By Ret Boney
Done right, prospect research not only maximizes donations, it provides donors the opportunity to make a true difference, an expert says.
Elizabeth Crabtree, director of prospect development for Brown University, conducted a training session for development researchers at the annual conference of Carolinas’ Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement Feb. 24 in Charleston, S.C.
“The more we know about our donors and prospects, the better we’re positioned to have a conversation with them,” Crabtree about 50 researchers from the higher-education and nonprofits sectors.
“Ultimately it’s the donor that decides, and we’re trying to open up opportunities for them with our organizations,” she said.
Research helps identify the best prospects and allows groups to prioritize fundraising efforts in appropriate ways, she said, all of which ultimately informs the ask.
Development research, Crabtree said, is part art, part science.
By searching for publicly-available data such as income, real estate holdings and stock transactions, she said, researchers can augment biographical data, giving history and other information from their group’s donor database.
And where data is not available publicly, researchers estimate income or wealth based on relevant indicators or markers, she said.
Researchers then compile all known and estimated figures to develop a “gift capacity” for potential donors, which fundraisers then use to decide how large a donation to seek for an annual fund, capital campaign or planned gift.
“This gives you a framework in which to look at what is possible,” Crabtree said. “It provides a basic understanding of what somebody’s potential gift could be.”
Fundraisers then “field-qualify” the research by meeting with the potential donor, and add critical information such as the donor’s interest in the school or charity, and inclination to give.
“It has to be a collaborative process between the researcher and the fundraiser,” Crabtree said.
Solid research benefits donors as well, and donors who are committed to an organization want to see it use its resources wisely, fundraising resources included, Crabtree said.
“If we can be more effective at research, fundraisers can be more effective in the field and everybody wins in the end,” she said. “It’s all connected to the mission somewhere along the chain. Many great organizations have failed because of ineffective fundraising.”
With a staff of 10 researchers, Crabtree is leading the prospect-development efforts for Brown, which publicly launched a $1.4 billion capital campaign in October 2005 and is scheduled to run through 2010.
As of the end of January, the school had raised $613 million.
“We’re trying to target donors who are most inclined and capable of making gifts at the levels we need them to make gifts at,” she said. “When you target right, it enables the fundraisers to have quite an immediate and dramatic impact.”
And although Brown has a relatively large development staff, Crabtree said, research is perhaps even more important for smaller groups.
When staff and resources are limited, research can provide a way to approach fundraising in the most efficient way possible, she said.
“This helps you prioritize,” she said. “It helps take an unwieldy group of potential donors and break it down into manageable groups.”
Rather than approaching a large list of donors alphabetically, for example, fundraisers can use simple indicators, such as income estimates, to roughly calculate gift capacity, then focus valuable time on people with the greatest gift potential.
“When fundraisers are equipped with good information, they are able to concentrate on relationship building,” she said. “We’re all trying to achieve the highest gift possible.”