Adapting the discovery process to the remote environment requires creative thinking

What would you think if I told you in December 2019 that within a few months you wouldn’t be able to use the well-established discovery process tools that you’ve long used to gauge prospects’ interest in making a major gift? That you couldn’t, for example, meet face-to-face with prospects, nor could you invite them to campus, a museum exhibition or a special performance.

You’d likely assume that your institution would be stymied by those challenges. You might also struggle to imagine how the discovery process could be rethought.

Luckily, we’re more adaptable than we may think. While the COVID-19 pandemic has produced myriad challenges for nonprofit institutions, the shift to the remote environment has yielded some significant benefits. Many institutions, for example, have produced events, materials, and messages that have generated strong interest from prospects in whom they’ve been interested for a long time but have never managed to connect with in the past. Each of those touch points represents a unique opportunity to deepen relationships with donors and prospects, and those ties are a crucial ingredient to building and sustaining a major gift pipeline. It’s critical for institutions to act quickly to ensure they don’t squander this moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced institutions to adapt creatively every element of their work—including the discovery process. And it has required them to develop a new set of discovery tools that they can use to determine a prospect’s interest in making a major gift. That requires them to have a reason or purpose to reach out (while making clear that this is not a gift call). Here are several strategies that are working for our clients.

Solicit feedback

Working with our clients, we’ve found success when the conversation is structured around soliciting feedback on two or three key question. Here are just two examples:

  • One client has shared a draft vision statement from a new dean and asked key prospects if the vision is articulated in a clear way. Is it compelling? Do prospects think this work will make the institution stronger?
  • Another has asked for feedback on how the institution is communicating with its constituents during this period.

This approach provides gift officers with the opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue with prospects. It also offers a built-in next step as it enables gift officers to report back on how others have answered those questions and, more importantly, how the institution plans to use that feedback.

Follow up with event attendees

A number of our clients have found that their virtual events have attracted prospects who had not previously attended any of the institution’s in-person events. That’s provided gift officers with an entry point to follow up with attendees.

Similar to the previous idea, gift officers can offer these prospects a forum for their opinions as the institution seeks to ensure it learns about, and maintains, the best ideas that have emerged out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions about these events may include:

  • What inspired you to attend this event?
  • What were your favorite elements of the event?
  • What other types of events would you like to see in the future?
  • What would make you likely to participate in a future event?

Again, this approach offers a meaningful next step as gift officers can follow up with the prospect to share what they’ve learned from others about events, as well as to inform him or her about other upcoming events.

Host an intimate meeting with the president or CEO

While remote meetings with an institution’s president or CEO should be reserved for the institution’s most promising prospects and those with the highest gift capacity, this is a powerful tool in getting a prospect to say “yes” to a discovery meeting.

Luckily, for many it may be easier to find time on the president or CEO’s calendar for these activities, especially because these meetings don’t require travel time. You might also consider repurposing time your president or CEO might usually earmark for events for small group gatherings online. These meetings can follow a simple structure in which the president or CEO leads a structured conversation about what is happening at the institution and his or her plans for the future. By coming prepared with a few key questions, he or she can seek feedback on the institution’s current and future direction.

The advancement officer who is present on the call can then gauge interest by examining who accepts the invitation, who is engaged in the conversation, and what appear to be his or her interests. That information can help gift officers tailor the content they cover in follow-up conversations.

Broaden the partners you work with

Our clients have also found success getting on the calendars of busy deans, program leaders and other key program partners. We suggest institutions seize on this opportunity by leveraging these resources to develop virtual events and/or briefings with interested donors and prospects.

These types of partnerships can be a win-win. In reaching out to prominent faculty and program leaders, advancement may create a more engaging event likely to attract attendees. In addition to helping identify prospects and build enthusiasm for their work, program partners are also deepening their own fundraising experience, a critical skill if they wish to advance to a senior leadership position.

In addition to those who work at the institution, advancement can also use relevant volunteers for events or briefings as a draw to engage prospects and donors and to attract prospects who might otherwise be disengaged.

Take advantage of this unique opportunity

While the remote environment presents countless challenges, it also presents a unique opportunity for institutions to grow their major gift pipelines.

Institutions can build on prospects’ engagements with the institution and leverage the advantages offered by the remote environment to remove some of the longstanding challenges associated with the discovery process.

That being said, not everything has to be rethought. Gift officers should continue to follow best practices, such as being clear about what they’re doing, asking for permission, and being sensitive to the prospect’s relationship with the institution.

If done right, today’s creative thinking can produce lasting dividends that extend far beyond the current reality.


If you would like assistance thinking about ways to adapt your discovery process, contact Suzanne directly at shilser-wiles@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…