Ok, I know I am telling my age, but when I was young, I remember my elementary school teacher reading (what I thought was the dumbest book ever) Are You My Mother, to the class. It was about a baby bird that hatched while his mother was away. He had fallen from his nest, so he sets out to look for his mother and asks everyone he meets—including a dog, a cow, and a plane—"Are you my mother?" The contrasting pictures in the book of the most unlikely animals standing beside the tiny yellow bird were the most bizarre thing ever to me. I couldn’t understand why the little bird would think that the other animal could be his mother when it looked so different than he did.
Now years later, working in fundraising, I find that I am the little bird asking almost the same question when presented with an unknown name—“Are you my donor?” Some names seem to be of the most unlikely individuals. I stare at the piece of paper, or email and wonder why I am being given this name; they did not graduate from this school, they did not grow up in this community, they do not work in this community, they do not have relatives who graduated from this school, they do not give to us, they do not look like our donors.
However, I follow due diligence and find a formal name and residential address, find out their last employer and position title, run a wealth screening, confirm any philanthropic giving to other organizations, create a profile, search for news articles, and, of course, search for the ever illusive photo. Seconds, minutes, hours, and sometimes days later, I have my finished product. A nice, neat, detailed profile on the prospect. I email the finished product to my colleague with my professional opinion noted about this individual and even suggest what level of giving this person may be able to produce.
In the process of this endeavor, my passion for research comes out. I find that I am obsessed with finding evidence that this person is indeed a prospect. I want the answer to the question to be “YES, I am your donor!” I just can’t have wasted time and energy on someone who is not a prospect, right?
I wait seconds, minutes, hours, days to hear back from my colleague. I stop him in the hallway, “Have you contacted the prospect yet?” Nothing…I get nothing except that I’ll let you know. He does not seem to see the urgency in this situation or even remember who I am talking about. Soon I am involved in other research requests, more traditional prospect research, and I forget about my suspect.
Then one day out of the blue, the gift officer bounces into my office and says, “Hey I got in touch with that prospect. I’ve scheduled a visit for next week!” Well, I am as happy as when I delivered my first child! My plight is over and I can rest easy. My life is good!
But wait a minute? Does this mean I have gotten the answer I wanted to my question? No, but what I’ve finally come to realize is that every recommendation of a prospect should be considered a potential donor. I had to stop thinking as I did when I was younger. Just because the two pictures look different doesn’t mean that they are. The prospect may not look like my other donors; their characteristics may not “mirror” our top donors, but so what?! Isn’t that part of prospect research… to find out?
I challenge you to take a deeper look at some of the people whom we sometimes leave at the bottom of the drawer. Tier 3 prospects, non-donors, non-graduates, one-time donors, students who attended the evening or graduate programs, individuals not currently in the database, oh and yes, parents. You may find that someone you considered a “tiny little bird” may actually return to the nest as one of your top donors.
This post was written by Lisa Ukuku, Director of Prospect Research at The Citadel Foundation.