Tracking the Donor Cycle: part 1, the set up

This blog is coming on a little journey with the prospect development team at the University of Wyoming that we are just beginning to embark on. We’re going to start tracking the phases of our donors in the donor cycle through time. Right now, with the data we currently keep, we can only ever analyze where a prospect is in the cycle as a snapshot in time, but that is all about to change.

First, let’s get a little jargon-definition out of the way. By the donor cycle, I mean the process that a prospect goes through from identification to qualification to cultivation to solicitation to stewardship and back into cultivation.


Picture adapted by Karina Garcia (University of Wyoming) from Jessica Hipchen, ESP Fundraising Workshop Manual: (Slide 13).

Let’s dig in.

Identification or discovery is when a potential prospect is found but the organization hasn’t built a relationship with them yet. This is often our part, as prospect researchers or data analysts, but sometimes they come from board members, fundraisers, etc.

Qualification is establishing that this prospective donor really does have the interest and ability to give to your organization at an impactful level. At UWyo this confirmation of a potential prospect is done by a fundraising staff member reaching out to them to gauge their interest and capacity through interaction. That’s what I’ll be focusing on in this blog series, but there’s more than one way to qualify a prospective donor.

Cultivation! This is a relationship-building industry. It’s what we do. This is where a fundraiser builds a relationship with the prospective donor and gets them connected to the right people at the organization to build to a gift. As a side note, don’t forget to be building relationships with your fundraisers as a prospect development professional! But that’s a topic for another day.

Solicitation is when the donor constellations align and it’s time to ask for a gift. There isn’t necessarily one single ask. We’re not asking for a couple bucks to go buy a latte, so this can take time some time.

And finally, stewardship, which is basically the most important part but doesn’t get much attention from our corner of advancement. What’s the point in having donors if we aren’t letting them know how much we appreciate them and what an impact they are making? Plus, if we don’t want to be all ooey-gooey about it, it’s pretty well researched that retaining existing donors is cheaper than acquiring and cultivating new ones in the annual giving world (e.g. but it doesn’t take an Indiana-Jones-style leap of faith to see that this would extend into larger gifts as well, considering how much more time and resources are invested into each gift. And as the lovely graphic above shows, stewardship blends into cultivating for the next gift. And the cycle continues.

Now to zoom back out, our “snapshot” we can currently look at in the UW shop is a right-now view. So we can look at a fundraiser’s prospect list and analyze if they have enough prospects in their solicitation stage to meet their ask goals for this year. We can look at the ones in cultivation to see if they are feeding their own pipeline for next year and on. We can see if they have some in the identification stage to make sure that the front end of their pipeline hasn’t run dry. Then next meeting we can look at it again and if the ratio is still good then we’re good.

But there are some problems that have been bothering the prospect development team with our current system. Are there any prospects who have stayed in cultivation for years on end without getting an ask? When a newly identified prospect gets called sooner does it mean we are more likely to realize a gift? We really have no way to answer these questions.

But we want to answer them. So here begins the journey. We’re going to begin tracking how long each assigned prospect stays in each stage. We’re quite fortunate that our database will do the bulk of the work in that for us. But imagine the questions we can answer when we have years of data on how long prospects are in each stage! We can look at how long on average it takes to close a gift. We can start looking at portfolio penetration. So many cool ideas we hear and read about but don’t have the data to do!

So how did we get this far on our trek? We started having feelings about this about a year ago. We were driving back from a conference and were brainstorming about it. But we did nothing. In classic form, no one ever said, “man I wish we’d waited even longer to start collecting that really important data.” That was us.

Then a few months later we were driving back from a conference and it came up again. This time we spent our 2-3 hours between Denver and Laramie figuring out how easy it would be to track in our database. Yet we did nothing again.

Then a few months later – you guessed it – we were driving back from a conference and it comes up again. There’s more resolve this time. But still? we have all those wealth screenings to verify and profiles to write for the new president?

Every May we sit down as a prospect development team and set our project goals for the coming fiscal year (we run July ? June) on how we are going to turn up the dial on fundraising efficiency. Projects get pitched ? some die and some move forward? but this year tracking the stages of the cycle made the cut.

So here’s where we begin: we’ve checked all of our existing reports to make sure this won’t break any SQL and now we are entering stages on all of our assigned prospects and will be tracking them as they change. What kind of questions will we answer? How soon? We’ll be taking the blog down the path with us so keep reading to find out!

Is anyone out in CPRA-land already doing this? Have a story to share? Write a guest blog about it! Contact Colleen to pitch in:

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