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How To Infiltrate Major Gifts Management Meetings

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

Infiltrate? Such a strong word. But let’s ask: Has your organization succeeded at leveraging prospect research – specifically, you – in its drive to cultivate donors?

Do you know this maxim: There’s truth in every stereotype. So, is it possible that a few of your colleagues view you (the prospect researcher) as introspective, a bit on the social-periphery at work , a person that merely looks up data, and happy in your cog-like position in the organization? This is harsh stuff. Still, I must say, I’ve heard some of this over the years and prospect researcher colleagues have shared their similar experiences with me.

Us knowledge workers earn our living in a world that is supported by stereotyping behavior. Ours is a fast-moving society, especially one in which our non-profit employment has been so shaped and streamlined by technology for each one of us so that our identities have also been shaped to yield the fastest and (ideally) loqest-cost paths to revenue. We stereotype to create a quick shorthand to navigate social situations, especially immediate short-lived ones. Even worse, stereotyping becomes entrenched in our long-term memory, especially in recurring situations, with years of work in rigid bueracratic organizations where the hierachy of job functions becomes the over-riding definer of who you are as an employee and, perhaps also a person. Then there are the secondary desciptors of a worker’s qualities. Are you a collaborator? Are you a mentor? Or, are you mainly defined by a handful of functions: the prospect researcher or grant writer and so on. We all know that this may extend to the point such that the stereotype eclipses your individuality, your creative ideas, and the opportunities you have for growing beyond your position.

Let’s all look beyond stereotypes. Fundraisers are not just just salesmen. They can have a sensitivity to human behavior, language, and people’s needs that can somewhat resemble those of a psychiatrist. Usually, they are not intellectuals (most intellectuals want to spend their time in the world of ideas, learning, teaching, doing research and writing), while the fundraiser is interested in one main application. Unlike the psychiatrist, their business goal is to lead the prospect to make a financial gift. The sensitivies and subtleties of achieving this requires its own skill set and you can’t learn this through a book or seminar.

What about prospect researchers?

I’d like to make some observations about how you can grow in your organization beyond your desk, beyond looking up data, and be welcomed as a voice in your fundraising operation.

Perhaps you may not yet have the opportunity to be present at Major Gift Management meetings. The meeting is a staple of all organizations with genuine major gifts programs. (Not those that occasionally raise major gifts.) In this context – in this meeting, fundraisers and management meet to discuss a slate of key prospects, those that are being actively solicited for these major gifts and those that are in earlier stages of cultivation. Depending on your organization, you may not be involved in this meeting, may be involved in a token way or may have a much stronger role from the perspective of contributing through prospect management.

How do you get inside that room? (How does anyone?) Prove your value.

Here are ten actions… that may help you get invited to these meetings and also promote your participation in them:

1. Start with the mundane: schedule the meetings, ensuring that the numerous persons can attend.

2. Be the gopher that organizes the agenda: gather prospect names from fundraisers and management.

3. Set up the technology (projector, etc) for display purposes. Provide on-the-spot display of database information at these meetings.

4. Prepare materials for these meetings: the lists, prospect research for specific cases. RFM analysis for all names can also be a great combinations of indicators for quick context.

Have a warm and respectful expression on your face at all times. Remember that interaction with senior management is delicate.

Now show your value:

5. In advance, go beyond your usual work: conduct special research, e.g., benchmarking a “green” company, analyzing special wealth (thoroughbread horses), estimating the after-tax income of a legal practice that specializing in mergers and acquisitions and focuses on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, etc.

If you’re serious, you’ll invest some home-time in your own development, maybe you’ll even attend a conference and pay out of your own pocket. (Explain to your supervisor that you’re doing this to learn, to become additionally valuable to the organization. Ask for suggestions.) Hopefully, he or she isn’t a block of wood or lives with or self-generates politics oriented to limiting your growth. So, to use a sage author’s advice: If you load the gun in Act I and place it over the mantlepiece, make sure it goes off by Act III. (Anton Chekov wrote this to an aspiring playwrite.) Engineer your path and use this to get you into the Majo Gifts Management Meeting.

Here’s more:

6. Provide on-the-fly research during the meeting. Open additional browser windows along with your database program to provide access to your research tools. Put politics and presentation aside. Other professional can see your tools.

7. Be alert to cases when more data is needed and be ready to do the research, immediately after the meeting.

8. Provide specifically targeted proactive research for each meeting, which you can briefly present and review. This sounds simple, though I must say, I once worked under a supervisor that refused to let me speak (publically scowled and threw me an angry look) and I had to slowly inch my way in when she went to the bathroom. (Remember senior-level collagues can be allies.)

9. Take copious notes at the meeting. In other words, be the institutional memory, so that you’re the go-to person when someone needs to recall a detail.

10. Provide post-meeting action notes in which you briefly summarize the key status of each prospect and, quite importantly, “next steps”for cultivation in each case. Distribute to participants.

So, that’s how to get invited to major gifts management meetings by contributing to the organization of meetings and providing new insightful data beyond what your colleagues’ have had before. Even more so, the direction you are leading them should spark and further inform their discussion of strategy. Will you have a seat at the table? Yes, because the connection of data to actual fundraising is not always clear to others. For you, it will develop through osmosis (learning from colleagues) and also dialogue with fundraisers. You can acquire insights from your unique vantage point, and then provide a perspective that will be valued.

Your other serious benefit is that by being present at these meeting (no matter what you do) you get to listen to your colleagues and learn about the workings of other parts of your organization, particularly the process by which major gifts fundraising and senior management strategize their way to successful solicitations.

Of course, many fundraising organizations have gone beyond this and evolved to incorporate prospect management as part of their operation. In these cases, the research function also includes monitoring and helping to manage fundraisers’ portfolios so that they can optimize their time and energy. As Armando Zumaya discusses in his article – My Letter To Your Vice President – this involves a fairly progressive redefinition of the role of the researcher in your organization. In fact, the industry has caught up to reality and created the position of Director of Prospect Management and Prospect Management Analyst, though these tend to be in larger institutions.

You may need to quietly fight for the creation of your new purview, access to information, and opportunities to become valuable and contribute. To be a prospect researcher and manager will enlarge your position as you assign prospects to the most appropriate fundraiser and also serve as time-keeper on their performance with each prospect. In addition, you may be dialoguing with fundraisers to help them meet their individual fundraising goals for the year.

However you grow, you will be accorded new respect. You will be looked at differently. And this is all because you have decided and invested your energy to learn and become more valuable.

Not every organization is open to such change and even one blockhead or ill-mooded person or someone you have spilled coffee on (without apologizing profusely) or someone who doesn’t like you or someone who wants to contain your growth can block your path. Create your opportunity by creating a reputation that will draw opportunity to you. (Don’t tell them how good you are. Show them. Then be in the right place at the right time.)

Reflect on the Japanese proverb: “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” Prospect research and prospect management can enrich the team’s vision which, potentially, makes fundraising efficacious. Reliable and insightful data rises above opinion and can confirm/inform/redirect educated guesses. Effective (and tactful) prospect management is a recognized fucntion to organize and adminstrate fundraising success.

Be an asset! Be proactive! Be a team member.

Don’t be the sterotype.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. A nice piece ! It’s super sad this is so needed ! Major Gifts prospects being discussed without a Prospect Research and Management staffer as a key part of the team, not just in the room.

    October 7, 2015

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