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Learning to Drive: Using Prospect Research for Early Cultivation Meetings

Remember the first time you got behind the wheel of a car? Maybe you had taken your learner’s permit test or not; maybe you had watched your parents closely as they drove. But when facing the wheel, pedals, and all those buttons for the first time, it might have been really daunting. I was frustrated the first time I got behind the wheel; no matter what I did, I could not get the car to go. I soon realized that no one had told me to push the brake while starting the car!

Naturally, if someone is getting a donor profile for the first time, it can be a bit daunting. There are lots of sections; some filled with charts and graphs while others have lots of information. And what’s with the “likely” and “possibly” speculation?

At the end of the day, you might be wondering what you should be doing to get the fundraising car moving forward. So today, I’m going to give you the fundraising equivalent of “putting your foot on the brake” to get the car to move.

Start a Conversation

When meeting a prospect for the first time, you might be a little nervous – and hopefully curious, too. What will they like? Who are they? Will they be interested in my cause? That’s where research can step in and help you get to know the prospect. The profile should include where they work, what they actually do (if found), where they live, their family life, and their philanthropic interests. Then you can walk into a meeting with the prospect knowing a little bit about them, so you can focus on their affinity and alignment to your organization.

But you don’t need to know everything about a person, especially at your first meeting. You just need enough information to know if it is someone you should focus on and what that person might be interested in. You don’t need to know all the parts of the engine to drive the car, right? One gift officer I worked with in the past told me that she didn’t need to know the names of the prospect’s children before the first meeting because she preferred to learn that naturally.

Only So Much Public Information

While it may seem that researchers have an uncanny ability to find all sorts of information, there’s a limit to what can be found. Our information generally comes from two sources: public information and what the institution knows about the prospect. All too often, real estate is the only asset we can find, since that’s publicly available. We might be able to find stock holdings if they hold 10% more of a public company’s stock or serve in a C-suite/director position. We generally can find where a person works, and their philanthropy (if they have made gifts publicly).

But other information may prove more elusive. For instance, you might think marriage/divorce information would be readily available, but it can be a challenge to find this information. Sometimes we can find a wedding announcement, but sometimes we have to make educated guesses. Similarly, private financial information is not available. Bank holdings, security holdings (for everyone who isn’t a 10% stockholder or C-suite/director), and trusts are not publicly available.

Get the Engine Going

Initial profile research is meant to get the car going (to further the car metaphor), but it is not everything. Hopefully, when you meet a prospect, you’ll get to know them much better, much more personally than what a researcher can find looking at articles, publicly available databases, and real estate records. Sometimes the information we find is incomplete or confusing and we make educated guesses.

Actually talking to the prospect will help confirm or deny some of those guesses and help you begin to understand their passions and philanthropic goals. The car takes you to someone wonderful places!

Starting a relationship with someone new can feel exciting and a little daunting. Hopefully, this article has helped you use and think about fundraising research when going on your early cultivation meetings with prospects.

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