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Launch Your Program - Prospecting

There are two main sources of prospects — individuals your organization already knows and those someone close to you knows. The internal prospects may be hiding in your member database, giving less than they could because you've never involved them or asked for more. The external prospects are those identified by volunteers who they believe would respond if they knew your story. Here are some techniques for identifying both.

Topics of Interest
Topics of Interest

Identifying Internal Prospects

Your station's existing database is the place to start when building your major giving program. The more complete the data, the more valuable it will become.

There are several selection criteria that you can evaluate within your file for prospecting including:

  • Past giving
  • Recency of giving
  • Frequency of giving
  • Longevity on file

If your station stores demographic information or scoring, it should also be useful in determining your best major giving prospects.

Sample selection criteria might include:

  • One time givers of $500+ (first- or multi-year), or
  • Givers who give 3+ gifts per year, or
  • Certain demographic codes or scores

This sample criterion is a starting point and may yield results too unwieldy for station staff to effectively deal with — but this is where the fun begins! You may refine your criteria further, by using selections in tandem or all three: a $500+ donor who gives three or more times per year and is also scored with a particular code. You may also adjust your criteria up or down to achieve the initial numbers you're after.

Established mid-level and sustaining gift programs should also yield good prospects. Introducing a major giving program is a prime opportunity to ask these and other prospects to join as a "Charter Member" of your new club, so don't let the opportunity pass you by. In such cases, it is usually helpful to set a cut-off date at some point in the reasonably near future to create a sense of urgency.

You may choose to mail an Upgrade Appeal (MS Word file, 126KB) to selected segments within your donor pool — or even invite them to a cultivation event, providing them with a taste of what's possible if they join the major donor club. The important thing is that you begin developing a rapport with these prospects, whatever that means.

Some organizations have success converting their high-level sustainers to major donors, while others have success in lowering the longevity selection to 2+ years. Cast a slightly larger net to begin with and then let your results guide you.

LFP participants may also take part in wealth screening (Website), which can help find donors in your database with strong upgrade potential. Wealth screening can also help you determine the appropriate ask amount for existing major gift prospects. Companies like WealthEngine, Target Analytics, and Lexus Nexus aggregate data from dozens of sources (most commonly real estate and public stock holdings, professional affiliations, income information, and records of other charitable gifts) to determine a donor's capacity to give.

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Identifying External Prospects

There are two types of external prospects — those identified by volunteer leaders who already contribute but who were not identified during your internal identification process and those who have had no previous connection to your station. In both cases, the identification and rating of prospects is the same.

A volunteer leadership group is asked to provide the following materials and to identify those they believe the station should approach:

  • Personal and business contact lists — address books, Christmas card lists, client lists, etc.
  • Directories of organizations to which they belong — chambers of commerce, service groups, country clubs, etc.
  • Lists of known donors to other organizations gathered from their annual reports, programs, newsletters, and from public displays.

Development officers should augment the list of known donors with lists they have collected and should also add the names of those who have been in the news recently — in business and society sections. (Many major giving officers make it a habit to keep a yellow highlighter handy as they read the morning newspaper, marking the names of "suspects.")

A master list is assembled of all the suspects, and the volunteer group convenes for a screening session. A ratings system, such as that contained in this Prospect Ratings Sheet (PDF, 35KB) is established to gather the group's analysis of capacity (ability to make a large gift) and probable interest. There are two methods of conducting the screening. Which one works best depends on the dynamics of the group and, in the first example, the ability of the group leader to maintain discipline.

  • Group Discussion: The preferred method is that the group leader reads each name in turn, giving members the opportunity to quickly offer their assessments of capacity and probable interest by using the codes and to indicate if they personally know the individual. A staff member records responses. Occasionally, the group will pause to consider one particularly promising prospect, but for most names, the leader should spend only a few seconds ... or none at all, if no one in the group has knowledge of them. This process occasionally elicits names not on the list: "Not John Smith — he's not generous — but his partner, Doug Jones, is a quiet giver to a number of causes. He belongs on this list." Such discoveries should be encouraged.
  • Silent Evaluation: On occasion, the above system does not work well. When one member dominates discussion or if someone in the group is reticent about holding a public discussion — you may have to resort to a silent evaluation. Give each member a copy of the list and ask him or her to enter evaluations silently, without discussion with others. At the end of the meetings, collect and tabulate responses and follow-up individually with members after the meeting. This method provides opportunity for interaction or for the type of discoveries cited above, but if the group dynamic does not permit an open discussion, it is an acceptable alternative.

The privacy of information exchanged during an evaluation and ratings session is paramount. This Privacy Letter (MS Word file, 24KB) developed by Louisiana Public Broadcasting, is an excellent example of how to convey this to volunteer screeners.

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Advanced Prospect Research

Formal prospect research is addressed on the Donor Identification Techniques page in the Expand Your Program section.

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Prospect Ratings Sheet (PDF, 35KB)
Privacy Letter (MS Word file, 24KB)
Donor Cultivation System (PDF, 79KB)

Don Gray,
University of Wisconsin Foundation

Roger Workman,
Executive Vice President for Institutional Advancement, KCET