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I Am A Matchmaker


By Steffanie Brown, Manager for Prospect Research & Development Services, Florida Institute of Technology

No, you won’t find me behind the scenes on a reality TV show or an online dating website. You’ll find me in an office at a university, though you might also find others like me at hospitals, museums, or social services agencies. I am a fundraising matchmaker.

I work in a field known variously as prospect research, prospect development, or other similar titles. However, when I am asked to explain my work to someone who isn’t as familiar with nonprofit fundraising, I often say, “I’m a matchmaker.” I match projects to potential donors (or vice versa), and sometimes potential donors to development officers. Here are some typical “matchmaking” projects that I encounter on a regular basis (fictionalized examples based on composites of actual experiences; I use a university context due to my experience, but these can be adapted to other nonprofits):

• XYZ University is in a capital campaign, and one of the priorities is construction of a new football stadium. I am charged with identifying potential donors (individuals, corporations, and/or foundations) who might be a “match” for making major gifts to support this construction.
• The president of XYZ University is having lunch with one of the university’s major donor couples, John and Jane Doe. The Does have also invited their neighbors the Smiths to the luncheon; the Smiths are a wealthy couple, and the Does are hoping that they will be interested in becoming major donors to the university as well. I am charged with identifying areas that might be a “match” with the Smiths’ philanthropic interests.
• A development officer is known for having very strong opinions on certain social and political issues. Naturally, the officer’s job is to be a good listener for the prospect, though natural differences can inadvertently lead to a misunderstanding. After all, slips can occur in the course of conversation. One facet of matchmaking is connecting the best officer with the right prospect.

How is the likelihood of a good match determined? Romantic matchmakers tend to pair couples based on shared interests and values. Matchmaking in fundraising is no different. A “good prospect” has the combination of appropriate giving capacity (wealth indicators such as real estate, stockholdings, income) and affinity (ties to the institution or cause). In determining a “good match”, I primarily focus on indicators of affinity.

• Does the prospect already give to the university? If so, in what areas?
• If the prospect does not give to the university, where does the prospect make philanthropic contributions?
• Does the prospect make political contributions? If so, to which party/parties/political action committees?
• What are the prospect’s interests, both professional and personal?

If I’m looking for potential major donors for a particular project, I first look for those who have donated to the institution in similar areas. Next, I look for those who have donated in similar areas, but to other institutions. My office has subscriptions to services that provide information on philanthropic contributions, but many organizations also post annual reports of donors online. Determining a prospect’s professional and personal interests is sometimes a challenge, depending on how high-profile the prospect is and how much the prospect chooses to be in the spotlight. Some prospects have lengthy biographies on their company’s website, numerous profiles in trade and leisure magazines, and multiple blogs and public social media accounts. Others have little, if any, information which is publicly available. For the prospects with a large amount of publicly available information, I look for trends: Do they frequent black-tie events? Do they primarily focus board memberships, volunteer efforts, and philanthropic contributions in one area of interest or geographical area? All of these factors go into determining who is a good “match”. To revisit the previous examples:

• In determining a potential prospect pool for the new stadium, I might focus on: donors to the university’s athletic programs; donors to other athletic-related causes; donors who give to a variety of causes in the local area.
• In researching the Smiths, I discover that they volunteer for causes related to marine ecosystem preservation. They also donate significantly to organizations related to marine ecosystems. I suggest that the president bring materials to the luncheon which highlight the university’s marine biology programs, and also to consider inviting a marine biology professor to attend the luncheon as well.
• In researching a potential prospect for my opinionated development officer, I discover that the prospect is outspoken on the opposite side of the development officer’s issue of interest. I suggest that the development officer might consider having the prospect reassigned to another development officer who might be a better “match”.

It is also just as important to discover “bad matches” as soon as possible, to avoid wasted time and effort (and broken hearts for the potential donor and institution). Some examples of “bad matches” include:

• The prospect’s philanthropic interests are more or less completely focused on a particular area of interest which is outside of the sphere of the institution’s goals. For example, a prospect who gives almost exclusively to animal welfare organizations will probably not be a good match for the stadium-building campaign.
• The prospect’s philanthropic interests are compatible with the institution’s goals, but the prospect gives almost exclusively in a different geographical area. For example, a prospect who gives to athletic-related causes might be an appropriate prospect for the stadium-building campaign, but if the prospect gives almost exclusively in New York and the university is in Nevada, this might not be a good match. (This is a somewhat common situation encountered by those who work in regions with a large number of seasonal residents, such as Florida—while the prospect may spend several months out of the year in Florida, s/he may give predominately to philanthropic causes in her/his “home” state.)

Once the likelihood of a “good match” of interests and values is determined, there is also an element of matchmaking in determining the best way to engage the prospect. Again, there can be similarities to the dating process. If one’s potential date is an outdoor enthusiast, meeting for the first time at the symphony might not be the best strategy. In the same way, it is important for development officers to meet with prospects in a manner in which they are comfortable. If the prospect is interested in athletics, they can be invited to a sporting event. If they have a highly visible public presence, and they are wearing jeans and a T-shirt in each photo, a black-tie gala invitation might not be the best initial occasion for engagement. This information can be more challenging to obtain than simple wealth and giving indicators, but it is a valuable piece of matchmaking strategy when available.

When I have fully researched a prospect, I provide the following information to the development officer:

• Background information on the prospect
• Wealth indicators
• Philanthropic giving patterns
• Information on the prospect’s personal and professional interests
• Some suggestions on strategy: “This prospect looks like a good match for this program.” “This prospect does not look like a good match for this program that was being considered, but might be a good match for this other program.” “This prospect might be a good one to invite to the symphony concert (or football game, or marine biology lecture).” “This prospect might be a better match for another development officer. (If this is due to factors such as the opinionated development officer example above, and not due to territorial differences, I will be relatively frank with the development officer about why it’s not a good match).” Occasionally, my analysis will also indicate that the prospect is not a good match for the institution at all; if that is the case, I will state that and give the reasons why.

In fundraising, as in romance, determining a good “match” is the first step in the process which can lead to a wonderful (and potentially lifelong) relationship!


One Comment Post a comment
  1. Great article! I encounter many of these issues, too, and I like the matchmaker terminology!

    April 9, 2015

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