What Do You Really Need To Know About Your Prospects?

In my family, my husband and I each make our own philanthropic decisions.  I suppose, were one of us to decide on a rather more significant gift that usual, we would discuss this with each other, but maybe not. How does this work in your family?  More to the point, how does this work for your donors?

So often, I find when my clients review unsuccessful asks, the main reason is that the right people are not in the room.  Even if, as in my family, there is no real need for say me to be there when my husband is being asked, not having me there makes it oh so easy for him to say, “I have to check with my wife.”  That he doesn’t need to check with me is irrelevant.  If he did have to check with me, however, it would be more than just a delaying tactic; it would be telling you that you hadn’t done your appropriate due diligence.

When people talk about donor research, the focus is typically on a prospect’s capacity.  How much are they able to give?

But capacity, as anyone who has done this work for seventeen seconds knows, is actually the smallest indicator of a charitable gift.  So much depends on interest, inclination, involvement.  A great deal has to do with general philanthropic intentions.  One of my friends has a great deal of capacity—he could make any number of 6 and 7 figure gifts annually.  But he does believe that nonprofits have a model that lead to success, and therefore, there are few that he would even consider supporting.

You really do need to know what the prospect cares about.  And more than that, you need to know where you fit on that prospect’s philanthropic scale.  If they even have a philanthropic scale—something else you really need to know.  During a recent conversation with the prospect my client was sure would make the lead gift for a proposed capital campaign, I discovered that the organization was way down on his priority list.

“They are number 172,” he said, laughing when I asked where they fit on his philanthropic list.  “No,” he amended, “maybe not that low; but they are definitely NOT in my top 10.”  That did not bode well for getting a lead gift.

Knowing who (else) your prospect supports is helpful; knowing how those organizations recognize his or her support is even better.  Better still—how does the donor feel about the recognition?  Is it appropriate?  Would he or she prefer something else? 

I remember one donor fuming to me when I became the chief development officer that if we couldn’t get her name straight, she was no longer going to be a donor.  She had long been divorced from the man whose last name we insisted on adding to hers.  And another donor who was incensed when it was suggested that we hold a press conference to announce her very substantial gift.  “Do you want every nonprofit in the world to come knocking at my front door?” she asked as she explained why this was a terrible idea.

It’s also helpful to know how a donor likes to make a gift.  Finding out early if you are talking about a multi-year payout is important.  It may change what you are asking for.  Likewise if the gift is going to be “planned”—that is, given out of their estate rather than current assets.   I recently helped a client get over the shock of having the $100,000 gift she was expecting to get her out of the red turn out to be a gift of bequest, from a healthy 40-year-old donor!

In short, it is as important for you to understand how someone gives as it is to carefully read the guidelines for a grant proposal before submitting something to a private  or corporate foundation.  It’s unfortunate, perhaps, that our individuals donors don’t publish a list of do’s and don’t’s, but that would take the fun out of our jobs.

And it is fun and interesting to learn about your donors.  It’s also a very smart thing to do.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them  to increase their fundraising capacity, build better boards, and work more effectively with their prospects and donors.  Learn more at http://janetlevineconsulting.  While there, subscribe to the free monthly newsletter.