Deeper Pyramid For Donor Prospect Management
pyramid donors

Imagine being a carpenter and, each day of your 20-year career, knowing that you drive in a nail with a hammer. Now imagine that, one day, the hammer no longer works for you. Fundraisers are currently experiencing a similar sense of bewilderment with new donor behaviors and trends changing the landscape of giving.

During their session, “Prospect Development Trends” at the recent Fundraising Day in New York, Jennifer MacCormack, director of advancement analytics at the University of Washington; Jill Meister, director of prospect research and management at the University of New Hampshire; and, Alison Sommers-Sayre, assistant vice president of development, information strategy, and operations at Princeton University each discussed new donor trends and how their respective operations are responding to them.
As far as prospect research is concerned, the University of New Hampshire’s six-person operation supports about 30 fundraisers raising $50 million per year. The focus nowadays is on curation, not the size of prospect pools — seeking out prospects who are likely to be responsive and donate and not just those that can be added to a portfolio, Meister said. “It’s about how you can increase the value of portfolios, not make them bigger,” she said.

Philanthropy at the same time is become increasingly difficult with declines in donor engagement and participation, a product of increasingly ambitious campaigns and more organizations coming at prospects from more places, according to Sommers-Sayre. From a prospect management point of view, that trend has led to a focus on more capable donors, the classic “donor pyramid” becoming steeper. Staff, in turn, has become more specialized as donors grow to expect consistent interaction on a variety of different platforms.

That specialization has also led to stewardship being pulled out of fundraising departments. Some institutions were finding that high-level donors were not being stewarded properly with front-line fundraisers pushed to raise as much as they could. Other trends in prospect management have been to consciously avoid competition among university departments for the same donor and to focus more on outcomes than activities, Sommers-Sayre said. Princeton leadership is no longer measuring metrics like visits, for instance, but rather contacts that lead more directly to gifts.

The steeper pyramid informing prospect management is also driving analytics, MacCormack said, describing the modern age as one of major gifts. “The Tyranny of Major Gifts” is going to go away at some point, however, as Gen Xers and Baby Boomers slow down their giving. There is a lack of preparation for 10 to 20 years down the line, she said.

The University of Washington, in the midst of a $5 billion campaign, is pivoting toward Millennials. The notion that flat growth rate in participation is the new up is not acceptable, according to MacCormack. If fundraisers don’t learn the philanthropic mindset of Millennials now, they risk losing the big gifts being enjoyed now a decade or two down the road. While many universities send out emails and newsletters, few are looking at unsubscribes and open rates. Effort should be expended, she said, on what donors want and how they wish to be contacted.

    Other pointers given during the session included:

  • How do you conduct prospect research and management for a small organization with few resources? Try etching out a little time here and there, mindful that you can’t do everything, Meister said. Identify what one thing you believe will move the needle the most and work toward that;
  • With face-to-face time with prospects hard to come by, are such interactions necessary? The University of New Hampshire is moving away from paying much attention to visit numbers with fundraisers often having difficulty reaching goal numbers. Instead, Meister said, the university is looking for “substantive” contacts that might include in-depth emails or calls; and,
  • Smarter fundraising shops are caring about results. Today, valuable contexts can be made informally – even through text, Sommers-Sayre said.