The Shape of Things to Come: Prospect Development

The last 15 years in the nonprofit industry have seen ambitious fundraising goals realized, turbulent recessions that have impacted constituent giving and the creation of increasingly sophisticated tools to project and report on our work. Both of us have undergraduate and graduate degrees from North Park University, and through our graduate programs in the university’s School of Business and Nonprofit Management we received a comprehensive introduction to the nonprofit world. The coursework in nonprofit leadership and management was paramount to our deeper understanding of how we can be successful in the work we do.

As prospect development professionals, we strongly believe that the success of nonprofits over the next fifteen years is highly dependent upon developing and reporting on robust prospect activities and pipelines. Prospect Development is the process of managing information to ensure that all prospects are being cultivated at the appropriate levels, with the goal of building lasting philanthropic relationships.

Prospect Development will continue to become even more of a “team sport” and will require the skills and expertise of many individuals. Some of the skills that will be needed include in-depth “big data” analysis and predictive modeling, forecasting, interaction and having an open mind to embrace new ideas. Effective prospect development takes into account fundraising leaders, frontline fundraisers, report-writers, prospect managers and prospect researchers as essential members of the team and uses their unique areas of expertise to build a dynamic program.

Here are three essentials for nonprofit management, fundraising and reporting:

  • Automation and interactive reporting: The tools used in our industry to track and report on progress are becoming more affordable and more user-friendly. In the for-profit world, consumers expect their favorite stores to remember what they purchased before and offer suggestions for other items based on user preferences and behaviors. Donors have the same expectations.
  • Accurate forecasting: The era of the billion-dollar campaign is here. Organizations can’t jump into such monumental goals without some degree of forecasting to differentiate between a stretch goal and an impossible one. The best shops are collecting, analyzing and extrapolating data for everything from individual development officer performance to multi-year campaign goals based on economic factors and organizational ones.
  • Human interaction: Fundraising is still entirely dependent on 1:1 interaction. Skilled development officers are a tremendous asset to any fundraising operation. They are the face of the prospect development team, and as such it becomes increasingly important that organizations hire team players. There is so much data out there, and generally fundraisers are “people” people so this environment will call for increased partnerships between those that used to be referred to as “back of shop” team members  and those out in front to ensure that donors are stewarded appropriately according to the data that organizations have about them.

The next 15 years offer an exciting time for prospect development as we see the era of big data coming into play in a big way to ramp up our fundraising efforts. Those organizations that embrace new data tools and manage pipelines will discover they can find more success than continuing with the status quo. We both strongly believe in the power of data to drive decision-making, even in this field where 1:1 interaction is paramount. When all members of a team can work together effectively, success will grow exponentially as well.

One great thing about the increased focus on data is that there is also an increase in the availability of resources to help you understand it and figure out how to make it work in your organization. Major associations of the profession (AFP, APRA and AASP, to name a few) are adding learning tracks focused specifically on data and analytics so you can attend webinars and conferences to learn about what aspects you want to better understand. There are also a multitude of books available on the topic. One great one you should check out if you’re the “boss” and want to know how to use analytics in your organization is Keeping Up With the Quants by Davenport and Kim. It’s written to help you know how to ask the right questions to make analytics work for you. Later this year, Meredith has a book coming out called Diving Into Research: Populating the Prospect Pool that looks at how to use analytics and data mining without doing a lot of complicated math. If you understand the math side of it, then books like Score! by MacDonell and Wylie and Fundraising Analytics by Birkholz should be at the top of your list. No doubt there are countless other resources as well, and you should take a few minutes periodically to go through the publications/resources sections of the websites for the professional associations you belong to and take a peek at what’s been written in the field.

Dr. Meredith Hancks is Director of Prospect Research and Management for Western Illinois University. She chaired the Best Practices in Prospect Development team for the Association of Advancement Services Professionals from 2009-2014, and will begin as Chair of the Best Practices initiative in January 2015. She is a former Vice President for the Illinois chapter of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement. She is at work on her fourth book on prospect development for CharityChannel Press. You can view Meredith’s blog at and follow her on twitter: @mhancks

Bond Lammey is a Senior Associate at Bentz Whaley Flessner, a fundraising and development consulting firm based out of Minneapolis. Previously, she was Director of Prospect Research at the University of Chicago. She is roundtable co-chair for the 27th Annual Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement Conference, and a planning committee member for the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Researchers Conference. She is a former Treasurer for the Illinois chapter of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement. You can view Bond’s blog at and follow her on twitter: @lammeyb

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