A New Role for Research: The Feasibility Study

No doubt you’re familiar with the role of prospect research for a major gift solicitation or during a capital campaign. But what about its application for the feasibility study? This article addresses an integrated prospect research approach for all types of organizations at critical points during the campaign feasibility study.

The role of research in the feasibility study and the richness of source information available varies by each nonprofit organization, its constituency base and its previous level of sophistication in conducting prospect research. From the well-established educational institution to the newly formed nonprofit, the parameters for available researchable information vary greatly. The organization’s donor history, the quality of its donor database, previous campaign history, major gift experience and previous planned gift efforts all affect the richness and wealth of mining the current database as part of the study process.

From a fundraising consultant’s point of view, there are challenges to prospect research during the feasibility study, the biggest of which is often simply the organization’s ability to provide access to a researchable database with appropriate software. It is also our observation that when many nonprofits have purchased appropriate database software, they either have not used it properly or have not continued to maintain valuable donor record information that can be useful in pursuing a major gift strategy.

From the well-established educational institution to the newly formed nonprofit, the parameters for available researchable information vary greatly. 

Another issue is that in smaller communities and rural areas, prospect information provided from national wealth indicator databases is limited.

Increasing Prevalence of Capital Campaigns

In the last 15 years, the capital campaign has become an increasingly common occurrence in the nonprofit landscape. Once a fundraising vehicle reserved for your alma mater or household-name research hospital, all sorts and sizes of nonprofit organizations embark on capital campaigns today. However, for any single organization, it is rarely the same board members, executive director and development officers who have experienced firsthand the organization’s previous feasibility study and campaign from start to finish. This makes prospect research’s role throughout the process even more significant, beginning in the feasibility study. Selecting the best people to interview can ultimately make a difference in the length of the campaign, and the overall effort involved in its success.

Interviewee Selection

Once the overall campaign project(s) budget and fundraising goal (if funding is available from sources other than philanthropy) is known, a gift range chart can be developed. Obviously, the dollar goal to be achieved as represented through the gift range chart should match or exceed the project cost and/or endowment needs anticipated.

When the gift range chart is created, the process of prospect research to suggest donors for specific gift amounts can begin, and these prospects create the list of potential interviewees for the study. This process works well for established organizations with robust donor databases.

For these organizations, prospect research involving natural constituency groupings should always be considered. Such constituencies may include:

  • Board of directors and foundation boards
  • Key volunteers, especially those in an auxiliary, guild or friends group
  • Existing donors
  • Previous campaign significant donors and volunteers
  • Previous non-campaign major gift donors
  • Previous and current planned gift donors and their families

What about nonprofits that are new or just formed to support a government-related entity such as a swimming pool, library or recreation facility? These organizations frequently have very few or no donors.

In this situation, an informal name recommendation process utilizing a volunteer prospect rating committee is extremely useful.

A group of individuals who know the community well can be convened to help identify potential donor prospects. Once the informal group has made potential donor prospect recommendations, initial prospect research can take place to relate the gifts necessary as represented in the gift range chart and determine interviewee priority.

Of course, organizations with a limited donor database will require a heavier orientation toward the informal name recommendation process, but it can be helpful for more established nonprofits as well.

The Interview Process

It is during the interview process that many researchable donor prospect names may surface.

The interview process will allow for verification of interviewee interests in supporting the organization, the fundraising project, personal interest in volunteering and a potential campaign gift range. The interview may also uncover information about the interviewee and their family that is worth further investigation.

In addition, the names interviewees provide as potential volunteers and donors to the campaign can be qualified either by prospect research or through the informal volunteer prospect rating process. The advantage of conducting research at this point is to uncover names of significant donor prospects that can be preliminarily rated on the gift range chart as potential donors. It may be determined that interviewing these prospects would be beneficial also.

The combination of donor research, interviews with those who have been researched, and the names suggested through interviews provide helpful information for the campaign. All of this is instrumental in developing a level of credibility for suggested prospect gift amount ranges to be applied to the gift range chart. Collectively, the estimated gift amount ranges from the gift range chart help to establish a suggested potential campaign goal range.

Post Interview Research

Prospect research can also be helpful once study interviews have been completed and prior to report presentation. There may indeed be individuals, foundations or corporations who are potential “centers of influence” who can impact the campaign in a positive way. Conducting more prospect research to connect individuals and/or having some specific targeted discussions relating to these “center of influences” and their backgrounds can be advantageous in formatting solicitation approaches for the overall campaign strategy.

Taking the time to conduct prospect research as part of the feasibility study is a worthwhile investment that leads to a better study outcome for your organization, and, subsequently, a more efficient and successful campaign.

A Worthwhile Investment

Organizations that have limited donor prospect data availability or limited donor history can find the feasibility study process challenging. Finding quality prospective donors to interview, let alone solicit for a major gift, can be difficult. This challenging situation can be addressed by a combined informal name selection process complemented by multiple prospect research efforts at critical points. This scenario can be very helpful in not only uncovering significant donor prospects, but also providing an organization with a better understanding of what future funding is possible and specific successful strategies for the capital campaign. Taking the time to conduct prospect research as part of the feasibility study is a worthwhile investment that leads to a better study outcome for your organization, and, subsequently, a more efficient and successful campaign.

Kari Kratky is vice president of marketing and communications at Paul J. Strawhecker, Inc. In addition to marketing the firm, she works with nonprofit clients in developing and implementing communication plans; generating publicity; creating case statements, web sites, newsletters, brochures and direct mail pieces; and coordinating special events. Her experience also includes working in newspaper and direct marketing, serving as an account executive for a public relations and advertising firm, and managing marketing activities for a niche software company.

Paul J. Strawhecker, MPA, ACFRE, has led the consulting firm bearing his name, Paul J. Strawhecker, Inc., since its inception in 1995. The firm has served more than 300 nonprofit organizations in all areas of fundraising: feasibility/philanthropic planning studies and capital/endowment campaigns, annual giving, planned giving, grant writing, organizational development, and public relations. Throughout his career, Paul has been responsible for development programs that generated more than $300 million. He started the planned giving program at Boys Town; served as vice president of development for a national nonprofit hospital and nursing home group with 75 facilities; and directed fundraising for a private university system with campuses in Michigan, Florida and Texas.

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