It’s the big moment. You are finally ready to ask a prospect who you have been cultivating for months, even years, for a large sum to support your organization. But when you make your ask, everything goes wrong. They look at you offended, like you’ve lost your mind and demand: “Who do you think I am?”
Gift officers and prospect researchers have nightmares about this worst case scenario. We all want to avoid asking for too large a sum of money. But at the same time, we fear asking for too little, leaving money on the table.
How do you figure out the right ask for a prospect? It isn’t easy, entailing a careful blending of the hard data that comes from prospect research and the experienced judgment of front-line fundraisers.
As researchers, our job is to identify and qualify prospects for our organizations. We spend time looking at property records, people’s gifts, foundation tax documents, newspaper articles, and so much more to figure out a person’s wealth potential. We scrutinize retirement packages, unpack company financial statements, and try to put a value on vineyards or Van Goghs.
But one of the trickiest things that prospect researchers face is common names. We regularly throw up our hands when encountering names like John Smith or Jane Miller. Those names make it harder to figure out if the John Smith of ABC Company is the same as the prospect for the organization. Often we may find little on a prospect because there’s too much information on a common name and we can’t narrow it down.
In one unfortunate example, a researcher identified someone who appeared to be a principal prospect for the organization. The president was even called in for the meeting. But when they met the prospect, he or she was extremely confused as to why there was all the fuss. Turns out, it was the wrong person. Best practice is to be overly cautious than ascribe too much to a common name!
After we’ve found all this information, we try to come up with a gift capacity rating. Each shop has their own system—for example, some use 5 percent of identified wealth. Ultimately, we are trying to put a number figure on a person using all those factors that will guide fundraisers to a gift in a three- to five-year time frame.
Most prospect researchers aim to be conservative in their estimates because they don’t want to overestimate someone’s giving capacity. If the wrong person is cultivated, it is a waste of time and resources for everyone involved. Plus it can be super embarrassing!
In addition to providing conservative capacity ratings, prospect researchers should communicate any uncertainty they have about information on a prospect. If research isn’t 100 percent sure if it is the right person, researchers should make a note of it. Words like “maybe,” “likely,” and “possible” help gift officers understand that there’s some uncertainty about the prospect and they should proceed with caution.
Hopefully, in the cultivation process, the gift officers will confirm that yes, Jane Miller is in fact the former hedge fund founder. Or alternatively, they find out that she was not.
Good Data and Good Instincts
Researchers will readily admit that all their digging can only take you so far. Gift officers are on the front lines: making the cold calls, meeting people, and learning about them. They actually get to see how the person dresses. (“Is that a Rolex I see before me?”) Fundraisers take the time to learn what makes prospects tick.
Through this process of cultivation, the gift officers are hopefully learning more about the prospect and their wealth capacity. Through careful cultivation, the fundraiser will learn about what motivates a prospect, their family, their views on money and philanthropy, notable life events, and so much more.
Along the way, the gift officer will also fill in the details that help them understand how the person may think about their financial position and giving capacity. Sometimes it will be directly said, such as a prospect talking about how they are selling their company. Or it may be said subtly, like a prospect talking about selling their vacation home to cut costs. All of this information can inform the timing of an ask as well as the size of the solicitation.
Before moving forward with an ask, gift officers should check in with prospect research to confirm the amount. This provides a final look at a prospect’s wealth potential and brings together everything that the fundraiser knows. Sometimes, research can even recommend a higher ask amount, which can reduce the money left on the table.
But the opposite can happen, too. Research takes a hard look at a promising prospect only to find that the prospect may not be as robust as they initially appeared. Hopefully, this final capacity rating research will be taken into account for the solicitation.
But sometimes, research is ignored—which can result in solicitations that go badly wrong. For instance, in one case, a researcher was asked to confirm a high solicitation amount for someone who had sold their company in the 1980s for over $1 billion. However, there was little current evidence to support the solicitation amount; there weren’t any large gifts nor notable properties to suggest such a high capacity to give.
The researcher played with financial models to see what a $1 billion from the 1980s would look like now, but the results were astronomical and ultimately useless. There was no way to say that the prospect still had the money after 30+ years; they may have reinvested it, lost it all on bad investments, or even spent it all. Unfortunately, the gift officer went ahead with the ask amount and was rebuffed by the prospect asking, “Who do you think I am?”
Everyone in fundraising wants to avoid giving prospects heart attacks when asking for a solicitation. Unfortunately, forming solid judgments about giving capacity based on data and interpersonal relations is far from an exact science. But the best way to deal with this uncertainty is for fundraisers and researchers to have a good, trusting relationship. Fundraisers should be able to trust prospect research to provide the best data possible and researchers hope that their recommendations are heeded. Everyone wins (including the prospect) when they work together.