It’s time to rethink the discovery process

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most higher education institutions recognized the importance of building their major gift pipelines. Investments in wealth screening and affinity models helped to identify pools of prospective donors with the capacity and inclination to support their institutions. Throughout the last five years, GG+A has conducted prospect analyses for more 30 major institutions and we have found that institutions with more than 200,000 alumni have, on average, 3,100 high value prospects valued at $492 million who have yet to be engaged by fundraisers. Given this data and the profound funding needs of their institutions, it is critical that fundraising programs pursue strategies to unlock the support from these potential donors.

The challenge is that prospect discovery is not easy work. GG+A surveys of major gift training and coaching participants have consistently found that they rank the difficulty of securing initial appointments as the most difficult and least satisfying part of their jobs. And fundraisers are too valuable a resource to have them participate in activities that yield limited results.

So what do we do?

First, we need to pursue multiple strategies that divide responsibility to engage these prospects between our major gift and annual fund or leadership giving teams. There is a set of leadership annual giving strategies to pursue, but we will concentrate on the major gift strategy here. We propose our clients undertake discovery initiatives that combine prospect analysis with surveying and message development, and fundraiser training into a collective effort with organization-wide goals and objectives to expand the major gift pipeline.

Know your audience

Before an organization undertakes a discovery initiative, it first must prioritize the prospects it aims to target as part of the effort. That begins by examining prospects with the underlying capacity and affinity to support their institutions. It can then rank the prospects to determine the pool that should become the gift officer’s focus.

Once identified, the targeted prospects can be dispersed to gift officers in manageable numbers, which we suggest is between 10 to 25 prospects at a time. That approach can help ensure gift officers are intentional and disciplined about their work.

Too often, managers turn their fundraisers loose at this point, but we believe there are additional elements needed to ensure success of the initiative. We recommend our clients survey the chosen pool to understand their attitudes toward the institution.

Plenty of organizations survey donors to receive feedback on their giving experience, but they rarely query unengaged prospective donors thus missing out at an opportunity to understand the perspectives of these prospective donors and improve the chances of initiating contact with them. Our clients tell us that alumni are paying attention to their schools’ preparations for the fall and many are curious to learn how their alma maters are addressing the challenges presented by COVID-19.

Organizations can then leverage survey results to develop messaging platforms and targeted communications plans that can arm fundraisers with the messages that are most likely to resonate with the target group. They can also use the insights to develop tools such as introductory emails and meeting scripts that gift officers can use to thoughtfully and systematically reach prospects.

Training gift officers to succeed

We believe a formal initiative can take advantage of the current circumstances and provide an opportunity to engage a set of unengaged stakeholders in a substantive conversation about the future of their institution. Fundraisers will require training to engage prospects in this way. In addition to providing frontline officers with proven techniques for initiating contact and conducting successful qualification visits, the training program should also incorporate the survey’s findings as well the messages and tools developed for their use.

As universities rely on advancement programs to provide an ever-increasing amount of private support, they cannot continue to return to their best donors repeatedly without experiencing donor fatigue. By building a solid discovery process foundation, they can improve their ability to engage a new set of prospective major gift donors to sustain private support growth for years to come.


Would you like help thinking about your own discovery process? You can reach Martin, by clicking here, or Pete by clicking here

Grenzebach Glier & Associates Inc http://gga.ugmade.co/wp-content/themes/gga/assets/img/grenzebach-glier-and-associates-print-only.png
About the authors

Martin Grenzebach


Martin Grenzebach, Chairman of GG+A, has served the firm since 1974. His consulting work encompasses campaign consultation, supervision of capital campaigns, strategic planning studies, and strategic and organizational counsel, as well as overall marketing and management of services offered by the firm. Martin’s special expertise is working with higher education…

Pete Lasher

Senior Vice President

Pete Lasher, Senior Vice President and Higher Education Practice Leader, brings more than 30 years of successful fundraising experience, including leadership of five separate billion-dollar capital campaigns at private and public institutions in the US. As GG+A’s higher education practice senior leader, he currently advises universities in North America and…