Things I wish Boards knew #1

A “prospect” is not “someone we’ve heard has money.”

Here are some things I’ve been told as a consultant:
  • We have a portfolio of prospects, we just need someone to manage the relationships.
  • We have more than 100 local prospects who are waiting to be contacted.
  • Each of our board members has provided a list of 10 prospects, but our development staff hasn’t been able to close a single gift.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a variation on this theme…and not once has it been what I would call “true.”
The board members telling me about their large numbers of prospects aren’t (for the most part) trying to confuse or mislead me.  They’re misleading themselves with an earnest belief in these “prospects.”  But having a list of people (even a well researched list, where you have a specific and accurate estimate of capacity – the reliable measure of wealth) that is essentially plucked out of a phone book is just that – a list of names that no more belongs to you than any other list of names of people in your community.

A prospect is something much much more.

A prospect is someone that you have reason to believe would be interested in supporting your organization if you got the chance to talk to them.  Perhaps they are a friend of someone already connected to your organization, and that person tells you they’re interested in some aspect of what you’re doing.  (Preferably, that person will also make an introduction!)  Perhaps they have a history of supporting many organizations that share your general mission or vision (e.g., if you do anti-poverty work, they support three organizations that come at it from a different angle or work in a different region).  Perhaps they have a family connection to your mission.  (e.g., if you are a disease research foundation, they have a sibling who has fought the disease you’re trying to cure)  Perhaps they have made public statements about supporting social enterprise in their hometown, and you just happen to fit that bill.  There are nearly infinite ways that someone might pop onto your radar – but “having money” isn’t enough.

Let me say that again: Being rich does not obligate someone to give you money.  I don’t care who you are, or how deserving you feel your organization is.

Here’s the hard hard work that has to go into successful fundraising: you have to take people with known capacity and research them to figure out whether your organization has a chance at being a good fit for them.  You have to find a way to reach them so that you can make your pitch.  You have to make a good pitch…and that pitch is rarely “give us money,” it’s “here’s why you should get to know us.”  THEN you work your way towards “What would make you want to support us financially” and close with “Can you give us some money?”, which will only work some of the time.

If you are a board member, there’s no quicker way to convince a great development officer that they’re going to be persecuted at your organization than to keep conflating “people who sound rich” with “prospects.”  That’s so far from the truth that there’s no way to succeed if you think everyone with a house in a really nice zip code is just waiting to give you money if you just send a professional to ask them.

I am willing to sympathize though: over 90% of board members (from some study cited at a conference I went to – forgive me, but that’s a “truthy” number nonetheless) have never had formal development training as part of their board orientation.   If you are on a board, take the time to learn how development works, and what role you can and should play for your specific organization.  I’ll offer some additional tips on fundraising from a board perspective in this column, and please send me questions for the mailbag!

But in the meantime, this is Board Sin #1.  Cut it out.  Not only are you setting your expectations stupidly high on a foundation of sand, but you’ll damage the morale of your professional team. And shame your fellow board members who haven’t gotten the memo.  (Gently or publicly, whatever gets the message across best.)

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