Why Fundraisers and Prospect Researchers Should Talk More

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

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: Could the prospect enrich his or her life through a relationship with us? 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 cooperation 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 Jewish and Israel-related causes. This would also include information about their synagogue membership, spouses’ higher education degrees, career history, corporate and nonprofit board memberships, foundations (if any) and political giving.

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, possibly more so than others, Jewish culture has evolved a myriad of organizations and activities which serve most every phase of our and our children’s lives. This offers substantial social and professional networks which can also inform the researcher’s work when he looks for shared affiliations.

What are the synagogue programs, private schools, summer camps, after-school activities and vacation activities that our prospects’ children may be or have been involved in. College? Are the children involved in Hillel? Are the young men members of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the international Jewish fraternity? What about other fraternities and sororities? Of course, 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 been so difficult to nurture? These two professionals can sometimes fall into a race to be the first to identify a prospect and also the right access person. This signifies a deeper problem when resources become negatively polarized as competitive: social and professional networks versus immense (computer-driven) data sources. 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. This can also be informal when two professionals say to one another:

How can I help you?

Staff members need to embrace their organization’s mission as their outstanding shared interest 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.

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