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Why Fundraisers and Prospect Researchers Should Talk More: Major Gift Prospects and the People Who Can Help You Reach Them

By Gil Israeli, Senior Writer and Director of Prospect Research, American Technion Society

Organizations that are successful at raising major gifts identify prospects with the right capacity and interests that fit their mission. They consider plausibility from the start – the critical element: Could the prospect enrich his or her life through a relationship with us and eventual gift?

Other questions include: Is the prospect over-committed? What do we know about his assets and more liquid wealth? How has the economy affected this? Identification tends to be the easier part, whereas securing the critical first meeting often requires the aid of a door-opener or “access person”.

Who is an access person? He or she believes in your cause – and may (or may not) be a donor. He knows your organization and the prospect well and trusts your professionalism to have an introductory meeting with no solicitation. Fundraisers generally find that a long-term relationship of one and a half to two years may then lead to a successful solicitation of a major gift.

Today’s innovative organizations support information-sharing among their fundraisers and researchers though there is a “newness” to the degree of collaboration which makes this practice efficacious.

Fundraisers who get to know a prospect as a person (not just a funder) often have insights into his or her philanthropy, family, aspirations, success, challenges, celebrations and sorrows. Concurrently, prospect researchers have access to an overabundance of free information from the Internet and also from more targeted on-line subscription services, but their fundamental challenge is: what information is relevant and how can I use it to identify access people?

Let’s take, for example, a fictional couple in their early 50s with two children. They own a small private one-product software company and have turned it into a successful growing business. At some point, they may have the opportunity to sell the company – thereby making them capable of a seven-figure gift, or, alternatively, their children may choose to enter the family business. This would offer the opportunity to regard the family as a multi-generational prospect.

Initially, the researcher produces a standard report with (at minimum) the couple’s biographical information and history of their continuous, modest philanthropy to varied causes. This would also include information about their synagogue or church membership, spouses’ higher education degrees, career history, corporate and nonprofit board memberships, foundations (if any) and political giving. Additional efforts would involve benchmarking the company’s value and also calculating the family’s estimated networth and an initial range for giving capacity.

In contrast, research on access people sharply focuses on salient shared associations and experiences of prospects and who you already know well. Where to start? The first information to review is the prospect’s board memberships, given the possibility that the other board members may be your supporters. The actual research is often pedestrian, a simple matter of reviewing your own database, which must be up-to-date and accurate.

Unfortunately, most researchers do not know which of their organization’s board members may be willing to reach out to new prospects as well as to their own personal, social and business networks. Sharing this information within your organization bears no cost and aids researchers to find pertinent connections for prospect development. In brief, this means developing an organizational culture that promotes open communication.

You can use the same tact as you research a prospect’s career (the boards and senior management of companies of current and past employment), education, business groups, industry and secular awards, conferences attended, the other organizations that they support, country clubs, regular vacation resorts and other social/recreational venues.

In addition, our American culture has evolved a myriad of organizations and activities which  serve most every phase of the lives of our prospects’ children. This offers substantial social and professional networks which can also inform the researcher’s work when he looks for shared affiliations.

What are the religious programs, private schools, summer camps, after-school activities and vacation activities that our prospects’ children may be or have been involved in? Which college? Are the children in fraternities and sororities? Athletes on varsity teams? Write for the college paper or participate in other salient activities – with a long-term existence and their own alumni? All secular organizations figure in the overall map, as they generate their own viable, often interconnected networks. Does your organization approach this in a systematic way?

Starting in the 1970s, anthropologists and linguists studied face-to-face interaction in gate-keeping encounters (such as job interviews) with highly detailed analysis of verbal and nonverbal behavior from audio-visual recordings. They identified three factors that facilitated positive communication and goal-achieving relationships: knowing the same person, having the same interest and communicating in a similar style. These three factors, individually and jointly, become bridges for connection – also relevant to the challenges that fundraisers face when they meet a new prospect. In turn, fundraisers can share their knowledge of these characteristics with researchers who reframe it in terms of their resources.

Why has this collaboration been so difficult to nurture? Service companies can trace their culture and organizational patterns back to the  industrial revolution, when companies began organizing their operations into separate units of an overall process to build products, e.g., the Model-T Ford.

Some of this model has been adopted by both for-profit and also non-profit organizations. But professionals are not separate components of a product or the separated workers that produce the complete product.  Professionals need to communicate to produce a service.. and when they do, they gain a broader, holistic view of their company and what it does. (Consider Volvo’s renown approach of rotating team members through job positions.)

In addition, there’s a general societal problem in many of today’s service industries: the positioning of professional (and sometimes social) networks as being superior/against/versus/indifferent (often, not collaborative) with immense (computer-driven) data sources about the clients. The inverse can also be positioned… suggesting that the computer-based researchers are the relatives creating the distance. The relationship can also be symmetrical in the most dysfunctional way.

Alfred Korzybski, a scientist and engineer from the early twentieth century – one of the first cyberneticians, analyzed representation and levels of consciousness – and summed up a few powerful ideas aptly: The Map is not the Territory, which, when recast, can be used to illuminate the new fundraiser-researcher relationship. In the past, it typically happened that a researcher could generate a biographical report and the fundraiser in the field could quickly clarify and update this with fresh information.

So, the researcher identified the prospect’s alma mater and the fundraiser would discover that the prospect actually hated his university (good! – thus eliminating one competitor for gifts); the prospect’s many jobs are not indicative of upward mobility but a reflection of a difficult personality (a new challenge – which may eliminate his colleagues that you know – and thought could be potential access people) and half his properties (not all) in Staten Island (were hit by Hurricane Sandy and have plummeted in value).

Today, given the development of sophisticated tools and increasing access to diverse reliable data, the researcher may often have quicker access to quality data in real-time than fundraisers may gather in relationship-dependent conversations, meetings and other interactions not specifically designed and optimized for data collection.

I have used (and am also unnerved) by a free on-line tool that scans the internet for photos connected to a name; in moments, the site delivers plenty: photos from professional and social sites (Facebook, Linkedin, etc) and also flickr photos (and other photo processing services)… bringing in a realm of personal information from what you may imagine…. a prospect’s family vacations, holidays, children’s summer camp. On the other side of this, professionals with good prospect and donor relationships and mature networks will always have access to valuable information that cannot be accessed through any other source. These two professionals both hold essential pieces of the map and the territory and sharing data is what works.

Change can be top-down: a mutual heads-up policy can help fundraisers and researchers redefine their relationships, communicate their mutual needs and jointly advance their day-to-day work. But even with an official new policy, its genesis remains contingent on staff learning from each other… their job functions, what each staff member loves and hates about their work and what is easy and what is difficult. This may be initiated by an informal and essential moment (not in a meeting room) when two professionals ask one another on a much more candid level:

How can I help you?

Staff members need to embrace their organization’s mission as their outstanding shared interest (a super-ordinate goal) rather than the individualistic “who gets the credit?” The information-sharing can lead to the discovery of new viable prospects and access people, one strength (of many) which may help you continuously nurture a successful major gifts program.

(This article has been revised from an earlier piece by Gil Israeli with the same title,  June 7, 2012, in eJewishPhilanthropy)


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. NBrown #

    I enjoyed your article very much. As a volunteer, my sense is that major gift fundraisers have been talking about door-openers for years, though many don’t have the advantage of working with a person who specializes in research. And, if they have such a colleague, she may be cloistered away. This is unfortunate because, as you indicate, there are ways that prospect research can be helpful here. Also, I can see that the overall picture is that of developing long-term relationships with your donors and access people. These individuals may be your future donors and, even if they are not, their critical role in your community (in your networks) is priceless. They help because they believe in you. Can you direct me to additional resources?

    The other item that I’ll note regards your quick comments about the evolution of organizational culture that separates these professionals. I agree. Companies have compartmentalized functions because they do enable mass production – often with the necessary specialization as you note. (Consider lollipops versus cell phones.) Similar organizational culture can be seen in schools, universities, hospitals, the financial sector, government, etc. It is pervasive. It is what we’re stuck with and your call for communication that cuts across boundaries is well said.

    December 25, 2012
    • I haven’t found anything written about this from the researcher’s perspective. The fundraiser’s perspective has been addressed, but this typically lacks input and collaboration with researchers. This is a new topic which I have addressed in detail at AFP and APRA events. I will next be presenting on this topic at APRA’s Mid-Atlantic Researcher’s Conference on March 6, 2013 in Fairfax, VA. You can also contact me at and I’d be happy to discuss.

      January 17, 2013
  2. S. Klein #

    Schools have experimented with new types of organization. Charter schools, now both private and as options within some public school systems, have developed as one response to the many problems in large “factory-modeled” public schools with their typically oversized, inefficient and also non-responsive bueracracies.

    In the early twentieth century, large public schools were deemed a positive development as they served broader educational purposes: teaching recently arrived immigrant children and also now native born first generation Americans both American history and American values. Factory schools minted American citzenry. Now, a century later, public schools suffer multiple deeply embedded problems: a shortage of qualified teachers, system-wide failure in students’ basic competencies, declining high school graduate rates, violence in schools, lack of resources, inequitable distribution of resources per different local tax bases and the list goes on.

    The chief benefit to charter schools – smaller classes in a smaller school – is that the students can actually gel as a community which can support academic achievement. Studies demonstrate that retention and graduate rates are also higher. The school culture actually teaches (in its quiet way) that learning and doing well in school is cool. Students’ rebellion against the school by failing is replaced by achievement – which leads to upward mobility.

    Another advantage is that charter schools have access to a more diverse market of potential teachers – such that a Ph.D. in chemistry (with superior knowledge) may be teaching high school chemistry. Like a newly certified teacher, he too would need the several initial years to learn how a classroom and teaching actually work.

    The problem for a good number of private charter schools turns out to be financial management. While they typically offer better and often diversified opportunities, the founders and administrators may lack the skills to run the school as an actual business. Realistically, many charter schools flounder and close within a few years and the others that succeed (those that are fortunate to serve affluent communities) incorporate fundraising to finance their operating costs, teachers’ salaries, and also their enriching program, which are beyond public schools.

    So, the ongoing existence of charter schools can actually circle back to the challenges of fundraising.

    December 28, 2012
    • I suspect that charter schools at the high school level have an easier fundraiser task. As their graduates go on to matriculate at quality universities, this value of the school becomes self-evident to their community of parents.

      January 17, 2013
  3. Awesome!

    January 7, 2013

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