I love data. I do. I use it to help me focus on what’s important. I use data to segment and prioritize lists. I use it to give me a glimpse into what is possible and what is even more likely or predictable. The great thing about data is it never lies. It’s where the truth lives and informs the world.
I also love a good story. Nothing brings the truth to life better than a good story. Stories paint a picture. They help us visualize. Stories touch our emotions and reveals our passions. Passion builds engagement and that leads to action – which leads to giving.
Every donor has a story. Our job in prospect development is to help tell those stories. In fact, I believe it is our responsibility. We need to tell the story with words and not just numbers
There’s a trend out there. Actually, it’s more like a tidal wave that’s sweeping the world. It’s all about big data and how to harness it and use it effectively. This is a good thing. That being said, we need to know the story behind and within the data itself.
We need data to help us see the potential of our donors, but we can only properly engage them when we know their story. Why are they a good fit for our organization? What are they most passionate about and does their passion match our mission?
Data can inform us about their capacity, measure their affinity and it can even predict their giving, but we need the story to make the relationship come alive. It’s our pathway to engagement.
Knowing the story allows us to personalize the engagement. We can incorporate their story into an introductory call, letter or email. It helps let the donor know that we see them as an individual and not just another name in our database.
Let me give you an example. I have a story…
While I worked at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) – I received notifications of any gift of $1,000 or more. One day a gift came in for $3,000. It was a nice gift for sure, and it piqued my interest.
My information showed the donor made the gift in memory of someone. I wanted to know more, so I went to work to try to learn the story…
That “someone” was the donor’s mother (who passed away from pancreatic cancer). A search of the donor’s mother lead me to her obituary. The obituary talked about how this woman was a school teacher in the Department of Defense (DOD) system and taught school in Okinawa, Japan.
It just so happened, I went to high school in Okinawa.
The moment I read that, I felt an instant connection to the donor. I had something tangible to talk to her about. Something that would allow me to engage her on a personal level.
I reached out to the donor. Yes; me. I didn’t give the information to a fundraiser, I decided to reach out myself. The connection was mine and I had to see it through. I know this isn’t typical in prospect development, but I don’t always do what is “typical.”
I wrote to the donor and explained that my role in development was to find ways to engage our donors better and when I saw her gift, I became curious about her mom. I told her that I read her obituary and saw that she taught school in Okinawa, Japan. I explained my experience there and although I didn’t know her mom (we were there at different times), I felt the need to reach out because I had such an affinity for the DOD teachers I had and how they helped me prepare for college.
I meant every word.
This lead to the donor reaching back and telling me more about her mom. I learned how her mom met her dad there and how when she passed away – the teachers she worked with, planted a tree in her honor.
She also had questions – questions about things she had read about relating to pancreatic cancer. I was able to follow up with our team and get back to her with answers.
She thanked me and wrote, “If there was anything she could do, to let her know.”
Those are magical words to any fundraiser.
I wanted to make sure I replied appropriately. Now, it was time to do a little research to see just how we could engage this donor deeper.
I learned she had a role in the philanthropic arm of a tech company. How perfect. I reached out again via LinkedIn – which helped me establish the fact I now knew what she did.
I then wrote back, acknowledging her role at the tech company and asked if I could introduce her to a member of our corporate fundraising team.
Success! She agreed. We now had an opportunity to possibly engage the donor and the company she worked for.
That’s just one example of how “knowing the story” allowed me to effectively reach out to a donor with a personalized approach. It provided a pathway to allow the donor to become more engaged and in the process possibly have her company become more engaged as well. In this case, I told her my story; allowing me to learn hers and her mom’s.
It’s all about being relational in your approach. I did this all through email, but that didn’t limit me in being relational.
We often talk about the art and science of fundraising. We usually talk about prospect development being the science behind it all and the qualification and cultivation efforts of the fundraiser as being the “art.”
As you can see, the art is not necessarily reserved for just fundraisers.
I admit, this doesn’t happen every time. I wish it did, but sometimes the only story I have is within the data. That’s right – sometimes the story comes straight from the data itself.
It might be in their giving history. I had another donor at PanCAN who made a gift in memory of his mom. Her record showed more than 80 other gifts (tribute gifts) came into to the organization in her honor. I called that out in my outreach to the donor. I noted how significant that was and complimented her memory by saying she must have had a wonderful impact on so many people.
This lead to a meeting and an opportunity to get more of the story. Again, I took it upon myself to get the meeting. I took our founder on the meeting, but I still made the effort on my own.
More often than not – I will provide the fundraiser with this information and let them do their own outreach. I might even craft an email for them to use, but I usually let them come up with their own plan.
The sooner we know the story – the better and more effectively we can engage our donors. Sometimes we can know that in advance of a first meeting – but we may not get the whole story until a face to face meeting occurs.
I hope you remember this the next time you’re looking at a list of donors with modeling scores and/or confirmed assets. I hope the data points pique your curiosity to learn more. It’s much more effective to ask a fundraiser to call a person because their story connects with our mission as opposed to just giving them names with data points and wishing them luck.
It definitely takes more work. Tons more work for sure. Don’t let that discourage you. It’s worth it in the end. Every time I find ways to engage a donor at a higher level, I feel like I’m doing my best work. Your institution deserves that and your organization’s donors do too.
I also fully acknowledge that your ability to tell the story is limited by time and resources and it’s not always appropriate to go down this path in the qualification stage of a donor’s development cycle.
And to be clear – this responsibility doesn’t just fall on your shoulders. Your fundraisers should be actively looking for the story and ways to engage a donor on their own as well. Ideally, you will work in partnership to accomplish this task.
Utilize the data to help you determine which constituents are worth the time, effort, and resources for such a process, but remember sometimes the data has a story in and of itself.
It’s important to remember that finding the story is an ongoing process. It can happen at any point in a relationship with a donor. It often occurs once the qualification and cultivation process has begun and the fundraiser has already met with the donor.
Let me expand on that with another story.
I was reviewing a fundraiser’s portfolio when we came across a name that the fundraiser wasn’t quite how to move forward. The donor had made gifts in the range of $1,000 - $3,000, but was capable of giving more. Their affinity scores and target gift scores indicated that they were good major gift prospects in the $25,001-$50,000 range.
The fundraiser asked me to take a deeper dive and see if I could figure out “the story.” This donor had multiple touches and interactions with us, but their giving remained below what the data showed their capacity to be. It was important to note their son was an alum of our school and they continued to give – even though their son had graduated a few years ago.
So, I went out in search of the story and this is what I found…
Our donors (husband and wife) appeared to be "givers" - but they didn’t appear to be “big” philanthropists. Their gifts usually ranged in the $100-$500 range and they supported a wide range of causes (I listed the causes for our fundraiser). No clear passion seemed evident; however, their largest gifts appeared to be to our university. It looked like we were at the top of the list of causes they support.
I noted it would be worth asking them if that was indeed the case because it would be important to their story.
I didn't see any large gifts to any organizations, but also noted it was possible they'd just never been formerly asked for a major gift and only gave in response to direct appeals and not by being formerly solicited in person by a development professional.
I believe bigger gifts often come from asking. Although they gave small gifts, they didn't seem to sit on any boards. It just didn’t look like they became "involved" - but this was just my view from what I could find online. I was deliberate in making sure the team knew the limitations of my ability to truly tell their story.
I noted our donors seem to be "consumers." I knew they owned a number of properties, including a place in Hawaii that sat on a golf course. There was definitely wealth there.
Here’s where the “story” seemed to take form for me…
Their son looked very interesting. My thought was the best path to engagement with the donors was through their son. I saw that he had written about his first mission trip to Kenya (through our university) – and he described the experience as "the most rewarding 3 months” of his life.
He seemed to have a heart for service. He volunteered at a local church, volunteered at food banks and looked for ways to get involved in his community and beyond.
I also found he had a creative side – being a photographer and an artist.
My suggestion to the fundraiser? If the donors (parents of the alum) didn’t clearly identify a passion of their own – perhaps they would support the passions of their son. I emphasized again that their largest donations were to us and noted that of those donations – the largest came in support of the son’s mission trip.
Identifying his interest/passion for art was also something to consider.
My findings resonated with the fundraiser. It provided him with things to consider in his next steps. It may very well turn out that these donors will not upgrade their giving, but it won’t be for a lack of effort on our part to find the best way to engage them.
Again – make the effort to find and tell the story. As I said earlier, I know there are limitations in doing this on a grand scale, but if you can make the time – do it.
The very best prospect development professionals – don’t just regurgitate information. They digest it and summarize it in a way that identifies paths to engagement. It takes a bit of creativity. It takes a bit of thinking outside of the box. It takes determination. But trust me – you can do it. Besides, telling the story can be a lot of fun.
I know a lot of prospect development peers find a great joy in putting together a great profile. Telling the story in a narrative form takes the enjoyment up a notch.
Trust me, my team(s) and I have done more than our fair share of prospect profiles that follow a template with specific data points. That’s not all bad, but that information also has a story behind it and the more we can do to uncover and tell the story, the better our work will be.
When you spend time researching someone – you get a sense of who they are. Trust your instincts. Tell the story.
Thanks for reading. This post has been a long time coming. My hope is to continue to share (through this blog) more stories specific to the partnership between major gift officers and prospect development in our efforts to engage donors. I appreciate your taking the time to share in the journey.
Note: I do not know why the background changed to white part way through this post and I was unable to correct it.