Advancing Philanthropy

High-Impact: An Update on the ‘Five Ways Prospect Development Will Transform Fundraising’

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In the Q2 2013 issue of Connections, Joshua M. Birkholz wrote the article, “Five Ways Prospect Development Will Transform Fundraising.” Within the text, he predicted the ways in which prospect development professionals would play an integral role in the successful implementation/transformation of five key aspects of development. Two years later, he and Bond T. Lammey revisited the essential ways prospect development aids and abets successful fundraising operations. Where had the predictions gained momentum? What hadn’t yet taken hold? What was missing or new that wasn’t predicted in 2013?

To start, here is a summary of the five ways identified in the 2013 article:

  1. Portfolio diagnostics: “ … we are discovering new ways of clustering like prospects together. … After grouping these characteristics, we can observe production yields by fundraiser, respective of cluster.”
  2. Performance management: “Prospect development is comfortable determining who should be seen. But it is slow to inform how they should be seen.”
  3. Integrated distributed models: “Dedicating some staff to analytics and macro-level filtering, dedicating others to prospect management, and even splitting prospect researchers between prospect identification and strategic information services is the new norm in large programs.”
  4. Research economists: “Prospect researchers will need to move beyond only quantifying potential in constituents to forecasting when potential will materialize.”
  5. Talent management: “Researchers and analysts are in the unique position to understand the turnover effect, calculate ramp-up metrics and quantify the cost-benefit of retention programs.”

So, how have the predictions fared so far? Let’s take them one by one.

Portfolio Diagnostics

Prediction success: In progress
Most organizations with at least one prospect-development professional are conducting portfolio reviews, sometimes known as portfolio rebalancing or portfolio reorganization, with frontline officers.

Portfolio optimization can include aligning personality fit (think for prospects and development officers) or industry expertise (a development officer with a background in wealth management has a portfolio of prospects who work in financial services) with portfolio assignments. It tends to occur at either very small development shops or at shops where several development officers work in the same school, unit or division within a larger development team.

Small school example: There were two development officers, one with estate-planning experience who is not an alumnus and another with more of a generalist skill set who is an alumna. The prospect development professional assigned prospects based on life stage, alumni status and prospect interests, rather than assigning by unit or region.

Large school example: An “NFL draft-style” portfolio review process was conducted, during which development officers within the business school took turns choosing prospects based on personality, familiarity and fit.

Over time, these prospect diagnostic strategies will become best practices for institutions of all sizes and may even replace regional or unit-based assignment strategies at larger organizations.

Performance Management

Prediction success: In progress
Move over, traditional metrics. The times, they are a-changing. Our understanding of metrics has evolved: “In the past 10 years, the most notable shift on a macro level has been a de-emphasis of ‘moves’ as a primary metric, placing a higher value on face-to-face visits and solicitation.” We now rely on new metrics, such as timing between first visit and first solicitation, percentage of portfolio visited and how close a solicitation amount is to the prospect’s estimated capacity rating. Percentage/counts of qualification visits against total portfolio visits is another metric that has gained popularity in recent years and has motivated fundraisers to accept new and lesser-connected prospects into their portfolios.

Integrated Distributed Models

Prediction success: Adopted
Specialization within prospect development is becoming the norm rather than the exception. In spring 2014, this shift was formally acknowledged when the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA, unveiled the Body of Knowledge, a resource that “allows (prospect development professionals) to identify the skills [they] need to perform key job prospect development functions (domains)—at both introductory and advanced levels … [in] data analytics, prospect research and relationship management domains.”

Individuals who are starting a career in prospect development can research these domains and determine which one is the best fit. Furthermore, prospect development professionals within one discipline now have an inventory of the skills and tools they need to transition to another domain.

One additional discipline that continues to gain momentum in its own right is prospect identification. Birkholz notes that “splitting prospect researchers between prospect identification and strategic information services is the new norm in large programs” (Connections Q2 issue 2013, page 23). Prospect identification analysts may never be the norm at smaller organizations, but organizations of all sizes have adopted a pre-qualification research verification rating that takes significantly less time to complete than a full research profile or capacity rating. Paired with some biographical information, verification ratings have become the new standard for identification/qualification research.

Research Economist

Prediction success: In progress
Organizations without alumni or dealing with a young alumni base are at the forefront of researching clusters of prospects. One college that just celebrated its first 10-year reunion class established a “cheat sheet” of bonus amounts and bonus schedules at the top 15 companies that employ their graduates. Knowing the bonus schedules of cohorts of alumni gives them a better picture of what Birkholz refers to as “asset-based giving” (Connections Q2 issue 2013, page 24).

Some organizations modify their capacity rating formula(ae) to take into account regional variations on the cost of living. The most commonly used variation is modifying the real estate multiplier (calculating a higher percentage of value based on luxury property ownership). A Wall Street Journal article, “Why ‘Wealth’ Isn’t Defined Simply,” details the broad variations in earnings based on cost of living: “Costs for goods and services in different metropolitan areas vary by as much as 40 percentage points, and the disparity in rents is even greater.” In the coming years, regional variations will play an even greater role in the world of the research economist.

Talent Management

Prediction success: Largely unchanged
Bentz Whaley Flessner conducted a fundraiser benchmarking survey in 2014 ( that revealed that the average gift officer yield (percentage of overall portfolio capacity secured in gift income over five years) increases from 2 percent in a fundraiser’s first three to four years to 9.7 percent after more than four years at an organization. One key finding was that “High-performing, high-tenure gift officers have a performance plan that values … number of gifts secured over … dollar amount of funds raised.” Analytics experts frequently have access to performance data and have the skill sets needed to determine what characteristics and goals are essential in determining success among fundraisers at their own organizations.

This survey also revealed the integral role that senior leadership plays in job satisfaction: “Fundraisers may love an institution, but if they do not feel supported or heard by leadership, particularly their direct managers, the love of an institution will not be enough to stay.”

In his book, Return on Character (Harvard Business Review Press, April 2015), management expert Fred Kiel examined 84 CEOs to determine if there is a link between their character and the profitability of their companies. Kiel and his researchers identified four “universal” principles tied to positive character traits: integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion. He found that “organizational leadership that ranks high on the return on character (ROC) assessment scale achieves nearly five times the return on assets that leaders who fall at the bottom of the curve achieve.” Human resource and prospect development professionals alike would benefit from quantifying the “nontangible” characteristics that predict success among senior leadership.

On the Horizon

Prospect development professionals continue to “transform fundraising with our creativity, willingness to collaborate and … vision for new possibilities” (Connections Q2 issue 2013, page 24).

In 2016, what possibilities are out there? We predict these three new additions to the list:

1. Mission control
Senior leadership continues to take a data-driven approach to projecting fundraising goals and demonstrating the return on investment in major-gift programs. Leaders rely on prospect development to gather, analyze and interpret fundraising results. Often, the initial findings from these analyses leave senior leadership with more follow-up questions: Where are our top prospects employed? Which board members are effective at connecting us to future major donors? Are there common behaviors during prospect visits that result in successful solicitations?

Prospect development professionals will move from answering these questions to anticipating them before they are even asked. Imagine a report that ranks the effectiveness of key volunteers by “clout” score. Just like mission control on any space mission, analysts will monitor critical data points and alert team members of “mission-critical” factors that are in danger of not being met.

2. Real-time prospect view
Birkholz noted in his 2013 Connections article that “getting fundraisers to see new prospects at all evades our abilities and, oftentimes, effort.” Prospect researchers have employed strategies to provide meaningful information on newly identified prospects, while prospect management analysts have brainstormed strategies to assign these prospects into portfolios and encourage them to allow themselves to be visited. The challenge isn’t that the fundraiser isn’t willing to meet with new prospects; it’s that he or she needs to determine the right approach.

Technological advantages in wealth screening, analytics and relationship management databases make real-time updates on prospects more possible than ever before. Some organizations have adopted an overnight update of wealth screening ratings and major-gift likelihood scores that dynamically refreshes as relevant data is added to each record. Fundraisers can access these scores directly from the database to prioritize their portfolios.

3. 360-degree prospect assessments
Perhaps more important than likelihood scores and capacity ratings, fundraisers benefit from affinity and linkage on prequalified prospects prior to an initial visit. Affinity scores could be updated dynamically as prospects attend events, respond to mail appeals or decline an invitation to meet with faculty. Relationship-mapping tools locate, record and apply linkage scores based on count and depth of connections that prospects have with key volunteers. We expect that linkage scores will update dynamically as relationships are added.

These additional assessments would aid fundraisers in determining which prospects are more likely to accept a visit, move from first visit to solicitation and respond positively to a first solicitation. These characteristics allow organizations to develop a 360-degree view of a prospect with a minimal investment of staff time prior to an initial visit, resulting in cost-savings for the organization and an increased return on investment.


The prospect development field is ever-evolving. We look forward to observing and partnering with organizations to see firsthand how prospect development helps to elevate fundraising in the coming years.

Note: The article “High-Impact: An Update on the ‘Five Ways Prospect Development Will Transform Fundraising’” by Bond T. Lammey and Joshua M. Birkholz was originally published in the Q4 2015 issue of Connections, the flagship publication of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement, and is reprinted with permission.

The article is also just one of APRA’s Best of Connections, which you may download at no cost. Please visit

Bond T. Lammey is a senior associate at Bentz Whaley Flessner ( in Washington, D.C., specializing in prospect development.

Joshua M. Birkholz is a principal at Bentz Whaley Flessner in Minneapolis and the author of Fundraising Analytics: Using Data to Guide Strategy (Wiley, 2008).


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