Who is Your (Jewish) Donor?

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

First and second impressions of people make an impact how we interface with each other and how relationships begin and flourish. Perhaps intuitive thoughts or opinions based on little or no facts make an impact as well. There’s room, indeed a need, for both.

In marking the pathway for their organization’s philanthropic initiatives, non-profit leaders can little afford to rely only on unsubstantiated or intuitive guesses about the giving capacity and charitable intent and inclination of prospective contributors. For that reason, donor research has taken on much more importance as a fundamental part of the planning and implementation of fundraising at the top dollar levels. No assumptions!

One of the keys to finding and developing successful approaches to important contributors is by making donor research a permanent element of your fund development program. Regularly conducting donor research enables organizations to plan and implement effective strategies based on facts to engage lead and major gift prospects. Sophisticated on-line tools offer easy and cost effective access to information and solutions to the challenge of obtaining information to shape and propel discussions with donors that will in qualitatively better and more accurate presentations and outcomes.

Where to begin? Step I: to assure that perception is reality, begin by researching your organization’s major donor data base and analyze the information that you obtain to better understand the synergies between the prospect and the organization, how to think about and approach each significant prospect and where, and around what issues, those essential personal connections might be. Step II: mobilize those key connections between organizational leaders and stakeholders and major donor prospects and make strategic assignments for outreach. Step III: activate the synergies and connections through personal assignments by reaching out to identified prospects. Combining these essential steps should result in increased success.

There are several software programs available that will enable any organization to research prospective donors and develop insight into their philanthropic inclinations. They are affordable and easy to use, and accurate – to a point. Obviously they do not reflect family and personal situations that are understood only through personal contact and carefully cultivated personal relationships.

One popular national publication highlighted the growing importance and more widespread use of donor research last year when they featured the research work on the part of almost every major hospital in the United States, focusing specifically on grateful patients and their families.

America’s universities have devoted great resources that support substantial staffs whose fundamental responsibilities include researching their alumni and friends to understand giving patterns and determine effective steps toward fundraising success.

Far too few American Jewish organizations seem to have embraced prospect research as a critical component of their fundraising systems. One of the largest Israel-based non-profits that operates a network of offices across North America has not yet invested in prospect research tools in an environment where nearly all of their competitors have done so; content to continue to conduct their work with often inaccurate anecdotal information, and their fundraising results have begun to lag.

Even most of North America’s Jewish congregations do not really know philanthropic intentions and habits of many of their members. We are routinely surprised when we work with congregations and the clergy as well as volunteer leadership express surprise about gifts – Jewish or otherwise – that their members are making … other than to read about them in the pages of various publications and well after the gifts have been consummated. And this is where leadership claim to have somewhat intimate knowledge about priorities and potentials from their best members!

And since up-to-date and accurate information is the key to any successful endeavor in today’s world, gathering relevant data in other ways also adds to the success of the fundraising initiative. Good practice dictates that every major campaign begins by conducting a pre-campaign analysis of some type. This essential study allows to validate and analyze prospective donors by engaging in one-on-one interviews, moderating focus groups, and fully understanding the issues, economic and other, impacting upon an organization’s donor base. A blend of “art” and “science,” the pre-campaign assessment yields legitimate and quite accurate background data on the opportunities and challenges an organization will face in a forthcoming campaign. The pre-campaign analysis has demonstrated its value in preventing monumental missteps, and helps an organization in structure its message and frame a Case for Giving that would resonate with donors.

The multi-faceted research process facilitates a campaign and minimizes mistakes. Since some information that is obtained is anecdotal, it is important to integrate statistical data with general knowledge and insights to truly round out the picture that create the expected results. At a recent meeting, we learned about a generous donor who was about to sell his multimillion dollar business so that the organization could approach the donor before the transaction was finalized, thereby resulting in a serious tax savings for the donor and a seven figure gift for the non-profit. Without having done the research, combined with the long standing connection of and investment in the organization, the gift might never have happened.

We have found that by asking some key questions and better understanding the donor and his/her history of involvement and giving, an organization will be better able to develop and obtain future support. Thus, they can focus their best fundraisers to approach the best prospects that will yield the greatest financial impact to the organization.

What can we learn from knowing more about our donors?

  1. When gauging whether someone may be a lead donor, find out how much “affectionate equity” they have at stake with the cause. Are Jewish causes and organizations a high priority for prospective donors?
  2. Just because they earn big doesn’t mean they give generously. Charitable intent is from the heart. Understanding your donors, through research and relationships, will enable you to determine if this prospect is truly viable as a lead or major donor.
  3. Just because people do not earn big does not mean they won’t give generously. Sometimes people believe in causes greater than themselves and they draw more deeply on more limited resources.
  4. Different generations have different approaches to charitable giving. Understand them and succeed; ignore them at your organization’s peril.
  5. Discerning motivation from your research will help those “selling” a cause to a more focused and successful presentation.
  6. We generally are “creatures of habit” so identifying areas of interest from donors should become a viable predictor of other potential gifts from committed philanthropists.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishphilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.