Major Donor Game Plan: Research

I have invested 40 years in the stewardship arena with major donors raising money in the USA, Canada, the UK, the Middle East, China, Cuba, Honduras, Europe, Africa, Cambodia, New Zealand, and a few other spots around the globe.

Yes, I believe in moves management. If you force me, I will work with it. I understand it, however, over the years I have seen so many organizations get bogged down trying to understand the right next move with their key donors. I wrote Major Donor Game Plan in 2006 to help ministries simplify their approach to donors. This article is the first in a series unpacking the 6 R’s of major donor engagement: (1) Research (2) Relationship (3) Request (4) Recognition (5) Recruitment and (6) Report.

We know a lot about mega/major donor relationships because we have seen a lot. My team and I understand both the science and the art of finding, cultivating, educating, soliciting, and stewarding major donors because we spend time in the field talking with major donors. The art of fundraising paints a ministry story for your donors; the science of fundraising uncovers and manages donor information.

Rudyard Kipling used five strong men to tell a story: who, what, when, where, and why. A compelling case is your starting point for identifying new ministry partners. Your case for support, in essence, is a story that involves your mission, vision, core values, and the human need you are addressing. Who will you tell your great story to? How do you find new donors? Let’s start with Research. There are two basic forms: external and internal. Let’s explore both.

External research. Consider conducting a wealth asset screening of your donor base to discover hidden donors. There are many services available: Blackbaud Analytics, Donor Search, Donor Scape, iWave, and Wealth Engine to name a few. These sources provide insight on an individual’s net worth, income, assets, real estate, stock holding, charitable contributions and other financial related data as well as business and personal contact information. For instance, Wealth Engine pulls together data from 60 public sources to look through 300 million profiles and 122 million households. Their profiles also provide an estimated gift range for each donor based on their assets. Intrusive no. Valuable yes.

NOTE: Wealth asset research does not get you any closer to the donor, it merely gives you more information about them and their capacity. Use it wisely and do not misuse it. Practice the Golden Rule and the Mom Rule. Treat every ministry partner like you would want your mother to be treated.   

Internal research starts with the information that you already know from your CRM. What prompted their first gift? How long have they given? What are their giving motivations? Look for patterns and opportunities to lift your donors to a new level of engagement.

What relational knowledge can you discover about your donor? Someone knows this person or couple. Who do mega/major donors hang around with? Other mega/major donors. They work together, golf together, live in the same gated community – someone knows them. Handle this information very carefully. Be circumspect. Ask your existing donors who they might know who may be interested in partnering with your ministry. Share a few names of donor prospects and suspects you are trying to meet and ask if they could an open door.

A conversation goes like this, “Bill and Mary, you have been such close friends of our ministry and great financial partners. One of the great joys I have is meeting new friends who could partner with us to reach more people for Christ. Do you know Scott and Judy? What kinds of ministries do they support? What gives them joy in their stewardship practices? Would you be willing to introduce them to our ministry? We would love to share with them all the wonderful things God is accomplishing in our ministry and invite them to pray and consider partnering with us.”

External research coordinated with internal research will help you discover new ministry partners with capacity. Do your homework. Involve your major donor team and volunteers. Your trustees can and should also play a key role in your new major donor research.

Research… don’t leave home without it!


About the Author: Pat McLaughlin

President/Founder – Pat started The Timothy Group in 1990 to serve Christian ministries as they raise money to advance their missions. TTG has assisted more 1,800 Christian organizations around the world with capital, annual, and endowment campaigns. More than 25,000 of Pat’s books, Major Donor Game Plan, The C Factor: The Common Cure for your Capital Campaign Conundrums, and Haggai & Friends have helped fundraisers understand the art and science of major donor engagement. Pat makes more than one hundred major donor visits annually and provides counsel to multiple capital campaigns. 

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