Skip to content

My Letter To Your Vice President

Letter_writing 042615

By Armando Zumaya Senior Vice President, Business Development and Campaign, The Mexican Museum

Don’t you hate unsolicited advice? I do. So let me give you some.

There is a better way to work with your Prospect Research and Management teams. When I lecture and meet my colleagues who lead large development teams, it’s becoming more common to hear smart and nimble prospecting and prospect management teams support VP level staff and their leadership.

However, it’s also amazing how many of my colleagues still put their Prospect Research and Management staff way down the organizational chart and rarely interact with them. They bury them in “Development Services”. The old view that Prospect Research and Management are passive, reactive services needs to be challenged.

My prospect research and management staff are my right hand strategic and tactical advisors. They report directly to my office, I do their reviews. They help me in a myriad of ways. I couldn’t imagine operating without that role in some shape or form. You will hear me say “field fundraisers”, those are development officers, I say that because I consider Prospect Research and Management staff fundraisers. I empower them to lead and hold them accountable, too.

Here is how they can help you, too.

If you’re already doing this, then wonderful! Go raise some money! If not, ask yourself why not?

Portfolio and Pipeline Management

Working closely with PR&M teams to monitor portfolio’s and pipelines is essential work. I liken it to trying to figure out what’s going on when you’re in stuck in traffic, compared to being in a helicopter over the traffic. Which Major Gifts Officers are struggling to get appointments? Who has qualified the most prospects? Who has successfully been able to get their prospects to events and to a state of cultivation? When you know this information you can help your staff, get them the right training. The fact that they know you know, makes a world of difference as well since you’re the boss.

This role for Prospect Management staff becomes even stronger when I give them complete portfolio control. That is they can alter, move and support the portfolios of development officers. So they can do more than observe and report. They can tailor them when appropriate. This will help you avoid stagnant portfolio’s and development officers afraid to prospect. A portfolio is valuable real estate; you have to be as sure as you can that the people in that portfolio are worth that highly paid staff person’s time.

Simple charts here can help to maximize your meeting time. I was transparent with my Major Gifts officers about what I was using to measure their work. They disputed how I measured their work, of course, but eventually I had to set the bar.

I can’t say they liked this approach, some might have considered it micro management. But, I can tell you it changed the entire dynamic. Good Major Gifts Officers flourished in a system where they were supported, with thoughtful analysis, new prospects and the support of their boss. Major Gifts Officers who weren’t successful either stepped up and admitted they needed help and training and the others simply left.

The intensive guidance and support of Prospect Research and Management staff to the development officers made this all work. They were literally the oil of a smooth running machine.

Yes, there is a class/hierarchy dynamic you have to watch here. I will be honest and tell you that my Prospect Researcher who was used to being in the background now had to lead. He had to stand up to Major Gifts Officers paid more than him and disagree in certain situations, e.g., about the assignment of a prospect or his or her value. In some institutions, development officers look down on their Prospect Researchers as glorified secretaries. As a Development Leader you must not allow this and model the contrary with your own actions.

Finally, when leading a prospecting effort I “model” the action I need by being the first person out the door. I asked my Major Gifts Officers to have 10 appointments a month with new prospects. They balked till I said I would do 20. I also modeled how I worked with my Prospect Researcher and Prospect Management Officers.

Good Prospect Assignment

Another key role for PR&M staff is prospect assignment. When you have a new prospect who do you give it to? If you know your staff and know their skill sets and backgrounds, then you can help your Prospect Researcher assign that prospect. Often your Prospect Researcher has been looking at this prospect. This is how the conversation goes:

VP: “Well I think this is a clear Major Gifts Prospect, I suggest we assign her to John.”

Prospect Researcher: “Yeah I knew you would say that, I say Carol and here is why. Our prospect, Ms. Jones is a prime scholarship prospect having come from poverty and she is from Georgia. Carol is from Georgia, too, and has more scholarship experience than the other staff.”

VP: “Just worried she won’t pick up the phone here…”

Prospect Management: “Don’t worry I will put a 3 month alert on this and make sure this is happening.”

VP: “Ok. Assigned to Carol. Who’s next?”

As a VP, you can’t study every Major Gifts prospect the way a good researcher can. Rely on their calls. When they are wrong, let them know and make adjustments, when they are right, give them a high five.

A Major Gifts Officer won’t be impartial the way a good Prospect Management officer will be. They don’t want to look incompetent if they can’t get an appointment or move a prospect forward. So, many will not tell you about the weaknesses in their portfolio, but only focus on where they are succeeding. Rarely have I had a Major Gifts Officer come to me and say “I am not sure I am the right person for this prospect, we need to reassign her”. Plus, they sometimes have big ego’s. I know I do! But we can’t let our ego’s get in the way of what’s best for the institution.


I have seen countless times big expensive consulting firms hired to do some core work that PR&M teams can do easily. Have an honest conversation and ask your team what they can do, or can do with a little training or new resources.The classic is a campaign pyramid. Who are our main prospects? Who should we interview for a feasibility study? If you have a capable Prospect Researcher, why couldn’t they do that? Sometimes you can’t get some Prospect Researchers to think outside their box of regular duties. I have seen that to be fair.

But, there are many veteran Prospect Researchers who could save you tens of thousands of dollars and give you a better sense of your prospects for a campaign than any outsider. Once I even saw a Campaign Consultant hire a prospect researcher to assemble a Prospect Pyramid, while their Prospect Research team watched! Talk about bad for morale! The VP who hired the firm didn’t know what his PR&M staff were capable of and didn’t ask.

But, break out the different aspects of a campaign, especially the prospect preparation and tracking. Then simply ask them your PR&M team. They may need better systems or new staffing? Maybe not.

Strategic Prospecting

Who will be your Major Donors in 10 years? What demographic have you utterly failed at reaching? Is there someone prominent in that demographic that might help you break in and start to reach them? Nothing like being there first when your alumnus sells their company to Google for $800 million dollars. If you have good strategic, proactive researchers, they know that that company makes that app for an Android phone, they know what analysts said about that company’s chances of success and profitability. They will know when it goes public and when your alumni will be ridiculously rich. They want a Major Gifts Officer to reach out to that alumnus… now.

A skeptical Major Gifts Officer will see an apartment and low past giving and say to themselves “Why did I get this, this isn’t a Major Gifts prospect….what are those people thinking?” If the Major Gifts Officer knows the VP was part of the assignment, the phone gets picked up and a relationship started.

In advanced development shops with large teams, often we know the obvious prospects and the obvious wealth. Using your PR&M teams strategically and proactively, we can often find wealth we didn’t know about or understand. There is always talk about the need for diversity in Boards or committees. Through good strategic prospecting, you can often find philanthropists in demographics you haven’t really engaged before. You can have wealthy people of all types that look like your alumni/community, no tokens needed!

The Prospect Review Meeting

Have you even been to one of these? It’s a fascinating dynamic to watch. It’s a group review and assignment of new and current prospects. I saw some of the first one’s in the Ivy League 20 years ago. They are an effective way of assigning new prospects and checking on current assignments with transparency. It has just a drop of healthy competitiveness.

I am going to use a university development team as an example but this type of meeting can be done anywhere you have more than five development officers and one prospect researcher.

In the meetings I have structured, it’s all development officers and the entire PR&M team. Whoever is the PR&M Director, sits with me. Usually we have a big screen on the wall to review materials.

Everyone sits down, doors closed. We bring up the first prospect and the PR&M director gives a 1 minute intro to this prospect, Ms. Carol Jones, and why they think there is potential.

Then one development officer from the Art Museum speaks up quickly “I’d like this prospect, she is primarily interested in the arts and gives to that in her hometown.”

The Engineering development officer pipe’s up “She is our prospect in Engineering, she is our alumnus and has made gifts to us for years.”

The VP and PR&M director confer in seconds and then they assign the prospect. The PR&M Director speaks.

“Ms. Jones is assigned to the Art Museum for 3 months. We will come back to this in 3 months and check on progress, Engineering will work with the Art Museum so they are aware of Ms. Jones’ giving with Engineering”.

It’s clear if Ms. Jones doesn’t respond to the Art Museum, she will be reassigned to Engineering. The pressure is on the Art Museum to make that relationship happen.

Then on to the next one.

The second half of the meeting generally will be a review of current progress with assigned prospects. This is a great way of creating light peer pressure to get moving and make those calls, have those meetings, etc. One can also use this time to create a professional learning community where best practices and methods might be shared. It depends how open and easy going your development officers are. Regrettably, it sometimes happens that officers may be competitive and would never want to share. Other will embrace this and it becomes very valuable to hear how your successful staff are succeeding.

This meeting also has a subtle effect of elevating your PR&M team. They are clearly close to the boss. They are the people finding these great prospects and handing them out. Once you have a success with this process it helps a lot too.

Don’t forget to set rules with Prospect Review meetings. Everyone gets the prospects in advance, punctuality is important, everyone stays through both parts of the meeting, nobody speaks at the same time, etc.

Tactical Advisors

In my own fundraising efforts, meetings, presentations etc. I consult my PR&M team. I often get thoughts on approach to a major prospect.

VP: “Well I finally have an appointment with Mr. Turner, I want to ask him to to take a tour of our new Journalism and Media school.”

PR: “Yeah, that might fly, but reading his speeches and gifts in the last five years I would focus on our research/advocacy for climate change.”

VP: “I have seen that but I feel like that issue is new for him. He has 30 years of caring about media and journalism.”

PR: “I literally have a quote from him saying “that’s all I am giving to now”.

Me: “What, where?….oh… hmmm. Ok, I will lead with climate change, but mention media, too, but if you’re wrong it’s bread and water for a week!”

Every executive is different; everyone needs different information for different institutions. But what is universal is the need to have data and someone safe who can disagree with you and challenge you with new ideas.

As a VP, you can’t study every Major Gifts prospect the way a good researcher can. Rely on their calls. When they are wrong let them know and make adjustments, when they are right give them a high five. This feedback is crucial. It will help your team calibrate and understand the subtly of your prospects and the information they are receiving.

If you do it, your staff will as well. Consider your PR&M folks analysts, tactical advisors whatever you want to call them.


I am almost off of my soap box. An underlying issue here is salary. As you elevate your PR&M teams, you should consider paying them for their executive and leadership roles. I try to pay my teams as close to what a good field fundraiser would get. Circumstantially, people tend to know what people get paid, so it helps to raise their stature and credibility internally.

But ask yourself what are your crucial issues in leading a large development team? How can your PR&M team help? I have been in your shoes. It’s tough to know who to trust and the pressure from your Board and boss are relentless. There’s nothing like impartial, data driven advice. I have had professional disagreements with my Prospect Researchers, but I gave her/him the freedom to speak directly, even though I had “Chief” in my title. That safety will prevent them from becoming “Yes” men and women.

I hope this article will help some of you scratch your head and think this through. I have implemented this, and, as I do trainings around the country, I am always thrilled to hear from folks who took my advice and adapted some of these tips to their staffing/funding operations. They tell me the stories of new prospects found, new campaigns and great synergy and a new whole team approach to fundraising.

I hope I can hear your stories of success soon!


6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Happy to take questions, I also have a website

    April 27, 2015
  2. Emily T #

    This is timely and wise. Thank you for writing this!

    April 29, 2015
  3. Armando:
    Thanks for the Prospect Research/Management road map. You have provided valuable information that can help prospect researchers position themselves for success!

    April 29, 2015
  4. You are most welcome………

    April 29, 2015
  5. Excellent article.

    When researchers are seen as support staff rather than active partners, you’re not getting the full value out of their expertise. In my experience as a researcher, it’s incredibly frustrating to find a great prospect, analyze the data, and outline a strategy and timeline, only to have it ignored by the assigned MG officer. You’ve given development directors a clear illustration of ways to embed prospect research into major gifts fundraising in a meaningful way.

    May 1, 2015
    • Well said ! Development Officers are commonly untrained or afraid to engage cold prospects in my experience. How much $$$ is left on the table by excellent prospects that aren’t acted upon! I hear this story again and again, coast to coast.

      June 4, 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: