8 Prospect Research Lessons From Year-End Giving Season
We all officially are entrenched in fundraising for the new year. Last year is slowly fading into our memories as we make room for the upcoming big fundraising campaigns and trends.
As we move onward and upward, it’s important to reflect on our recent efforts and see what we can learn from such activities.
What better place to start that reflection than year-end giving season? It is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year (or so I hear).
We should probably first consider why year-end giving season is such a big time of year for nonprofits and other fundraising organizations.
Nothing quite says fundraising like late fall. Why?
There are two main reasons:
- The holiday season is infectious in the best way possible. People are in generous moods come late November, and that translates to more charitable giving.
- People also tend to have a better sense of their financial situations as the year draws to a close. Due to that increased awareness, donors are more in tune with how much they can give and more comfortable in their decisions to make contributions.
For nonprofits, those two explanations mean the end of the year is peak fundraising season.
There are countless avenues your organization can take to maximize donations, such as optimizing your Twitter efforts, for example.
It’s easy to understand the popularity of year-end giving, but it’s important to remember that many of the tactics that fundraisers use to make end-of-year fundraising so effective can easily be translated to other times of the year.
That’s what this article aims to help you do.
And, more specifically, given my particular background, we’re going to investigate the many prospect research lessons that you can learn from year-end giving season.
Let these eight prospect research lessons help you fall into fundraising this year.
Specifically, this article is going to cover:
- Perform a screening prior to ramping up your fundraising efforts.
- Clean up your donor database.
- Get to know your event attendees better.
- Plan for a stronger year.
- Mix traditional and newer means of fundraising.
- Embrace the current giving mood of your donors.
- Refine your donor profiles.
- Locate new donors.
Now, let’s dive right in!
Lesson No. 1: Perform a screening prior to ramping up your fundraising efforts.
It is going to be more difficult to work prospect research into your calendar once you are in the swing of things. Before year-end giving reaches its peak, organizations should perform a screening.
The same can and should be said of any big fundraising push, during any part of the year.
Prospect research teaches you all the relevant information you should know about your prospects so you can better tailor your asks.
Your investigation can unveil data such as:
- Past charitable giving
- Political giving
- Real estate ownership
- Business affiliations
And that’s only a sample of the types of data this research offers you for your proposals!
For instance, let’s say you decide to pursue a capital campaign this year.
Capital campaigns are perfectly suited to an early implementation of prospect research (consult this guide for more information). Specifically, you should look to find major-giving candidates for your campaign’s quiet phase.
In terms of major giving, prospect research can be extremely useful when it comes to seeking out the best, most qualified giving candidates.
That’s because a prospect screening reveals:
- A person’s willingness to donate.
- A person’s ability to donate.
As we previously have said, “When you’re looking for major-gift prospects, taking affinity and capacity into account is a must.”
With an in-depth knowledge of those two factors, your major gift officers should be able to gauge whom best to contact during your campaign’s quiet phase.
And that’s just one of the many scenarios you could encounter in the coming year. Take a cue from year-end giving planning and screen early!
The bottom line: Make sure your team is fully equipped to make the right asks to the right prospects at the right time by screening your prospects sooner rather than later.
Lesson No. 2: Clean up your donor database.
When year-end giving season rolls around, your organization typically will have quite a large influx of new donors. If your database is not in tip-top shape before the rush of giving, it’s only going to continue to get more and more unmanageable.
That’s where a database cleaning comes in!
And the fact of the matter is a database cleaning is helpful anytime of year.
Generally speaking, your database cleaning should have at least four areas of focus:
- Deciding which donors are inactive and removing them from your files: Two years is typically the magic number as far as inactivity goes. Removing those donors (excluding certain exceptions like board members or former staff) frees up your fundraisers to refocus their energy on the donors who are interested in being contacted.
- Removing duplicate files: Even more of a space hog than inactive donor files are duplicate files. If your nonprofit, like many organizations, has relied on more than one person to enter donor information into the system, there’s a good chance you have some overlap.
- Correcting and updating donor information: When your database is full of only active and deduplicated donor files, it’s pertinent that those files are accurate. Donors change phone numbers and addresses all the time. Some even change names. It’s critical that your nonprofit makes updating that information a priority.
- Segmenting according to average donation amount: Once you have all your donor records in front of you, take your average gift size and treat it like a dividing line. Group donors according to where they fall in comparison to that amount, and put strategies in place for improving your nonprofit-donor relationship with each group.
But how does prospect research factor in?
Prospect research will be a huge help with correcting and updating donor information and segmenting according to average donation amount.
In regards to making corrections and updates to your pre-existing donor files, a prospect screening can clear up those gaps.
And in regards to segmentation, if you effectively use the information you gather during a screening, you’ll have no issue choosing how best to segment your donors.
In addition to average gift size, you can segment according to:
- Communication channel of choice
- Interests in the work you do
- Frequency of donations
- Age group
- And more!
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to segmentation. Group your donors according to your goals.
Chances are, your year-end segments are going to differ from your segments throughout the rest of the year.
The bottom line: Data cleaning is a time-consuming but worthwhile endeavor any time of year. Prospect research can help expedite the process.
Lesson No. 3: Get to know your event attendees better.
During year-end giving season, it’s likely that you hosted a late fall or early winter event to push your fundraising to new heights.
You’re sure to do the same at another point this year; prospect research can come in handy.
No matter the event, there is an opportunity to capitalize on the potential that prospect research affords you.
Screen specifically for events with three improvements in mind:
- Selecting the perfect guest list: Don’t waste the time of your supporters or your fundraisers by creating a guest list without a strategy in mind. Prospect research will tell you your supporters’ preferences and giving levels. Then, you can make an educated decision about whether or not they would benefit from participating in your fundraiser.
- Making the most of your fundraisers’ limited time: At a crowded event, it is unrealistic to expect your team to have meaningful conversations with every person in attendance. With prospect research, you get a clearer picture of your RSVPs, which means your fundraisers will know who they need to focus on.
- Knowing what to do afterwards: Rather than blindly throwing follow-up darts at the wall, let your screening guide how you communicate with donors after they have attended your event. If you want to convert an attendee to a donor, you have to have a great strategy in place to do so. Let prospect research help.
The bottom line: You can use prospect research to make one, two or all three of these improvements. The path you choose to take will be determined by when your next fundraising event is.
Bonus! For some event inspiration, check out this list!
Lesson No. 4: Plan for a stronger year.
After an experience as involved as year-end fundraising season, it’s important to step back and reflect on the progress made during the past year while setting goals for the next year.
First, you’ll want to take the various fundraising success metrics that you have been tracking into account.
Evaluate how you’ve done with:
Once you essentially have generated a yearly report card for your fundraising, use the details you gathered from your prospect research to put a new plan in place.
As you look ahead to next year, you could even sign up to attend a conference to learn more about taking full advantage of prospect research and better-informed fundraising.
The bottom line: Think about what you can do to improve going forward. Maybe that means your newly discovered donor information helps you personalize communications or seek upgrade opportunities for qualified prospects.
Lesson No. 5: Mix traditional and newer means of fundraising.
One of the biggest days of the year-end giving season is #GivingTuesday. The day owes at least a portion of its ever-growing popularity to the fact that it capitalizes on modern fundraising. There’s even a hashtag in its name!
Following the fundraising holiday’s lead, your organization should be looking into how it can incorporate newer means of fundraising into its established system of practices—prospect research included.
Prospect research is a fairly established fundraising tool, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be adapted to work alongside hyper-current advancements.
Consider mobile fundraising, for example. Over the past year, mobile-giving donations have increased by 205 percent. It now is clearly an area your organization can zero in on and make the most of.
So how does prospect research fit in?
Well, with the help of mobile giving, you’re likely to bring in a sizable amount of new donors. And, those new donors should be screened.
Don’t write off your new, mobile givers as one-time donors. Pull their data from your CRM and run a screening. See who would be a good candidate for various other opportunities such as:
- Major giving
- Monthly giving
- And more
The bottom line: Make sure prospect research remains in the mix, even when you add in new fundraising technologies and techniques.
Lesson No. 6: Embrace the current giving mood of your donors.
To circle back to the point mentioned earlier in this article, much of the success of year-end giving stems from the fact that people are more open to donating during that time of year.
When it comes to asking for donations throughout the rest of the year, you probably won’t be able to recreate that same December magic. You will, however, be able to apply a similar logic to how and when you solicit gifts.
In other words, leverage prospect research to learn what makes your donors tick and then ask for contributions when they’ll be more likely to say yes.
Ways of determining an ideal asking time include:
- Reviewing a donor’s giving history and finding trends: Does one of your donors always give in February? That’s the ideal time to make an ask and think about upgrading the donor.
- Studying how a donor typically likes to give: Does that same February donor always mail in his donations? You should probably stay in touch through direct mail and other, more traditional communications channels.
- Thinking of less conventional factors that might influence your donors: For instance, this year is an election year. If your organization has any kind of political ties, now would be the time to focus on that side of things, while politics are fresh in the minds of your donors.
The bottom line: Try to recreate the momentum of year-end giving by finding the best times to reach out to your supporters about donating.
Lesson No. 7: Refine your donor profiles.
A lot of the advice that’s been provided up to this point has been about one specific group: prospects. And it is fairly apparent why that is.
But when it comes to year-end giving, much of the work your organization does is about more than suddenly acquiring a whole new set of donors. It’s about having one more interaction with the donors who regularly support you—your existing donor pool.
Prospect research can be a huge help when examining your existing donor pool.
More specifically, prospect research can assist you in refining your donor profiles, which should be a year-round priority.
As you add layers to the depth of information you have stored on your donors, you can develop a more tactful and effective approach to cultivation and solicitation.
Much of successful donor relations is about understanding what influences your donors and providing them with the kind of donor experience that best suits their interests. Refine your donor profiles so that you can see firsthand the results that come from having such knowledge.
There are three main areas where refinement will play a large role:
1. Finding major gift prospects among your annual fund donors.
With the information found in a prospect screening, you might just be able to uncover major-gift candidates in your midst.
Just because someone has the financial capacity to make a major contribution doesn’t mean that they are going to do so. For example, during a screening, you could realize that one of your annual fund donors is a major donor at another organization.
Use that information to your advantage! Investigate why he or she might not be donating as much to your cause and come up with a plan to change things for the better.
2. Improving how you reach out to major-gift prospects.
Once you’ve done the work of finding major-gift prospects within your donor pool, it’s time to actually reach out to them. And the more refined your profiles on those donors are, the more effective the process will be.
As far as cultivation customization goes, the sky's the limit. When you have a treasure trove of data in front of you, informing the decisions you make, cultivation and solicitation opportunities abound.
Think outside of the box, and find ways to engage with your major donors when and how they’d like to be interacted with.
You might, for instance, discover that one of your major-gift prospects is a big time volunteer, which implies that he or she likes to see the work you do and help with it at the ground level.
Next time you’re hosting a big event, ask that donor to volunteer.
It’s win-win-win. Your event gets a great volunteer. Your volunteer gains valuable experience with your organization. And your nonprofit forges a stronger bond with a high-quality prospect.
Everyone benefits when you use your advanced knowledge of your donors to design more impactful experiences.
3. Discovering candidates for planned giving.
Identifying candidates for planned giving is not without its challenges. Planned givers share some traits with major donors but can be drastically different in other ways.
If your organization uses prospect research to refine its donor profiles, you’ll be far better situated to make educated decisions about who among your pool would be interested in and open to contributing a planned gift.
Many planned-gift donors have long and storied histories with the organizations they choose to donate to. In fact, 78 percent of planned giving donors gave more than 15 gifts to the organizations named in their wills during their lifetimes. That kind of correlation cannot be ignored.
The more developed your donor database is, the better chance you’ll have of finding the unique markers that signify a planned-giving prospect in your list—starting, of course, with a strong tie to your organization.
The bottom line: If you have the resources available, you should be doing all you can to refine your donor profiles any time of year. You never know when that extra bit of information is going to make a big difference.
Lesson No. 8: Locate new donors.
While working from within your donor pool is important during year-end giving season, you have to keep yourself open to the possibility of a new influx of donors.
Locating new donors as a lesson has been alluded to at various points throughout this discussion, so we’re going to keep it short and sweet.
When looking for new donors, lean on prospect research.
- Subscribe to a screening service
- Hire consultants
- Perform the research in-house
- Or, some combination thereof
The bottom line: Whether you’re a small office or a large, established nonprofit, prospect research can illuminate your path to a growing donor pool.
Bonus! If your organization is new to prospect research and looking to dip its toes in the water, scan through this list of tools for some helpful suggestions and inspiration.
Now is the time to kick your fundraising into gear. Accelerate into this year with prospect research propelling your nonprofit forward!
Bill Tedesco is a well-known entrepreneur in the field of philanthropy with more than 15 years of experience leading companies serving the fundraising profession.
Bill has personally conducted original research to identify markers of philanthropy and has developed modeling and analytical products that use those markers to accurately predict future giving.
Since 2007, Bill has been the founder, CEO and managing partner of DonorSearch.