Who Are Your Access People?
Every organization that raises (or strives to raise) major gifts faces the same challenge upon identifying a new prospect: How do I reach out to this person and develop a meaningful relationship? Unlike other types of fundraising such as direct mail, online giving, phonathons and small annual gifts, cultivation of major-gift prospects requires the critical first meeting, which can be facilitated by a door-opener or “access person.” With strong collaboration and information sharing between fundraisers and prospect researchers, the latter can play an essential role in identifying access people.
Who is an access person? He or she believes in your cause and may (or may not) be a donor. He knows your organization and, most importantly, trusts your professionalism to have an introductory meeting with no solicitation. She also appreciates your respectful method: developing long-term relationships that may lead to a solicitation often after as much as a year and a half to two years of cultivation. This method seeks to develop donors as genuine partners, not as funders who engage in a monetary transaction and then move on.
Access people also have certain characteristics, and as author Malcolm Gladwell coined, they are connectors: people who have meaningful personal, social and professional networks of immediate and extended family, friends, colleagues and other valued contacts. In our world of six degrees of separation, the access person effectively strengthens and expands his networks with the online social-media tools that so many of us use such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Access people are essentially characterized by the types of salient affiliations they may have with the prospect you’re trying to engage.
Specifically, the access person may:
- know the prospect directly or know someone who knows him or her directly;
- have the same interest as the prospect, ideally related to your organization’s work or unique to the access person and prospect (such as being avid car collectors); and
- communicate in the same style, such as being from shared professional backgrounds or similar upbringing or speaking in another shared language.
Let’s take, for example, a fictional couple in its early 50s with two children. The two own a small, private software company and have turned it into a successful growing business. At some point, they may have the opportunity to sell the company — thereby making them capable of a seven-figure gift — or their children may choose to enter the family business (making the family a multigenerational prospect).
Usually, the researcher produces a standard report with (at minimum) the couple’s biographical information and history of their combined philanthropy to varied causes. This also includes information about their religious orientation, spouses’ higher education degrees, career histories, corporate and nonprofit board memberships, foundations (if any), and political giving. Typically, rating and an estimate of capacity also are incorporated.
Communication is key
In contrast, research on access people sharply focuses on salient shared associations of prospects and those whom you already know well — your donors and board members. Where to start? Review the prospect’s board memberships, given the possibility that the other board members may be your supporters. This actual research is often pedestrian, a simple matter of reviewing your own database, which must be up-to-date and accurate.
Unfortunately, some researchers (especially in large organizations) may not know which of their organization’s board members may be willing to reach out to new prospects as well as to their own networks. Sharing this information within your organization bears no cost and aids researchers to find pertinent connections for prospect development. In brief, this means developing an organizational culture that promotes open communication.
You can use the same tact as you research a prospect’s career (the boards and senior management of current and past employment), education, business groups, industry and secular awards; the boards of organizations that the prospect substantially supports; country clubs; and other social/recreational venues.
In addition, our American culture has evolved a myriad of organizations and activities that serve most every phase of the lives of your prospects’ children. This offers additional networks that can also inform the researcher’s work when he or she looks for shared affiliations.
What are the religious programs, private schools, summer camps, after-school and vacation activities that your prospects’ children are or have been involved in? Which college? Are the children in fraternities and sororities? What about other salient college activities — those with their own fellow alumni? All secular organizations figure in the overall map, as they generate their own viable, often interconnected networks. Does your organization approach this in a systematic way?
Here are some additional research techniques for identifying access people:
- With their permission, research your own board members. It may be surprising, but you may learn of connections to foundations, boards and other organizations that you did not know about. Research has indicated that board members are often more ready to tap their networks for prospects and access people once you cue them with this information.
- Review access opportunities — these are the unique services and products that have well-served potential access people in your universe and may inspire their assistance.
- Recent developments in online data gathering and visual tools have brought us free Internet tools for mapping networks. Input a name, and the tool delivers a graphic network (think of spider webs) depicting the person’s connections to other people, companies and foundations. Two good examples are muckety.com and mapper.nndb.com.
- Create a “list of lists.” Before the Internet, the best (and only well-known) lists were provided in the Forbes 400 annual magazine issue. With the Internet, hundreds of lists are now available that can directly aid your research on access people, e.g., The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s lists of major gifts and numerous “top 100” lists of professionals such as investors, executives, entrepreneurs, etc. When your prospect appears on a list, follow the dictum — birds of a feather flock together — and review the list for people you know who can serve as access people.
If your database contains thousands of viable prospects, then it is paramount that your fundraisers share their resources and counsel as they will provide essential context for navigating the overwhelming data on the Internet. Also, quite simply, fundraisers should not be spending too much of their time behind a desk.
If you are a researcher, then it is essential that you understand your organization beyond the research data you collect. Ask your fundraisers how they prioritize their portfolios of prospects. This helps you define your priorities to produce actionable research.
Finally, let’s say that you’ve identified the access person and also the prospect, and the fundraiser attains the gift. Who gets the credit? My advice: Clearly defer to the team, and use the opportunity to enrich your relationship with the fundraiser. Then solicit wisdom and additional information on resources that can help you identify future access people and new prospects.
When it comes to the choice between having a pretty feather in your cap or gaining what you need to make lightening strike again and again, always choose the latter.
Gil Israeli is senior writer and director of prospect research at the American Technion Society. He also edits the Fundraising Compass blog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org