By Norman Olshansky
One of the most important activities a nonprofit needs to undertake prior to initiating a major gifts campaign is the identification and prioritization of prospects. Some organizations spend a lot of money, time and human resources on prospect mining and research. Others try to identify pockets of wealth in their community and then determine what is the best way to contact and solicit those individuals.
For many organizations, I recommend the following simple and inexpensive technique to identify and prioritize major gift prospects.
The Task Group
The first step is to put together a group of individuals who are already committed to the organization and who have good relationships in the community. When recruited they are told that they are being asked to attend a single meeting to identify names of individuals in the community who could be helpful to the nonprofit. The group can be composed of the organization’s board, donors, volunteers, members, or a combination of individuals from all of these groups. In addition, if a fundraising committee or major gifts committee has already been established, they should also be encouraged to participate. I prefer to have no less than 8 people or more than 30 participate in the focus group meeting, which typically takes about one to one in a half hours. It is helpful to have a diverse group from the various geographic areas served by the nonprofit. You should also try to include individuals who have good connections to high net worth individuals through their volunteer, business and/or social relationships.
At the meeting, participants are asked to identify any individual they know who is charitable and is capable of making a major gift of $25,000 (or whatever level is established by the organization as a major gift) The goal of brainstorming is to identify major donors so the larger the threshold the better. If too low, you will end up with so many names that it will be hard to prioritize. The emphasis of this exercise is to identify individuals (not corporations) who have major gift potential and will be cultivated and solicited face to face. This includes individuals who utilize private foundations or donor advised funds for their charitable giving. This exercise should not be used for identification of prospects to be solicited by direct mail or for targeting donors who can be solicited by phone or contribute by attending events
The facilitator then encourages people to call out names which are written on flip charts or on a large white board that can easily be read by all.
Once everyone has shared names that came to mind during the brainstorming (hopefully, at least 50 names), the facilitator hands out paper and pencils to all participants.
The Nominal Group Technique
Next the facilitator gives the following instructions. “Take a few minutes to look at all of the names on the brainstorming list and write down on your paper the three to five names which best meet the following criteria.
A. They have a history of being philanthropic
B. They have a history of making gifts at our major gifts level
C. They are likely to have an interest in our mission
D. They are accessible. You or others you know in our organization can get a meeting with them or invite them to visit with us.
After adequate time is given for participants to write down their three names, the facilitator goes around the room and asks each person to say aloud the three names. The facilitator puts a hash mark next to those names on the master brainstorming list. When a name is mentioned by more than one participant, additional hash marks are made each time that name is mentioned. Once everyone has announced their three names, the facilitator counts the cumulative hash marks for each name on the master list and circles the top 10 names that were mentioned the most. If it is difficult to narrow it down to 10 names, circle more than ten and initiate another round where participants now write down two of the circled names which they feel best meet the priority characteristics. Then continue the process of narrowing down the names based upon number of times mentioned. Ultimately, the facilitator’s goal is to narrow it down to no more than ten names.
(The nominal group technique can also be used to help with prioritization of any other type of brainstorming activity. The beauty of the process is that it involves all of the participants and provides a way to quickly measure and prioritize responses.)
The last stage of the process is to ask for input from participants on each of the top ten prospects identified. The facilitator or someone else should take copious notes from the comments shared by the group on each of the ten prospects in response to the following questions.
A. Who in our organization knows this person and could be our key contact to invite them to learn more about what we do?
B. What other organizations are they involved with and what are their major philanthropic interests?
C. Do you know how much they have given to other charities?
D. Do they make their philanthropic gifts directly, through a foundation, donor advised fund, etc.
E. Is there anything you know about them that could help our staff or fundraising committee to engage them with us?
F. Do you personally know, have a relationship with, and have access to anyone who knows the individual and has a close relationship to him/her?
G. Is there anything you know that might lower the priority level of this prospect?
In addition to thanking participants, the information learned should be conveyed in detail to staff and volunteers involved in major gift fundraising. Hopefully, your fundraising leadership and staff participate as well and use the session to identify additional volunteers, who attended the session, who can assist the committee going forward with prospect research, cultivation, and solicitation. The top ten names should be among the first prospects targeted as part of the major gifts initiative. After the initial priority names have been assigned and solicited, other names on the brainstorming list should also be approached in the order of the priority established, taking into consideration your ability to access and engage each prospect.
A similar process can be used to identify and prioritize corporate prospects. However, the type of individuals you will want in the Task Group may be different from those you select to focus on individual donor prospects.