Strategic Research for Transformative Gifts

By Elisa Shoenberger

Asking for a major or transformative gift is a little bit like asking someone to marry you. You’ve (likely) been dating one another for a while and know quite a bit about your respective interests. Maybe you’ve discussed marriage; perhaps you haven’t. Ideally, you have an idea that the other person will actually say “yes.”

But timing is everything. You probably don’t want to ask your beloved to marry you when they are dealing with their dying father or in front of a crowd of people if they’ve told you that public proposals are not their thing. Maybe you want to ask their father and/or mother for their hand in marriage. The way you approach the proposal may say a lot about the response.

So how do you prepare for a really big gift proposal with a prospect? That’s where the deepest level of research – a Strategic Assessment — can provide you with the information that will give you confidence to make your big ask.

Preparing the Proposal

You know you want to make that transformative ask but something is holding you back. Maybe you want to understand how the prospect made their money or what the many businesses they may have. Or perhaps you are interested in knowing the relationship between the prospect and the nonprofits that have received millions of dollars from them? This level of research is meant to answer those challenging questions for you.

We’ve seen how powerful deep dives can be into dynastic families. These are families that are incredibly wealthy, interconnected in each other’s businesses and philanthropies. Often the family as a whole is the toast of the town; they serve on many nonprofit organizations and have made many named gifts. But maybe you want to understand how the family gives as a whole. Do they all give to the same causes or do different family members have their specific interests? Do they give collectively or individually?

Maybe you want to understand who makes the decisions in the family. Who should your organization approach for that gift? IS there going to be a change in leadership at the family company and the matriarch is thinking about succession?

The Strategic Assessment profile can deliver this kind of information, preparing you to make that transformative ask or set your nonprofit up for success in the cultivation process.

Staging the Ask

When working up to that transformational ask, you want to be ready. You want to have the best information to best engage the prospect for that proposal. This deep dive Strategic Assessment research is meant to help you say yes to the dress (mixing metaphors here!) by giving you a more comprehensive understanding of what might motivate a prospect to make that giant gift.

For instance, you are thinking of asking a well-known philanthropist for $30M for a new building for your music school. But before you make that ask (or cultivate them), you want to make sure that’s in the realm of possibility for the prospect. A deep dive will look into their occupation to see if they are in a lucrative field and making a significant amount of money that a $30M ask is not going to give them a heart attack.

Research can also look into their interests. Maybe the philanthropist has made some nice $10K gifts but is that where their heart is? What other multi-million dollar gifts have they made and why? A deep dive can learn that they have given many millions to the University of the United States, naming buildings, scholarships, and more. You learn that all the members of the family are alumni and that the philanthropist has served on every advisory board, council, etc. That might suggest that that particular institution is their number one priority. Or that the family definitely has the money but no clear affinity in the public domain. (Of course, that’s what getting to know these prospects is good for!)

Alternatively, you learn that they donated their parents’ string collection to a local museum, which was appraised at $30M, and that they created a scholarship for flute players at the university. Plus, their children all serve on the board of the string chamber quartet and have named a chair in your prospects’ name. That might be a good indicator of their affinity to music.

Research can also dive into their business interests; maybe they have relevant ancillary business interests for your organization. Maybe research learns that they own a piano tuner school, which suggests affinity.

These are just a few ways that a deep dive of research can help you make the right strategy and approach with a prospect.

Custom Research at its Best

When considering what level of research for a prospect, you should consider what kind of information you are looking for. A medium-dive Tactical Briefing profile will explore all the usual areas of wealth: affiliations, philanthropy, occupation, stockholdings, etc. A deep dive Strategic Assessment profile provides more targeted information — going down the respective “rabbit holes” to answer your questions.

At the end of the day, we aspire for the Strategic Assessment to give you and your organization the confidence to pop the really big question – and get a “Yes!”

Additional Resources

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