Picture this: You’re at a donor event, making small talk with an attendee you have never met before and you’re struggling to come up with something to talk to them about. You glance at your watch uncomfortably, and then look up to see a long-time major donor walking up. You quickly jump into easy conversation with them, and you pat yourself on the back for cultivating and engaging with this important donor. At some point, you realize the attendee you were first speaking with is no longer standing near you, and when you look around later, it appears they have left the event. You make a mental note to look them up later, but with all the chaos of getting the event closed out, you’ve forgotten their name by the time you get home.

Now imagine if this conversation went just slightly differently: Prior to the event, your development team handed you an event briefing, with a bulleted list of attendees and quick blurb on each. Glancing through it in your car in the parking lot before entering the event, you notice a name you don’t  know well (the attendee from the previous scenario) and read that your staff has noted that they are new to town, but had uncovered in a google search that they were a major donor to the arts organizations of their previous town. Intrigued, you pull up their donor record on your phone as you hop in the elevator up to the event. Their record is fairly bare, but you quickly spot they are an alumnus of your alma mater. When you wind up next to this individual at the event, you bring up your days at the old college town. The attendee immediately warms up, conversation starts flowing, and the topic turns to your institution. They tell you about their passion for the arts, how involved they were in their previous city, and how they hope to be more involved in their new city as well. You make plans to get coffee the following week, and just like that, you’re on your way to securing a new major donor.

What’s the difference between an awkward conversation and a major giving prospect? Prospect research.

The American Alliance of Museums conference was last week, and I had the opportunity to meet and introduce the panel of a jeopardy style session, What is Prospect Research, Alex? The panelists all had expertise in various areas of prospect research, from individuals to foundations, and had some excellent tips for attendees.

If you weren’t able to attend AAM 2015, or missed the session, here were my top takeaways:

Keep copious notes

Institutional knowledge gets lost not just when someone leaves an organization, but also when you just plain forget a detail or don’t share it with a co-worker. Put every detail you can into your fundraising CRM so you, and your colleagues, can access it. A great ethical tip from Cody Lee at Segerstrom Center for the Arts was to write those notes in such a way that the donor wouldn’t be offended or upset if they somehow ended up seeing them.  Grants Administrator Heather Pressman from Chabot Space & Science Center suggested keeping detailed notes on foundations as well: not only the foundations that fund you, but the ones that didn’t, and why they didn’t. You never know when a foundation will change their requirements, and you can try again.

Make those notes accessible

You won’t always have time to go through prospects files in detail at the office prior to a meeting or an event. Some organizations use a one-page individual briefing that the prospect research team prepares for a gift officer prior to an important meeting. Many organizations also prepare an event briefing, which is a list of attendees with a quick, short blurb on each person that will be there that someone could skim through quickly. If you don’t have a research team, don’t have time to prepare a briefing or accidentally leave it at home, using a cloud-based fundraising solution will allow you to pull up a prospect on your phone and quickly glance at their information at any time. With a fundraising solution that you can access anywhere, you can also add notes to a donor record while you’re out on the road and the details are fresh in your mind, instead of waiting until you get back to your desk.

Focus on BOTH analytics and relationship building

At the end of the day, successful fundraising is about relationship building. As Heather Pressman said in the session, that’s true for grants as well (get on the phone and call the foundation! Make sure they know you!). However, the panelists thought that services that screen your database and provide recommendations on who to ask for major gifts, and how much to ask, were very useful in saving time and prioritizing.

When developing a strategy for major gift cultivation, be it individual donor or foundation, take the time to do your homework and take advantage of the solutions that can make your life easier.

Thanks to Heather Pressman from Chabot Space & Science Center, Cody Lee from Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Sonja Lunde from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and Elizabeth Bolander from Cleveland Museum of Art for all of the great tips.

Let’s continue the conversation! Leave me a comment below or tag me @laurabeussman on twitter.


Laura joined Blackbaud in 2013 as the Senior Product Marketing Manager for Arts & Cultural Solutions. Previously, Laura spent two years at Dell, most recently as the Lead Pricing Manager for North American Consumer Desktops. Before receiving her Master’s of Business Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laura worked for 5 years in non-profit arts. During that time, Laura worked as the Associate Director of Finance at Austin Lyric Opera and in Finance/Accounting at the Dallas Theater Center. Laura is also a proud graduate of Texas A&M, where she received her Bachelor’s of Business Administration, Magna Cum Laude and with honors.

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