Conversation Starters: Strategies That Open Doors to Major Gift Success

by Paul D’Alessandro

Donors, Then and Now

In the late 80’s I worked on my very first capital campaign for a major university.  I remember walking into the room where there were a few prospect researchers.  They had a stack of books to look up information on donors, and they would draw insight from published information.  After a few days, I would get a typed report with all the relevant information and a target major gift amount.

Then it came time to sit down with a prospective donor.  I would sometimes hear these questions:

“How did you come up with that gift request amount?” or

“Where did you get your information from?” 

In 2017, times are different and very few donors ask me that question.  In fact, some donors are quite savvy.  They hide as much information as possible – including putting their home in a different name under a trust.

Two Effective Strategies

There were two other pieces to my prospect research back then.  The first was to drive through a prospect’s neighborhood to get a sense of their property value and wealth.  This was before the days of Zillow and PRO.

The second strategy is still worth doing.  This strategy enhances the data from a wealth screen.  I call this a “screening and rating” session.  People (fundraisers, researchers, board members, etc.) sit together and identify great prospects as a team.

Three Indicators

There are three indicators that I look at when evaluating the giving potential of a prospective donor.

The first indicator is giving history; however, as many fundraisers know, there are plenty of donors who give small gifts but have the capacity for making a major commitment.  How many times have you heard the story about someone who was writing a $100 check to an organization and when asked made a $25,000 or $100,000 commitment?

The second indicator is doing a wealth screen.  iWave has a robust system for rating donors and providing great information about prospects.  My smaller clients who do not have any prospect research tools are amazed at the amount and type of information that is available at our fingertips.  When I show board members the information available in PRO and make a recommendation to invest in prospect tools, their eyes open wide.  They realize there is an abundance of information in the public eye for anyone to see.

The third indicator is information gathered from a screening and rating session.

Screening and Rating Session

I typically conduct this session with a small group of people who are connected to other people in the area.  You can usually visit any US city and get a sense of the community’s leaders and top donors.  You’ve heard it said many times that the same people are giving and are known to many.  We are, however, looking for a diamond in the rough.

We take a list of names and pass it out to the people in a room.  The participants rate the people on the list they know based on capacity and willingness to give.  The rating codes vary, but all the participants work with the same codes and format. I don’t have donor gift amounts on the spreadsheet as it tends to bias the rating.  I also do all I can to protect the donor’s privacy with respect to how much they give.

Sometimes someone in the room may rate themselves.  I had one gentleman look at the list and put himself down as a potential $50,000 donor.  No one expected that!

Food for Thought

These sessions also help identify who you shouldn’t be visiting right now.  Life circumstances affect people’s ability to donate.  Some of those circumstances include business disruptions or family challenges like divorce and illness.  These are things a wealth screen cannot reveal by just looking at the data.  You absolutely need prospect research.

Prospect research is vital to the success of every nonprofit organization.  It is a worthwhile investment but it should be done comprehensively to ensure accurate gift asks.  Prospect research helps nonprofits start a conversation.  That is the first step.

Listen to who the donor is, what she is interested in, and what cause(s) she supports.  The more information you have, the more focused you can be in proposing a strong gift request to your prospects.

About the Author:

Paul D’Alessandro (JD, CFRE) is the Founder and Chairman of D’Alessandro Inc.

Paul founded D’Alessandro, Inc. in 1994 and has advised hundreds of clients on nonprofit management and capital campaigns ranging in goals from $1 million to multi-billions in his 25+ year career. Because he is directly responsible for campaign success and believes in “hands on” counsel, Paul has made more than 4,000 personal solicitation calls with resulting gifts ranging from $1,000 to $10 million.

He began his fundraising career as a Regional Director of Development for the University of Notre Dame’s Strategic Moment Campaign. Paul received his BBA from the University of Notre Dame and his Juris Doctor from St. John’s University School of Law. He is a licensed attorney in Florida, New York and New Jersey, and he is a Certified Fund Raising Executive.

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