Setting Priorities: Getting Better Results from Your Prospect List

Portfolio management is one of the trickiest propositions when it comes to success in grant seeking.   We know that we will likely have to invite support from an number of foundations in order to be successful (and hopefully, we will hear the answer “yes” sooner rather than later).  To manage a list of prospects, t the key to success is understanding where to put your time and energy when it comes to building relationships and spending time on applications.

Priority must be given to major gifts prospects (that is donors who will make leadership commitments needed to attract other support).  You should arrange your contacts into a schedule of cultivation and solicitation to take place over the span of a few months. To ensure you are able to cover all of these sources in the shortest possible time frame, I suggest that you prioritize your prospects by assigning to each a code that signifies the level of intensity of contact. This code will be based partly upon the level of gift you will be seeking and partly upon your perceived ability to connect with the funder (see below)

Intensity of Outreach Success Factors
  • Has funded your agency before
  • You have a personal contact with an officer or director
  • One of your board members has a personal contact with an officer or director
  • Mission statement aligns tightly with focus of your program
  • Has given to program very similar to yours
  • Assets and giving are large enough to accommodate a grant to your agency
  • Mission statement aligns tightly with focus of your program
  • New or small family foundation or local corporation with no established giving patterns
  • General priority match(i.e. gives to organization that fall within same genre as your agency or gives to local charities)

Using this rating system, you can organize your list into a list of “likely” prospects vs. “maybe” prospects which will help you to maintain focus.   For example, a high level gift prospect will likely be a well-established funding source with ample staff for you to connect and refine your approach. Or, this prospect may be a smaller, more low-key donor but with whom a member of your Board may have sufficient enough of a contact to open the door.  On the other hand, you donor prospect may be a family foundation who has given to agencies similar to your own. However, this foundation may be administered by a trust department of a bank where staff do not take the time to meet with prospective donors but rather collect and screen proposals.

The rating system yields an added bonus: setting and managing expectations about results.  Oftentimes, I will present a prospect list to a client using these ratings to help make it clear that for best results, we will invest more time with fewer key prospects where the chances of results will be higher and less time with a larger group of prospects where we will spend more time cultivating the donor.

Rating your prospects helps you to set and manage expectations, manage your time and, in the end, achieve better results.  Grant seeking can, indeed, be a numbers game.  Rule number one is to make the numbers work for you.


Strategic Planning: Building a Better Roadmap


Recently, I met with a client who asked “are strategic plans really important?”  

I confess that I hesitated before answering.  Of course, a strategic plan that is well-done and well-executed can make all the difference in achieving terrific results.  At the same time, I am equally a skeptic when it comes to strategic planning; after all, I had spent some quality commuting time earlier in my career taking in Henry Mintzberg’s “The The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning,” a book that stirred much controversy in corporate and nonprofit America in the early 1990s We get quite caught up in the process and never really get around to focusing on the vision and ultimately the results, Mintzberg argues. By his way of thinking, the process of strategic planning gets in the way of strategic thought and “tricks” managers that planning will automatically improve organizational performance.  We invested the time and energy on planning; ergo, we are strategic.

So, how can we make the planning process more fruitful?  Where does it go wrong? How do we move from just strategic planning to strategic action?  Here are some ideas:

  • Strategic planning should look at a forward timeframe of no more than three years. In our “new normal” change occurs at a more and more rapid pace. Projecting future growth and changes in an organization’s mission/service landscape beyond 36 months is very difficult at best.
  • Strategic planning requires objective information and data. One of the places where planning can “go off the tracks” is asking the planning team to identify the important data points as part of the process.  At best, you get good guesstimates about information.  At worst, you end up taking in hearsay and opinions.  The remedy?  A “briefing book” which includes baseline information required by participants to answer key questions in the process. This information can include organization financials, internal performance metrics, historical background, information on competitor organizations, baseline data on issues/topics of concern. 
  • Strategic planning should address very specific questions of concern to the organization, rather than generic questions. Instead of asking “what are our weaknesses” you might ask “what internal systems and structures do not perform well enough to allow us to help clients meet our benchmarks?” 
  • Strategic planning never ends. Once the planning is completed, an oversight team (perhaps even the same team that created the plan) should periodically (annually or semi-annually) review progress on the plan and update or expand it.  This team needs to be well-versed in environmental changes, emerging trends and practices.  So, that briefing book gets edited, updated and shared.  It never really goes out of style or is consigned to life as a dust-collector or doorstop.

To be sure, there are more and better tenets for more effective planning. The important thing is to not avoid creating the plan itself. In a rapidly changing landscape where competition for philanthropic support becomes keener, a good roadmap can always come in handy.

Learn about Henry Mintzberg’s 5 Ps of Strategy here: