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Expand Your Program - Donor Identification Techniques

An important part of major gift fundraising is the identification of those who are capable of making larger gifts to the station and who are either prepared to do so or can be made ready through increased cultivation. There are several approaches to this, and all can be used in a major giving program. They including identifying donative behavior on the station's membership file, conducting information on prospects from peers, using publicly available databases, and external prospect screening by an outside firm.

Topics of Interest
Topics of Interest

Conducting Formal Prospect Research

Prospect research is one of what consultant and writer Kent E. Dove calls "the four pillars of a full development program," drawing on one pillar, annual giving, to support the other two, major giving and planned giving. (See the Planned Giving Now website.) Dove views prospect research as a distinct activity, calling for a unique set of skills, and the four pillars as essential to true development success.

Because most people keep only enough in cash and checking accounts to pay for current expenses, true major gifts come from assets. To uncover the true potential of donors, therefore, you must conduct formal research. A station must either do this on its own or contract with outside services.

For stations that choose to do their own research, a variety of public sources are available (see the list in Donor Cultivation System, PDF, 79KB), most of them online, and many of them free. To find services for asset screening and predictive modeling, see the resources contained in Fundamentals of Prospect Research (PDF, 602KB). In addition, a useful online tool is Proquest, a commercial service that may be available through your local public library.

The first step in prospect research is to gather all useful known information about the prospect.

  • It starts with basic biographical information — name, address and other contact information, occupation, age, marital status, alma mater, name and other significant information about spouse, names and ages of children.
  • It continues to social and political information — clubs, churches, political, even personal interests, when it can be obtained from a volunteer.
  • Then there is financial information — estimated annual income, securities, directorships, land ownership, and estimated net worth.
  • Finally, there is other philanthropy — gifts to other organizations, membership on boards, other volunteer service, membership on foundation boards or family foundation.

The task of information gathering and organization is thoroughly outlined in Fundamentals of Prospect Research (PDF, 602KB), a presentation prepared for the Public Television Major Giving Initiative by Abbey Silberman, Senior Consultant to Marts & Lundy.

But data is not enough. Prospect researcher David Lamb says that the job of prospect research is "analysis, not just a data dump." The task of prospect research, he says, is to work collaboratively with development officers to try to answer their questions.

  • Does this individual have the capacity to make a gift of significance?
  • From what we know of his or her interests, prior giving, and other affiliations, is this person likely to be interested in our mission? Why?
  • From what we know of his or her assets and past giving patterns, how might this person be able to make a significant gift — in cash, or through some sort of planned gift?

For stations on public broadcasting's Team Approach database, Joshua Birkholz of Bentz Whaley Flessner offers this Prospect Approach Presentation (MS PowerPoint file, 4.9MB), detailing the steps involved in profiling, identifying, and tracking prospects.

How does one use information on the database and gathered through research to decide how much to ask? Kent Dove quotes the University of British Columbia (UBC) on six means of estimating a potential major gift:

  • 1-5 percent of net worth
  • 20 times consistent annual giving
  • 10 times the largest annual gift
  • 10 percent of one year's income through a five-year pledge period
  • 1-4 percent of stock worth less than $.5 million, 5-9 percent of stock worth $.5-$1 million, and 10 percent of stock worth $1 million or more
  • 5 times the total of four annual gifts to organizations in the community, including your own

Under the UBC formula, you would use one of these six — and potentially an average of two or more — based on the best information you have available.

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Conducting Peer Research

While formal prospect research provides the factual basis on which to determine an individual's ability and, perhaps, to estimate what size gift he or she might make, one of the most effective tools is peer research — a rating of an individual's capacity to make a gift if he or she is interested. The process is exactly the same as that described in Identifying External Prospects (on Prospecting page in Launch Your Program section) using an appropriate Rating Sheet (PDF, 35KB) designed for this purpose.

The ratings session can be:

  • A group discussion (preferable) with a lead volunteer conducting the session and staff members taking notes, or
  • A silent meeting with individual members of the evaluation committee quietly marking their rankings sheet, and staff members collecting the sheets at the end of the session.

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Collecting Research Information

Whatever method of formal prospect research a station uses, and however it conducts its peer research, it is important that the information obtained be presented in a format (such as the Prospect Profile Form, PDF, 22KB) that allows the station to add its own information — and keep it in a confidential prospect file, accessible only to those concerned with major giving.

Confidentiality during evaluation and ratings session is vital. Louisiana Public Broadcasting simply and effectively conveys the importance of respecting the privacy of information provided in this Privacy Letter (MS Word file, 24KB), which may be adapted for your own needs.

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Donor Cultivation System (PDF, 79KB)
Rating Sheet (PDF, 35KB)
Prospect Profile Form (PDF, 22KB)
Privacy Letter (MS Word file, 24KB)