Prospect Research Can Boost University Fundraising Success

two-men-laptopIn an increasingly competitive giving climate, it is not enough for skilled researchers to provide information about just the wealthiest prospects. “The things we know about the people who will take a meeting with us are probably not true for the majority of our constituents,” says Shelby Radcliffe, Vice President for Advancement at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. “They are less than 1 percent of our constituents. Prospect research analytics can help us develop an understanding of the other 99 percent.”

This is especially important for institutions of higher education that are experiencing far more competition for the philanthropic dollar than ever before. “I think where institutions can add that competitive edge is on the prospect research side,” Radcliffe says. “Do we know where the next $100 million is coming from? That’s not a question you can answer one prospect at a time.”

In a previous position, Radcliffe administered the private phase of a capital campaign by having five full-time researchers meet with fundraisers at least monthly to review data and, often, after each prospect visit. Radcliffe’s researchers were encouraged to accompany fundraisers on visits as part of their training, and they were required to spend at least one evening soliciting gifts with the student calling program. While it took time for Radcliffe to bring enough researchers on board and for the fundraisers to develop confidence in the data, the results were worth it, she says.

In its 2012 survey of educational institutions, Best Practices for Prospect Research in Higher Education Fundraising, Second Edition, prospect research firm WealthEngine found that high performing organizations invest more in research resources than their lower performing peers. The most successful institutions have up-to-date strategies for screening, collecting, implementing and safeguarding prospect research data and integrating it into the fundraising workflow.

The challenge, Radcliffe points out, is that prospect research technology has not kept pace with the communications revolution. Ponderous relational databases often lack the flexibility to allow fundraisers to update them right after a prospect meeting while key information is still fresh. “As an industry, higher education institutions and nonprofits in the United States are raising a lot of money, but we could be raising more,” she says.

When Radcliffe speaks at conferences, she often meets people who manage hundreds of staff and millions — even billions — of dollars in gifts, but have only the most basic knowledge of sound prospect research practices. “People are meeting their goals, but I think they’re setting their goals too low,” she says. “We need to be more effective in using information management tools to maximize our effective- ness, but it’s hard because we’re an industry that’s built on handshakes and relationships. We’re in a time of transition, and we have a long way to go.”

This post was adapted from “More Than Data: How Prospect Research can Help You Fine-Tune Your Ask, Allowing You to Raise More Money More Cost-Effectively,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, January-February 2011 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.