Building Healthy Expectations with Fundraising Data (Part Two)

In part one we discussed how data is imperfect--the expectation should be that it makes you more accurate than simply guessing. But when it comes to major gifts, data won’t replace a skilled fundraiser’s ability to build a relationship with a donor. And in building a relationship with a donor, you can add unstructured data (about a donor’s passions, for example) and refine and validate structured data about family, careers, and wealth.

This use of personal, more anecdotal data to supplement anything captured in a spreadsheet is a powerful combination when used at both for-profits and nonprofits. Steve Lacy, Executive Chairman of Meredith Corp. whose publications include Time magazine and Better Homes & Gardens, tells a story about the use of data in their marketing department. A Senior Vice President came into a meeting excited by the treasure trove of data they were able to compile about their readers claiming, "We know our customers better than they know themselves!" He reflected by saying, "I almost fired her on the spot!" He admitted that while they are able to utilize significant data including buying and personal habits, the data tells an incomplete story. "Each customer has their own story." Just as each potential donor has theirs. 

Information from data services should serve as a starting point to provide some background and general expectations. It can help inform who you should be visiting and add detail where a donor may not offer it. For example, a donor may disclose that they recently sold their business, but without research you may not know how much it sold for. For these reasons (and even just to avoid looking a little creepy) fundraisers should still enter early prospect conversations with a curious mind. Asking open ended questions, about children or a career as examples, can validate or discredit research done beforehand.

Appending data points about donors is a useful exercise, but simply adding a column to a spreadsheet doesn’t ensure fundraising success. Data is a supplemental tool that can help prioritize and identify donors, analyze fundraising programs, and inform ask amounts. But data doesn’t build relationships. That requires skilled fundraisers who can sit across from a donor, uncover what their passions are and communicate how your organization speaks to those passions.


Building Healthy Expectations with Fundraising Data (Part One)

Like most industries, the collection and use of data has been a hot topic in fundraising over the past decade. Fundraising has benefited greatly from data, and many in the field continue to pioneer new uses and applications that benefit both fundraisers as well as the donors they interact with.

But with all the data hype, many fundraisers and boards unfairly expect data to be perfect—a cure to all challenges. Although much of today’s data is very accurate and getting better, it will never meet that standard. Too often, one experience with inaccurate data damages trust of the information and supersedes all the instances where additional data was helpful.  For example, an organization pulled a profile from one of the big data services for a well-known donor in Des Moines which mistakenly listed the donor’s daughter's name under "Spouse". Luckily this faux pas didn’t damage the relationship with the donor, serving only as a reminder of the importance of validation (more on validation in part two).

Assuming data is perfect will inevitably lead to disappointment. The point of data is that it provides information that makes a prediction more accurate than simply guessing. For example, if I asked you how many points you think Los Angeles Lakers guard Kyle Kouzma will score in his next game, you would likely be pulling a guess from thin air (unless of course you’re a Lakers fan). But if I provided the additional data that he’s averaging 18.8 points per game this season, your guess would be a lot more accurate. Adding data points about Kouzma’s average in home versus road games, as well as the defensive ability of the team he’s playing would help refine your guess even further.

In a fundraising context, think of the benefit of more accurate information to inform ask amounts. Suppose you visit a donor who is passionate about your cause but lives in a very modest home. Because of their passion and gift history, you plan to ask for a $10,000 gift. But like the Kouzma example, adding an additional data point indicating the donor has a high net worth would likely revise your ask amount upwards. Now let’s say, based on this additional net worth information, you decide to ask this donor for $50,000. If they decline that amount but say they will donate $30,000, it might seem like a disappointment based on the ask amount. But even though the ask amount wasn’t perfect, the additional information still resulted in receiving three times the amount you would have without the data.

In part two, we will explore the importance of data and validation and building personal relationships with donors.

Hidden Millionaires

When we think of wealth, images of private jets, mansions, and luxury cars often pop into our heads. But a new report from WealthEngine suggests that most millionaires aren’t signaling their wealth with these stereotypical symbols, presenting a significant opportunity for nonprofits and fundraisers.

According to WealthEngine, approximately 12.7% of the US population is made up of millionaires. That’s 19 million millionaire households and 30 million individuals. While that number might be more than you expect, it’s also important to consider 95% of millionaires have a net worth between $1 and $5 million (and the majority of those are under $2.5 million). There’s a lot of millionaires out there, but still a relatively small number that fall into the ultra-wealthy category that often comes to mind.

And many of these millionaires often don’t display the outward signs we commonly associate with wealth. For example, the most popular car brands among millionaires are Toyota, Ford, and Honda (Mercedes is tops with the $25 million+ crowd), and only about 15% own property valued at over $1 million.

The moral here is that as fundraisers, it’s important we don’t prejudge the wealth of our prospects based on what we see. Just because they weren’t a Fortune 500 CEO or live in a $10 million mansion doesn’t preclude them from making major gifts that have significant impacts on our organizations.

The report also underscores the value a wealth screen can provide. It’s easy to think that maybe someone isn’t capable of making a “major gift” because they arrive to your meeting in a Honda instead of a Mercedes. A quality screening not only uncovers wealth that may otherwise be hidden below the surface, but also removes the subjectivity and biases we all have as humans.

Source: WealthEngine 2019 U.S. Millionaire Report

Waiting to Ask Can Be Costly

When it comes to fundraising, one of the most vexing variables to deal with is often timing. When do we ask for the gift? Organizations that provide services to potential donors fear that asking too soon after an interaction may come off as opportunistic and turn donors off. However, a new study from Katherine Milkman, Judd Kessler, and Amanda Chuan at the Wharton School shows that sooner is far better than later when it comes to asking for a gift after providing a service.

The study examined a major hospital system and analyzed response rates to direct mail solicitations and how they related to time passed since a hospital visit. The researchers discovered that as more time passed between visit and solicitation, donors were less likely to make a gift. In fact, waiting an additional 30-days to send a solicitation after a visit decreased the likelihood of a donation by 30%.

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These findings have implications beyond hospitals and can be applied to any organization that provides a service to their potential donors, including education, religious, and arts organizations. A community theater, for example, could increase giving by sending solicitations to ticket buyers within 30-days of seeing a show, instead of waiting for a quarterly or annual appeal.

Intuitively, the study suggests that a potential donor receives a positive feeling that engenders reciprocity after receiving a service from a nonprofit, but that feeling fades over time. The sooner you can make an ask after that seed of reciprocity is planted, the more likely you are to receive a gift.

The Hidden Benefits of a Feasibility Study

I was the President of the Board and after my term was up I did not heard a single word from the organization for years until you called. I love [the organization] but I feel like they forgot about me.
— Feasibility Study Interviewee

The goals of a feasibility study are fairly straightforward. Organizations often want to know first if they can conduct a capital campaign, if so how much they can raise, and then how long it will take them to raise the money. 

These are obviously important questions to answer but there are several more benefits of a feasibility study that can be overlooked as strategically beneficial. Let us explore a few of them below. 

Database Cleaning and Housekeeping

During a feasibility study an organization will want to compile a list of stakeholders, donors, and other entities. What you may find is that in the process of inviting individuals to participate in a feasibility study interview you may discover that the contact information you have for some of your closest supporters is no longer correct. Returned mail, landlines disconnected, and professional information no longer valid are common occurrence. 

In the quote at the beginning of this article the person had changed jobs, moved, and transitioned off the board all within a matter of months. They were suddenly completely lost to the organization. The feasibility study gave the organization an opportunity to reconnect with the individual, listen to their concerns, apologize and fix the situation, and ultimately bring a beloved supporter back into the fold. 

The concern over even a single example inspired the organization to run the entire 5,000 constituent database through a National Change of Address clearing house. The result was a recapturing of 8% of their previous donors. 


Donors and stakeholders want to help and welcome opportunities with little time or financial investment to make a difference. Frequently an e-survey is implemented as part of a feasibility study. A survey is a great way to focus on those who do not always receive the white glove experience. Your grassroots supporters and volunteers are sometimes the front line and their advice can be incredibly important but by closing the loop and making sure that they know their voice was heard they will feel even more entrenched in your mission. 

Volunteer Recruitment

If your organization relies on volunteers on a regular basis being involved in a feasibility study may prompt an individual to think about how they can get more involved. Involvement might include single events stuffing envelopes, mission-driven recurring volunteering, or even serving on your board. No matter how your stakeholders want to get involved a feasibility study can help you recruit volunteers and have your volunteers understand how important their contribution can be. 


Every organization can benefit from developing a culture of philanthropy. Each employee of the organization can think about how they impact fundraising whether it is via storytelling, information gathering, or helping directly with donor cultivation. When the entire organization focuses on fundraising it is not simply a linear result because each person benefits from the inputs of another and the best ideas rise to the top with full buy-in. 

Focus on the Goal

Each of these secondary benefits has a direct impact on the original goal of the organization which is to elevate the mission through funding and capital resources. When all of these stepping stones are developed the final result is an even greater potential. 

First Time Warning Signs

So you are thinking about hiring a fundraising consultant but you are worried because you have heard horror stories? Here are a few red flags to look out for as you talk to firms and independent consultants. 

"I can guarantee that you will raise $10 million."

If any consultant guarantees this they should play the lottery! No one can know the full financial situation of every donor nor can they know how an organization might change during a fundraising effort. When this false hope is offered it is intended to get started and then extend contracts unnecessarily when you do not meet your goal. One way to resolve this issue is to have a clearer picture of what the potential is for a campaign by conducting a feasibility study. The study does not always correlate to the results of a campaign, but will absolutely inform your decision to go forward.  

"I used to work for a big organization in town and can bring those donors to you."

While there is definitely something to be said for understanding the philanthropic landscape of a region, a consultant who is willing to take a donor from another organization they worked with will be willing to take your donors when they leave. If you hear this line you may want to ask them if they are a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and if they have read the Code of Ethical Standards recently. 

"I know your budget is small and you are worried about how much we can raise so I will just charge you a flat percent of contributions."

This is a double threat! The first threat is that they could potentially then convey fraudulent information to your donors or bully them in order to falsely increase the amount pledged. Point them back to the Code of Ethical Standards again. This will chase your donors away faster than anything and do long term damage to the reputation of your organization. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say they act responsibly. The second threat is that by taking a percentage they then become a stakeholder in your organization and by definition non-profits may not have financial stakeholders and that could threaten your tax-exempt status. Can you even imagine the implications of that?

So whether you are deciding that a consultant is right for you because you need the expertise or the manpower, make sure you find someone who is knowledgable and that you are securing your own interests. And if you have any questions about something a consultant has said to you feel free to ask Eden+ about it to give you a little peace of mind.