Smaller nonprofits

Category Archives — Smaller nonprofits

Are silos in vogue?

My nonprofit clients find it surprising when I propose that development, marketing and communications operate in unison.  I’m surprised that they are surprised. 

Why coordinate development, marketing and communications?

1)  The donor experience.  The communication flow has much to do with how the donor feels about the organization — and by extension donor giving and retention.

2)  Everything affects fundraising:  Branding, positioning, advertising, PR and technology.  Every e-newsletter the organization sends. Every program and service being offered. The message that pops up on the screen after you make an online donation. Development professionals often have a valuable perspective.  They view the world through the donor’s eyes. 

3)  In smaller nonprofits, these “departments” are often staffed by one or two people. Working together presents opportunities for group brainstorming and creative problem solving. 

Is there an advantage to development, marketing and communication silos? I have yet to find one. Have you?

Prospect Research by the Numbers for a Small Nonprofit

High quality prospect research—learning everything you can about your major gift prospects—pays for itself many times over. It is a key best practice used by successful major gift programs. 

Prospect research is important to:

  1. Learn more about the donor, especially financial resources, inclination to give and connections to your organization you may not have known about
  2. Get the “ask” into the right ballpark.
  3. Use your time profitably.
  4. Reassure the person doing the asking–don’t under-estimate the importance of boosting the confidence of your “asker”!

How do you learn more about your major gift prospects?

  • By talking to them:  A visit to a prospect’s home or office is the picture worth 1,000 words. This is an information-gathering visit, not an “asking” visit. You are getting to know the prospect better and vice versa. You’re asking lots of questions.  You’re writing-up meeting notes.  You’re assessing whether or not the prospect is ready to be asked the next time around.
  • By researching publicly available information and assembling a donor profile. The idea is to assemble a comprehensive picture of your prospects:  where they live; family; business ties and dealings;  who they know; where they belong (memberships; board service; volunteering); where they give (in addition to you); how much they give (to you and others); asset value, e.g., real estate, stock holdings; income; and any other relevant information.  Put it all together and you have a sense of financial position, inclination to give and connection to your nonprofit.

How does a small organization develop donor profiles?

  1. Purchase them from an independnt prospect research company or freelance prospect researcher.
  2. Do your own research with a subscription to an online prospect research tool such as WealthEngine through which you can run an unlimited number of prospects.  Please note that online subscription services are tools, not researchers. The data must be cross-checked, analyzed and developed into a meaningful donor profile.  Trained staff is a necessity.
  3. Do your own research for free. Between Google and the assessors office, it is possible to learn something about your donors real estate holdings and much else as well.

Prospect Research by Numbers:  Return on Investment (ROI)

Assume you use a a professional prospect researcher. At $200 per profile, for example, research on 20 prospects will cost you $4,000. From the 20, let’s say you set up 10 asks and 2 say “yes” to $25,000 and 4 say “yes” to $10,000.  That’s $90,000 in gifts for which you paid $4,000 in research.

That’s a $22.50 for every $1 you spent on prospect research–or an ROI of 2250%!

How to fund your prospect research:

If you are screaming: “Hey, I’m small—how on earth am I supposed to do research?  I don’t have the money.  I don’t have the time.”

  •  Maybe a board member or donor will underwrite the research once he or she understands the whopping ROI.
  • Perhaps you can recruit a “Google-oriented” volunteer (remember to emphasize confidentiality if this is your solution).
  • Or, maybe you can squeak funds out of your collateral budget. “Glitzy brochure” is not on the list of requirements for successful major gift asks.

Prospect research resources include:

Prospect research sitting on the shelf is expensive.  Prospect research used to make “asks” is a goldmine.

Major gifts that add-up: The power of multi-year giving

As a smaller nonprofit, you have limited resources. Multi-year gifts leverage your staff’s time. 

Research on your donor base will determine the multi-year giving numbers that are right for your organization.  For this example, let’s assume you have donors with the ability to give either $5,000 or $10,000 per year for five years.

$5,000 & $10,000 Major Gifts

The following chart shows what happens if you make 10 successful asks each year:  5 for $5,000 per year for five years and 5 for $10,000 per year for five years.  That’s less than one new major gift per month. 


By Year 5, you are generating $375,000 in unrestricted operating funds!

Prospect Research: In-house Subscription Service or Contracted Prospect Researcher?

If you are serious about your major gift program, invest in a prospect research subscription service or contract a prospect research consultant.

The amount of information available in the public domain is staggering. Yes, you can “Google” and “Yahoo” prospective donors, but it is time-consuming and incomplete.  Plenty of data in the public domain is stashed in places that generic search engines don’t reach. For example, to what other nonprofits has your prospective donor made contributions—and how much?  Yes, that information is out there.

Save Time: Umbrella Prospect Research Subscription Services

There are lots of subscription services:  some focus on real estate, some on stock holdings and others on gifts to nonprofits or board affiliations.  You may be familiar with subscription services like LexusNexis, Dunn & Bradstreet or Marquis Who’s Who. (Nonprofits are not the only entites looking for wealth-related information.  Financial service firms are, too.) Others may be totally unfamiliar:  DataQuick, Waltman’s Volunteers & Directors and Guidestar.

Umbrella subscription services have relationships with multiple individual subscription companies—as many as 25 of them. As a result, you see real estate, stock holdings (if public), campaign contributions, gifts to other nonprofits, board affiliations….all in one place.  Sold as annual subscriptions, the services start at around $2,750 per year. 

Two leaders in the “umbrella” arena are WealthEngine and BlackBaud Analytics.  You may want to check them out.

Caution: Subscription Services are tools, not prospect researchers!

Data needs to be cross-checked and analyzed.  More than once, I have seen an unverified donor profile shot down by board members who are acquainted with the prospective donor.  Name confusion is a prime cause of inaccurate profiles. For example, the subscriptions may mistakenly blend the information about one John Smith, for example, with that of another. Subscriptions are a necessary starting point, but a researcher is also required. So if you decide to purchase a subscription service, make certain you have someone on staff who can verify the results. (It is possible to have a current staff member trained to do this.)     

Prospect Researchers: Analysis Plus

Good prospect researchers have a knack for ferreting out the right information. “Verify” is their middle name, they have excellent analytic skills and they produce accurate, useful donor profiles.

When you contract out, the researcher will have the subscription services he or she needs to get the job done (you can sound knowledgeable by asking which subscription service(s) he or she uses). Fees are either per donor profile or per hour.  As a smaller nonprofit, the 2 to 3 hour profile that costs under $200 should do the trick.

Your Prospect Research Decision

Weigh purchasing a subscription service, which requires in-house staff capacity, against contracting for donor profiles from a professional researcher.

Either approach, properly executed, will build your donor knowledge base and maximize your “ask” results.

We’re small. Can we really launch a major gifts program?

Let’s start with the basics: What is a major gifts program?  At the end of the day, it’s simply in-person meetings with carefully chosen prospects with the ultimate goal of securing sizably larger gifts.

No donors?  Stop right here. 

Your major gift prospects are:

  1. Enamored with your cause and engaged with your organization, e.g., attend programs/events, volunteer and/or otherwise connect to your nonprofit. 
  2. Have enough money to make what your organization decides is a major gift.  Notice that I didn’t say “rich” or “wealthy.” Enough is, in fact, enough—an important distinction for smaller organizations, in particular, where major giving levels do not have to be in the stratosphere to have significant impact.

For smaller organizations, a major gift may be $2,500 per year for four years for a total of $10,000.  If your operating budget is $250,000, ten of these donors produce $25,000 annually—that’s 10% of your budget! (Yes, I do have a bias for multi-year gifts, especially for smaller organizations.)  Or, maybe your operating budget is $2M and you have donors capable of making gifts of $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000+.

What do you need to launch a major gifts program? 

  1. Existing donors, e.g., annual fund, membership
  2. Program parameters, e.g., minimum gift amount and donor recognition plan
  3. Your story, told in a compelling way
  4. Additional information about the donors you identify as prospects (prospect research)
  5. Techniques to “set-up the meeting” and “make the ask”
  6. Willingness to pick up the phone
  7. A system to record donor information and track progress
  8. Passion/enthusiasm about your organization

How do you identify your major gift prospects?

You are looking for your actively engaged, financially capable donors (this includes board members!) It is possible to have your donor list “screened” to identify prospects you may not be aware of. It’s a valuable service, but it adds expense. You may well be able to launch your program with the donors you identify internally.

How do you learn more about your major gift prospects?

  • By talking to them:  A visit to a prospect’s home or office is the picture worth 1,000 words. This is an information-gathering visit, not an asking visit. You are getting to know the prospect better and vice versa. You’re asking lots of questions.  You’ll write-up meeting notes.  You’ll assess if the prospect is ready to be asked or needs more “cultivation.”
  • By researching publicly available information. Welcome to the world of “prospect research,” or learning everything you can about your prospective major gift donors. The idea is to assemble a comprehensive picture of your prospects: financial position, inclination to give and degree of connection to your nonprofit.

Prospect research resources include:

Many organizations have moved ahead with cursory research. It is not “best practice” and there is the risk of leaving money on the table. That said, do the best you can. 

Where do you learn the techniques for making the “ask”?

  • Google—you’ll find lots of information and training programs
  • AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) conferences, workshops and trainings
  • At, we know a thing or two

To launch a successful major gift program, you must be trained and willing to meet with your prospective major donors. There is no escaping this!

Major Gifts Program bottom line: 

Know your prospects, meet with your prospects, ask your prospects. You’ll need some time, some research, some training and lots of enthusiasm.