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You’re a nonprofit board member or staffer trying to increase your support from individual donors. You figure: “If someone has a lot of money, they’ll give to us because of the good work we do. Hell, they can afford it. Now all we have to do is get a name and write a good letter. The check will be in the mail.”

This kind of wishful thinking is all too common, according to Barbara Shear, an independent consultant and prospect researcher who spent 17 years as research manager at the New York Philharmonic and who has worked with nonprofits in the arts, education and social services. She acknowledges that even at the Philharmonic, she occasionally encountered the “stars-in-their-eyes” ideas about individual giving.

She rolled her eyes at the recollection: “Someone would come up to me and say, ‘I’m having lunch with William Smith in a few hours. I think he’s rich and I want to get a big donation out of him. Find out all about him, would you?”

Homework 101

So instead of wishing or guessing, or this kind of last-minute scramble, how is a development person or board member supposed to prepare to request a personal donation? Barbara Shear sat down with Inside Philanthropy to share her toolkit of questions and resources.

The first step seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many times it’s overlooked. Did William Smith give to us already? Shear says, “Get to know who’s given money to your organization. Be sure you get the names right, and watch out for ‘junior’ or ‘the third’ and nicknames.” (Mitt Romney, she reminds us, is actually Willard.) Remember that women sometimes use maiden or professional names and that other cultures might have different conventions about a person’s name.

She also urges nonprofits to do a deep dive into their databases to find out where their support has come from. And she says that “the best prospects are almost always people who have already given.” Be on the lookout for repeat donations from a single giver—it’s important to identify those supporters who have demonstrated loyalty to the organization and who have an investment in your success.

One key to strong in-house prospect research is making sure you’re forever bulking up your organization’s database—not just with more names, but with more information about the names you’ve got.

What do you want to know about your donors? Shear runs through the kinds of information we often overlook, along with the lures we can use to build relationships with previous and current donors: “Where do they work? What else do they support? Do they have a family foundation or trust? What year were they born? Where did they go to school?”

It’s not just a matter of connecting the dots. Gathering useful information about donors is “locating the dots,” Shear says, “then connecting them.” We can’t make an appropriate and productive request until and unless we know more about the prospect.

“Don’t Overlook Anybody”

Now that you’ve compiled a useful profile of your recent and current donors, how do you “pay it forward” and find new donors? How do you identify prospects who are more than just suspects?

Unless you’re a large nonprofit with widespread recognition (e.g. a major disease charity, a famous art institution) you’re probably not going to be able to attract support from distant and unfamiliar strangers who happen to be rich. Instead, the best place to start is a network of connections and relationships that grows from the inside out. For small, statewide or regional nonprofits, start building your roster of potential donors by asking everyone (staff, board, advisers, clients) to identify contacts: bankers, brokers, auto dealers, real estate agents, accountants, attorneys, people who might have the ability to give or who might know such people.

“Don’t overlook anybody!” Barbara Shear says. The accidental giver could be out there, and it’s our job to make it possible for such accidents to benefit us. We increase the odds each time we add to our list of connections and relationships.

What Can They Give?

The third step involves finding out what a prospective donor might be able to give—that’s the “what are they worth?” question—and also, maybe more usefully, what that prospect has a propensity to do with his or her charitable donations. How does the prospect behave when actually giving to nonprofits or causes?

There’s a lot of public information available about the net worth of prospective donors. You’re looking for public records, approximate annual salary, any record of actions in court, and any record of involvement with a company and its stock. Shear named “real estate holdings, stock sales, corporate annual reports, profiles like those in Crain’s New York’s annual Fortunate 100.” If your organization can’t afford the pricey prospect research tools like WealthEngine, then it’s time to explore the mysterious worlds of Dun’s business directories, D&B Hoover’s, one or more of Forbes’ 70-plus lists, local chamber of commerce membership rosters, and county clerks’ records rooms.

Shear says she’s interested in net worth but also “a person’s propensity to give, what are they willing to give and what have they given to.” Did your prospect sign the Giving Pledge? If so they probably wrote a statement about their motivation and focus for their philanthropy. Is your prospect’s name on a donor wall at a local college or church or Y? For local nonprofits and local prospects, what can you learn about the person’s volunteering, memberships on committees, political activity? (don’t overlook the Federal Election Commission’s database, which is on the internet)

Shear says that depending on the side of your research budget you also might consider a system like Claritas, a “market segmentation system” that lets you target segments of a population and learn about lifestyle preferences and behaviors. The goal, she reminded, is to “look for the thing of Interest to that prospect that is a connector to your organization and its work.”

Coping with Data Overload

These days there are a number of subscription services like DonorSearch that track individual giving, allowing nonprofits to beef up their knowledge of their existing donors and explore thousands of new names.

But Shear—who muses that she began her work “back in the era of books,”—cautions that now there is too much information. It takes discipline and focus to go looking for what you need to prepare for an ask without getting lost in the weeds. Do you care if a prospect played college golf 45 years ago? Probably not. But did that golfer go on to sponsor scholarships for her school’s sports teams? That gets closer to what you might want to know about her.

Shear admitted that even the best sleuthing and the most robust database might miss something important. Her “best worst example” was a wealthy man (call him Herb) who made a generous donation of antique instruments to the New Jersey Symphony. Aha! said the Philharmonic development people, let’s prepare a plan to ask him for a big gift. And they tracked and dug deeper and came up with a mystery. No one could locate him. Herb had simply vanished?

“Herb turned out to have wildly inflated the value of the instruments,” Shear reported, “and when the Feds came after him, he fled the country. Our high-value prospect was a fugitive from justice.”

She pointed out that (even if not as dramatic as Herb’s story) the element of surprise is always there in a thorough prospect research process, even those that rely on state-of-the-art database services.

As for smaller nonprofits that can’t afford either such services or a research staff, Shear’s advice is to enlist the help of a graduate student or other volunteer, perhaps a board member who has access to a library. One of the gifts of the Internet is the availability of useful public information.

An “Honest Broker of Information”

What about the ethics of poking around into a person’s financials and relationships? There are protocols: Barbara Shear points people to Apra, the Association of Professional Researchers in Advancement, which offers a helpful set of resources about ethics & standards on its website. .The watchwords are confidentiality and security, basically seeing to it that the information you discover is not shared or exposed and that your records of that data are secure.

Another issue that confronts prospect researchers—whether they are on an organization’s staff, or working as volunteer or independent consultant—is to deal honestly with negative information. “Our job,” Shear reminds, “is to be an honest broker of information.” Some development departments might resist, and want to press on with the request, but development and fundraising people “should be aware that these issues exist.” There are many unhappy examples of gifts being returned AFTER a scandal or legal tangle was exposed.

Shear summed up the prospect researcher’s role as “making the asker comfortable with the potential donor.” The more appropriate and useful information you have about him or her, the better. People are not simple. They have dimension and intention. If fundraisers can focus a little less on their nonprofit’s needs and spend a little more time getting to know what might animate a donor, asks can become much more rewarding on many levels.

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