Elevate Philanthropy ™

Breathing new life into your donor qualification process

If you have worked in development for at least one week, you’ve probably been encouraged to find new donors – an edict coming either from your leadership, a board member, or a colleague. Every organization seeks new donors as a way to grow and diversify their funding streams. The strongest action you can take, as a result of this edict, is to ensure a renewed focus on donor qualification.

As many gift officers know, qualification can be a development department’s four-letter word. Qualification gets a bad rap – it’s a process that seems really easy but can actually be quite challenging, especially if organizations don’t have the structures or volunteers in place to facilitate a smooth qualification process.

Initial donor qualification can be a lot like online dating: it involves cold calling, is a test of endurance, and is often met with rejection. I would venture to say it’s the most misunderstood part of the moves management process, and viewed with trepidation if not outright derision by those tasked with the pursuit.

Why? Largely because development officers think it’s the first thing you must accomplish with a prospective donor. And while it is the first step to a positive donor relationship, it’s not the only time a prospect or donor should be qualified.

One way to positively embrace qualification is to make it part of every step of your moves management process. If it’s not, you’re not learning, or asking questions, and you may be missing opportunities with your donors. After all, what is the ultimate goal of qualification? The answer: To determine whether or not a donor wants to move forward – and that can apply to every part of moves management.

If you were to search for “qualification,” one of the definitions that appears is “a statement or assertion that makes another less absolute.”

How many times have you made assumptions about donors,  especially once you’ve determined to have qualified them? Donors are human and humans often change, evolve, and grow. As such, it’s a safe bet to assume their philanthropic priorities and interests may change, evolve, and grow as well. Similarly, if 2020 and 2021 have taught us anything, it’s that organizations must also change, evolve, and grow. Just like donors, organizations are not stagnant. And one way to combat stagnation and banish complacency is to breathe life into your qualification process.

So, how do we start incorporating qualification into all stages of the moves management cycle, and not just at its start?

1. Revise your assumptions and re-qualify your donors.

As if the last year weren’t a reminder, people experience life events all the time. Re-qualify your donors. If you’ve launched a new program, or pivoted during the pandemic, don’t assume your donor is reading the newsletter you’re sending out, or isn’t interested in hearing about that niche opportunity to make an impact.

Every conversation should have a goal, and as a development professional, you should learn something new after every conversation. Continue engaging your board, and ask your donors questions. Your qualification questions will certainly look and feel different during this stewardship period than they did when you first identified the donor, but they remain an important part of the moves management process and should remain a critical part of your efforts. Remember, you are qualifying the prospect for the next phase in the development relationship. For a prospect in stewardship, you might be qualifying them for the next gift, or for a different type of gift. (Don’t forget planned giving opportunities!)

2. Incorporate research into the moves management cycle.

Don’t just complete research in advance of a solicitation. There are easy steps anyone can take to complete 10-minute qualification research in advance of your first meeting. And don’t wait around for your team’s prospect researcher to do all the research work. You can help and contribute to the process too! Here are just three examples:

  • Where do they work? While many businesses have suffered, many have thrived during the last year.
  • Do they hold any stock? Have they recently sold stock or bought new stock?
  • Do they sit on any boards? It is oftentimes easy to determine if they’re connected to other nonprofits or companies.

As you then approach a planned solicitation, perhaps that is the time that you complete a more comprehensive profile. After you’ve been in contact with a donor for 12-18 months, it’s time to revisit the qualification research you did initially.  Have they made new gifts? Did they buy and sell stock? Have they moved? Research can help you validate assumptions, and it can also provide you with important data points you may not be able to learn in a casual conversation. Wealth screening providers like iWave, Donor Search Blackbaud’s Research Point, and Wealth Engine can help expedite the process. But don’t hesitate to do a bunch of google searches to see what else you can find!

3. Continue to embrace technology and virtual visits.

Some people are feeling Zoom fatigue – but many aren’t. And it’s up to you to find out how your organization’s supporters feel. In this case, technology is your most certainly your friend! How many visits does it normally take to be invited to your donor’s home? A “home visit,” via a computer screen, is now the norm. (Here are some tips from my colleagues on both securing that meeting as well as best preparing yourself for it.)

Virtual visits tee you up for efficient and effective donor qualification. These include:

  • Asking questions such as, “how are you doing?” and “how have you and your family fared throughout the last few months?”
  • Observing items such as art in their background and asking about it. Was it acquired during a trip? Perhaps it holds sentimental value, or they’ve used this time to redecorate their home.
  • Determining whether or not they’ve moved to a new or second home during the pandemic. Many people relocated to new or second homes for more space and friendlier social distancing options, or to be closer to family.

I must admit that, early in my career, I viewed qualification as a drag, bore, and a number of other four-letter words. Yet, my perspective changed dramatically when I viewed it with a new lens:

First, qualification is the act of asking questions. Plain and simple. Thus, not only is it easier to incorporate qualification into your own portfolio management, but also reframe the task to leadership, board members, and colleagues.

Second, don’t expect qualification to achieve some big goal or outcome. Instead, think of it as the small steps you take that, over time, result in a long journey.

Third, partner with your research and prospect management teams. Remember that the onus is not just on your researcher to find new prospects or qualify donors. Just like qualification, your relationship with your research colleagues (if you’re lucky to have that support!) should be consistent and ongoing.


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