What’s up in Wyoming: prospect management strategy sessions

A few years ago we undertook a new prospect management project in our shop: to conduct a hand-crafted analysis of each of our fundraisers’ portfolios in hopes, as is always our ultimate goal, to increase our fundraising efficiency. At Wyoming we have the benefit of a low fundraiser-to-researcher ratio, so we have the luxury of being able to build strong relationships with our front line and having time to sit down with them individually to talk strategy.

And thus our “Portfolio Strategy Sessions” were born. To clarify, we use the term “portfolio” for the list of donor prospects with whom the fundraiser is assigned with actively managing the relationship and cultivating for philanthropic support. We began with an assessment worksheet and a prescribed process for culling through portfolio information and what things to identify to fine tune it. We agreed, with our fundraising staff, to meet twice annually for the strategy sessions.

For those of you who like the nitty grits, here’s what we addressed:

  • Total portfolio number – too big or too small?
  • Last contact date – what percentage of the fundraiser’s portfolio has been contacted in the last 6 months?
  • Capacity of prospects – do all assigned prospects have the capacity to give at the level we classify as a major gift? Are there potential prospects that have been identified with higher capacities that can replace ones with lower capacity?
  • Affinity – do they have good scores from our affinity modeling? Or recent positive contact reports, giving history, etc.?
  • Stewardship prospects – do they comprise less than 30% of the fundraiser’s assignments?
  • Where prospects are in the cultivation cycle – Has the fundraiser cultivated enough relationships to meet their proposal submission metrics?

While we haven’t conducted any formal analysis of return on investment for our labors on this project, we’ve already noticed quite a few positive outcomes. The most striking of which, for me, was realizing how many of the nuances of our prospect management program hadn’t been retained by our fundraisers in their initial trainings. Over time, we are slowly modifying our onboarding process with new fundraisers to identify how to make the memorization of prospect management policies more digestible. We’re adding optional, and sometimes compulsory, prospect management refresher trainings. More and more all of the time, we find ourselves speaking the same language as our fundraisers.

After our first few sessions, I was chatting with one of our fundraising directors who was explaining to me her personal process for tracking her asks throughout the fiscal year. It was superbly simple goal setting with structured follow through that sparked an idea: a new type of strategy session to add to our repertoire. We didn’t have a formal process for goal setting for our fundraisers in place – something that likely puts us behind many of our peers. We’d had subjective success with our first initiative so I pitched the idea to leadership and watched with small degree of trepidation as the fish not only took the bait, but sucked it down hook and all. (Don’t worry, my boss *probably* wouldn’t mind being metaphorically compared to a fish?). And suddenly we were on the hook ? they wanted to have the first of our new “pipeline strategy sessions” in two months.

At UW, our pipeline refers to our tracking of all proposals that fundraisers are planning to submit or have submitted and are waiting on a response from the donor. Our plan here was to develop a process that balanced several needs:

  • prompt our fundraisers to set goals
  • provide an opportunity to develop strategy for next steps with existing proposals
  • ping fundraisers on proposals they had projected already making the ask but hadn’t actually done it yet
  • create a process that was reproducible with the fundraisers and their development assistants so they wouldn’t require assistance from research each time they wanted to set goals and analyze their asks
  • produce a process that could go from idea to implementation in less than 8 weeks

In keeping with the success of our portfolio strategy sessions, we reproduced the process of creating a standard procedure and a worksheet to guide us through the meeting. For these, we decided our role was to serve as guides on a journey the fundraisers were taking to be more organized and proactive with their proposals, rather than using researcher time to develop statistics or scour for new prospects. By using prospect management reports that fundraisers already have access to pull on their own and providing some instructions on how to work through them with their development assistants, we created a process that fundraisers could recreate on their own whenever they wished. We still created bi-annual meetings to sit with them to work through it for accountability, but these involve no preparation on the part of our prospect development staff.

Here’s what we look at in pipeline strategy sessions:

  • Proposals with “expired” ask dates – ones that occurred before the meeting but the fundraiser has not indicated that the ask had indeed been made
  • Prospects in their portfolio who were coded in our moves management process as ones who were being asked this fiscal year – these codes are set by the fundraisers, so we encourage them to submit a proposal for all of these prospects. A defined and written goal is harder to ignore than one that was never formally stated.
  • Travel planning – we charge the development assistants with putting all individuals on a map who the gift officers are planning to ask, that way they can use it to visualize their travel. Ultimately we hope this will lead to more efficient use of travel funds ? perhaps by consolidating multiple trips to the same region into a single one.

These sessions were met with a lot of positive feedback from our fundraisers. We’re very fortunate here to work with a team of true professionals who loved the idea of adding more accountability and structure to their work. In the Cowboy State we highly value our personal freedoms, so I was surprised at such a widespread satisfaction with increased structure.

Perhaps even the most over-loaded prospect development shops might have time to create such process for their fundraisers, where they can be engaged in prospect management with minimal time output from the prospect development staff?

While we haven’t yet delved into a serious ROI for either of these strategy sessions, I do have one tiny data bit to share with those of you who love numbers. After completing two pipeline strategy sessions over the course of 6 months our proposal pipeline we had increased the number of proposals on our pipeline by 30% from the year prior. But numbers aside, I think any time we take the opportunity to build stronger relationships with our fundraisers and demonstrate for them how useful the insights of prospect development can be, we get a win for our organizations and for our field. And for those of you who attended our CPRA conference this spring, we got lots of great resources and tips from Bond Lammey to start or improve optimization processes in our shops. The UW team took some furious notes and are already starting our creative juices flowing for how we can optimize our own portfolio and pipeline strategy sessions for our second year.

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