A Fundraiser’s Most Valuable Prospect Research

Dear Louise:

When I realized you had graduated in 1993, I just had to check the records. Yes, you were indeed in my first-year chemistry class in 1989. You were there on the first day of the first class I ever taught. And, while I tried to hide it, my heart was pounding and my legs were barely keeping me upright as I faced you and 200 other first-year students.

Thanks for persevering in spite of this novice instructor and thanks even more for deciding to give back to your College.

It’s clear that life has been good to both of us and I’m eager to learn about what you have been doing since you graduated. Please let me know when you will next be in town. I hope we can reconnect.

With very sincere thanks.

John Martin, Associate Dean, Liberal Arts

John Martin did not compose this letter; nor did he know that Louise was enrolled in the first class he taught. As it should be, a staff member in the Advancement Office (not just any staff member but someone with both curiosity and initiative), put it all together. Louise told me about this letter soon after she received it.

“Will you give again?”, I asked.

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation.

“Will you give more?”

“Of course. The decision was made the moment I read that thank you letter.”

The most valuable prospect research you will ever conduct is on your inside people and it’s available to fundraisers free of charge. Insiders include deans and professors, physicians and nurses, actors, musicians and artistic directors and, in every not-for-profit no matter its size or focus – members of the Board and CEOs. Insiders have enormous influence with donors because they do the work that carries out your not-for-profit’s mission and because they are not paid to raise money. The more you know about your inside people, the more likely you are to uncover valuable connections to donors, and to use those connections when it matters most.

When Is the Best Time to Use Your Insiders’ Influence?

Insiders’ influence is best set to work immediately after donors are acquired. In typical fundraising, influence is either pressed into action too early or held back until it’s too late. Using influence too early means asking insiders to solicit colleagues and acquaintances with no known interest in the cause. Holding back influence until it is too late means waiting for a signal from longstanding donors (like giving well beyond the norm, giving more often or staying loyal longer), before introducing influence as a tool to build relationships. By then, 90% or more donors have already stopped giving, in part because the influence that would have kept them loyal was withheld. Considering the cost of finding new donors and how difficult it is to renew their support, reserving influence as some kind of reward for giving big or using it with outsiders is a poor business decision.

Fundraisers treasure board members, CEOs or other insiders who are skilled at interacting with donors, who know when and how to bring a gift negotiation to a close, and who can be counted on when asked to do something. They are a huge asset but they are also rare. All your insiders have influence, however, even though few of them recognize that they do. Connecting them with your new donors will simultaneously raise their confidence and increase their willingness to do even more to help drive fundraising forward. All it takes is a personal note or a quick phone call that says to donors, “We notice what you’re doing and we’re grateful.”


Showing 2 comments
  • Graham H

    As a donor I really like a thank you call, or even an influencers role in an ask. Assuming they are also donors(!) that depth of engagement by board members in particular suggests a diligent governance which provides confidence to donors.

  • Dawn

    Great points! Good to remember how helpful those relationships and personal touches are to people giving time and money.

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