.