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Finding the Right Cheese for the Cracker: Using Research to Create Strategies and Tactics for Cultivating Prospects

By Elisa Shoenberger

Most of us have eaten cheese in our lives. Some of us may have grown up with American cheese, string cheese, and cheddar cheese. Maybe you’ve tried mozzarella, spreadable goat cheese, and a bleu cheese. While all of those cheeses are delicious, it can be a little intimidating to walk into the cheese aisle or a cheese shop. Suddenly there are tens, even hundreds of cheeses in all different colors and shapes. So how do you figure out what goes best on a salad or on a steak?

That’s what it might feel like when you’ve met with prospects in your portfolio. You know something about them; maybe you even requested an Aspire Snap Bio on them before meeting them. But what do you do next? How do you cultivate them towards a major gift in the next few years or so? How do you fit the cheese to the cracker or side?

Research can once again help you figure out the next steps. The next level of research at Aspire, the Tactical Briefing, is meant to help you better understand your prospect. It’s a deeper dive into the source of the prospects’ wealth, their business interests, philanthropy, and more. It doesn’t dive into every “rabbit hole” of information, but it is meant to help inform your cultivation strategy towards a solicitation for a gift.

Tactical Briefings will also give you a better estimate on the capacity rating.

Source of Wealth

Just as there are many types of milk used to make cheeses, prospects make their money in a lot of different ways. They may have built a company from scratch and sold it for a lot of money. Perhaps they joined a publicly traded company and became its CEO? Maybe they inherited wealth? There’s plenty of ways to make cheese; the question is how did they do it?

For some prospects, it’s easy to know how they made their money. For instance, if they are a CEO or some part of the C-suite at publicly traded firm, there will be information about their salary, stock and other types of equity (like stock options and restricted stock units). The Tactical Briefing profile helps you better understand what they are earning annually and what their stock holdings look like.

But the source of wealth for some people may not be clear. They may be a partner at a law firm, own a private business, or work at a family office. What do all these occupations say about their wealth?

Part of the Tactical Briefing is to help you understand what the prospect does, how they make money, and their career trajectory. This information will tell you a lot about a prospect and how they think. If someone is in finance or another related field, they may see philanthropic donations as opportunities to invest in something and/or want to know return on investment from a social good perspective.

Timing is another key. If someone’s company is about to have its initial public offering (IPO), they may be about to receive a lot of money… and tax liabilities. So that might be a great time to solicit them. Or if their company isn’t doing well, this might be the time to step back while remaining supportive.

This information gives you a bigger picture of what the prospect might have in the piggy bank (though we do not have access to bank accounts, etc.), which informs the giving capacity.

In fundraising, there’s a common saying: People give more from assets than salary.

So, if the person has a great retirement plan, a portfolio of commercial real estate properties, or receives stock, there’s an opportunity for a larger gift than salary alone.

Note: It’s important to look at both spouses (if they have one) for occupation and philanthropy. Ignore the spouse at your peril! The spouse could be the philanthropic driver or the source of wealth, or both.

Philanthropic Trends

It’s helpful to understand a prospect’s philanthropic interests to figure out what might engage them for a solicitation in the next few years. Of course, you will be exploring the prospects’ passions through direct contact. The Tactical Briefing profile can help you focus and guide those conversations.

While the brief gives some information on a few gifts and basic information on a family foundation (if they have one), this research level is meant to give a fuller picture of their philanthropic interests.

First, research will look at the boards they may serve on. This is often evidence of a deep commitment to a cause. Paired with large gifts, it might suggest that they give to organizations where they serve in leadership.

Second, research will explore their giving. Some folks may only have a few publicly available gifts while others may have prolific giving. People can give to many worthy causes, but they often focus on a few areas. This can help you figure out if they would be interested in your cause and/or an area in your cause. For instance, if you have a prospect who gives extensively to the arts and higher education, they might be interested in funding an arts scholarship or building a new gallery for student art.

Third, if the prospect has a foundation, research will paint a picture of the foundation — where it is, when it was founded, does it accept unsolicited proposals, board, etc. Research will also provide details on the last few years of giving. Some donors give to specific causes through their foundation and give to other nonprofits directly; sometimes the foundation and donor give to the same organizations.

All of these details provide a better understanding of what a prospect might be interested at your organization and can amplify your conversational tactics. To pull on this cheese metaphor a little more, it’s a way to figure out what sides go with the cheese, enhancing the flavor.

Through the Cheese Cave

In addition to sources of wealth and philanthropy, Tactical Briefing profiles can answer questions that you might have about a prospect. What does their family look like? What is their relationship to a certain company, etc. Research may be able to find answers to these questions.

But ultimately, the profile is aiming to provide strategy and a more honed capacity rating. You may have a capacity rating from a wealth screening, a Snap Bio profile, or a gut feeling. The capacity rating in a Tactical Briefing profile will be based on all the variables available in the public domain: occupation, stock, giving, etc. and will give a better idea on what the prospect may give.

Of course, this gift capacity rating is a stretch gift amount based on wealth or estimated net worth. Or as we explain in our profiles:

The Gift Capacity Rating is “the largest 5-year pledge the prospect could likely make to an organization from all assets, not just disposable income, if the prospect was highly motivated to give.”

At the end of the day, we want every profile to give you the tools you need to take the prospect to the next stages in his or her relationship with your organization. Hopefully, it will help position you and your organization into a major or transformational gift from the prospect in the future.

Additional Resources