For most organizations, major gifts provide an important gift income stream to fund important capital projects, endowment priorities, and, increasingly, operational necessities.  While securing major gifts today may be viewed by organizational leaders as an urgent goal for development professionals, seasoned development leaders know that securing major gifts is a process that can take considerable time.  In many instances, tomorrow’s major gifts come from the efforts that were put into motion yesterday.  Therefore, a strategic approach to securing major gifts is needed throughout the organization.

In a general sense, the major gift process consists of five phases:

  1. Identification – finding, through various means, potential major gift prospects
  2. Discovery – conducting research on major gift prospects and learning more about their financial capacity and inclination to be generous
  3. Cultivation – engaging and involving major gift prospects in the work of your organization
  4. Solicitation – making a compelling request for support
  5. Stewardship and Recognition – extending gratitude and acknowledgement to the donor

These five phases are not mutually exclusive.  Rather they are interactive and can overlap.  Each phase, while important individually, is linked closely with the other phases and can impact and be impacted by the other phases.  For example, the phase of soliciting can generate new information about the prospect which will influence stewardship and recognition plans for that particular donor (and also, most likely, will provide guidance for future solicitation strategies).  Or, the cultivation phase may lead to new prospects being identified.

You should think of these five phases as independently important steps but also fluid and flexible in application. While it is important that you establish strategies and performance metrics based on these five phases, you should remember also that successful major gift work is neither formulaic nor linear.  The engagement of each major gift donor is unique and will follow its own path through the phases.

Of these five phases this newsletter will more closely examine the “Discovery” phase.  To be clear, however, this phase is more appropriately termed as a process.

Major donor discovery is not simply an individual task to be completed.  It is not a singular action which, when accomplished, provides you with undisputed information about your prospect.  Instead, major donor discovery is a combination of strategic actions which provide data so that a profile begins to emerge of the prospect.  This process is important because it helps to ensure that your organization will effectively and efficiently employ scarce human and financial resources to cultivate and solicit the very best major gift prospects.  The “Discovery Process,” then, is understood to be the collection of the activities and actions – electronic research, peer screening research, phone calls, letters, emails, and visits – taken to initially qualify a prospect as a potential major prospect.

The Role of the Prospect Discovery Process

As stated previously, the Identification phase serves to find new potential major gift prospects.  During this first phase, you should conduct initial research to qualify the prospect.  By design, though, this research is neither robust nor complete.  There is much that still needs to be understood about the major gift prospect at this stage.

The fundamental role of the Discovery Process is two-fold:

1.     To better understand your major gift prospects’ financial capacity to make major gifts, and;

2.     To better understand their inclination to be generous toward your organization.

Better understanding your prospect’s financial capacity is essential to being able to judge them as major gift prospects.  The first point of qualification must be focused on your prospects’ financial wherewithal to make major gifts.  Precious development resources can be inefficiently utilized if gift officers spend significant amounts of time attempting to cultivate prospects who do not have the resources to make major gifts.

It is important, we believe, to fully understand the question of financial capacity.  There are three questions development professionals tend to ask around the issue of a prospect’s financial capacity:

  1. If this donor becomes fully engaged with our organization and we are their number one priority, what amount could they give?
  2. What amount will we ask them to give?
  3. What amount do we believe they will give?

During the Discovery Process, you should be focused only on answering the first of these questions.  When you focus on answering the first question, you will gather data impartially and you will establish giving expectations based on their financial capacity, as opposed to your biases and past experiences.  Once you better understand the prospect’s full financial capacity, you can build cultivation strategies appropriate to increasing their giving to that capacity.

In addition to understanding the prospect’s financial capacity, another role of the Discovery Process is to better understand your prospects’ inclination to give.  This information provides you with valuable information regarding how to cultivate, solicit, and steward each prospect.  For instance, in general, better understanding a prospect’s perception and attitude about your organization will give you an indication of how long it might take before they are ready to receive a request for support.

How might you best gain the information about your prospects which will shed light on their financial capacity and inclination to give?  Your Discovery Process research should include both qualitative and quantitative efforts.  Sources of major donor prospect information can include:

  • Their past giving history – with your organization and with other organizations;
  • Peer screening activities in which others who know the prospect provide confidential insights into their financial capacity and interests;
  • General news about the prospect in magazines, newspapers, or generally-read online resources;
  • Specific prospect research tools and online databases;
  • Discovery phone calls and visits with the prospect.

It is important to remember that donors do not give because your organization needs money.  They give to satisfy their own needs.  The Discovery Process seeks to discover this satisfaction step.  Therefore, the Discovery Process should be focused on gathering information on your prospect and not focused on providing information to your prospect.  To do discovery well, you must ask good questions and actively listen.

The Prospect Discovery Visit

While there are a number of ways in which to learn more about your prospects, the most effective method of prospect discovery is to meet face-to-face with them.  The discovery visit is critical to making a final assessment as to your prospect’s financial capacity and their inclination to be supportive of your organization.

Our friends who conduct research in the social sciences report that 60-65% of all communication is conveyed non-verbally.  Visiting face-to-face with prospects and donors affords you access to much more information than can be gathered through less interactive means.

Can you learn something about your donors through an online survey?  Of course.  But, can you learn much more about them by spending an hour with them over coffee?  Absolutely.

When conducted well, the discovery visit should serve as the capstone activity, providing you with most of the information needed to assess if the individual or couple remains a viable major gift prospect.  Prior to conducting discovery visits, your organization should establish strategies around the following:

1. Approach – What general approach will you take to establish that a visit is needed?  For instance, as part of their onboarding, development officers new to an organization can seek appointments by asking for valuable feedback and perspectives on your organization.  Or, for organizations completing a strategic plan, you may cite a new organizational priority to extend gratitude to donors and friends personally.  Or, you may want to send a letter or personalized email from an organizational leader requesting the prospect’s participation in a survey or research project.

Many of our clients have success in acquiring a first time appointment with prospects by asking them to participate, along with others, in a study designed to gather impressions of the organization, vision, and/or campaign.  An interview protocol can be designed to explore among other things:

  • Perceptions about how your organization has stewarded their past giving (if appropriate)
  • Their top five current philanthropic priorities
  • Their hobbies, interests, and lifestyle
  • Familiarity and connection with your organization
  • The role that philanthropy has played in their lives
  • Feelings about your organization’s mission, vision, and priorities

2. Appointment – Who is the best person to secure the appointment with each prospect?

After a letter or personalized email has been sent, it is not uncommon for a phone call to be placed to the prospect to establish a visit date and time.  An important consideration in making this phone call is the person making it.  In other words, leveraging relationships that hold the most promise to secure the visit is a smart decision.  You should think through the wide network of options available in making the appointment.  Might a Board member, administrator, coach, professor, or another volunteer be more apt to receive an affirming response from the prospect?  If relationships exist that can assist the appointment setting process, they should be utilized.

3. Visit Content – What information are you planning to seek from each prospect?  Are you going to seek similar information from all prospects participating in the Discovery Process?

It is important for you and members of the development team who are conducting discovery visits to recall that these visits are designed to elicit information from the prospects.  Discovery calls are not designed primarily to deliver information about the organization.  Therefore, you should not plan to “tell-and-sell” about your organization.

Additionally, you should not plan to spend significant time sharing with prospects all of your organization’s plans, data, and reports.  Discovery calls are about your prospects, not you and your organization.

Development professionals who conduct effective discovery visits do less “story-telling” and more “story-listening.”  Through well-crafted, open-ended questions, they encourage the prospect to tell stories and they actively listen for clues and cues about financial capacity and an inclination to be generous.

4. Report – How will you capture and record what is learned as a result of the discovery visits?

After conducting the discovery visit, it is vital that the information gleaned is gathered and stored for future use and reference.  Most all development database packages have the capacity to store visit reports electronically.  Affirming the process for collecting and storing discovery visit data is important not only for your work with prospects today, but also for the development of future strategies with the prospect.

Visit reports do not need to be long in length or overly specific on details.  A good rule of thumb in completing visit reports is to abide by the “5 year rule.”  Specifically, the “5 year rule” suggests that you think about how your visit report will read in five years.  In other words, ask yourself if the information being submitted on the visit report will substantially help another development professional better understand this prospect if they were to look at your visit report 5 years into the future.  If not, then it is most likely best not to include it.

5. Non-Responder Strategies – What if the prospect is not returning calls or refuses to take the appointment?  What strategies might you employ if your prospect expresses a lack of interest in visiting with you?

In these instances, you might emphasize the ease of the visit and how helpful their perspective will be.  In addition, letting the prospect know that they are part of a select group with whom you are attempting to speak can be helpful.  In some instances, the prospect may be using avoidance strategies because she believes you are coming to ask for money.

Therefore, you may want to remind each that the purpose of the visit is to seek their feedback and learn more about their perspective, not to ask them for money.  Finally, you may want to revisit who else could contact the prospect on behalf of the organization and encourage them to visit with you.

Making the Discovery Process an Ongoing Concern

We regularly witness clients who struggle with making the Discovery Process an ongoing and regular part of their development activities.  With pressures to increase current gift income, it is easy to see how a longer-term strategy of engaging potential future major gift prospects can be viewed as a lower priority.

In addition, some organizational leaders mistakenly believe they can forego an ongoing program of Discovery until preparations for a campaign commence.  The misguided notion is that campaign readiness study interviews can serve as discovery visits.  This can be a costly mistake.

A campaign readiness study is designed to answer the question:  “Are your best prospects ready to give at a level that will make your campaign successful?” Discovery visits, as this newsletter has stressed, are designed to serve as a final step in acquiring the basic information about a prospect’s capacity and willingness to give.

If you do not have a good understanding of your prospects’ financial capacity and their willingness to give prior to including them in a campaign readiness interview, your campaign readiness study will provide you with incomplete or inaccurate data.  The campaign readiness study assumes the interviewees have already been “discovered.”  It is not designed to do the discovery.  The following distinctions are helpful to remember.

The Discovery Process is:

  • Conducted by the advancement staff
  • Designed to seek primary information about a prospect
  • A key aspect of the initial cultivation of the prospect or donor

 Campaign Readiness Study interviews are:

  • Conducted confidentially by consultants not part of the development team
  • Designed for well-cultivated, high capacity prospects
  • Seeking assurance that your top prospects are ready to be asked

To ensure that your development team appropriately values and participates in the Discovery Process, we advise development leaders to establish consensus goals around the Discovery Process with their team members.  Goals might include:

  • Number of discovery visits made
  • Number of prospects either added to or disqualified from development officers’ major gift donor portfolios based on discovery activities
  • Number of prospects moved from discovery to cultivation in the gift cycle

It is important that the goals are generated with input from the gift officers themselves and not simply directed to them without their input.  If you want the Discovery Process to become more of a priority, those involved must be engaged in the goal-setting process.


An ongoing, robust Discovery Process is an important element of the five-phase major gift cycle and a key to sustaining an effective development program.  When combined, all of the activities and actions of the Discovery Process provide your organization with a clear picture of your prospects’ financial capacity and their inclination to be generous.

The benefits of conducting discovery visits effectively can be profound for your organization.  Not only will you gain much needed information about future major donor prospects and their interests, but your gift officers will be reminded that the essence of good development work is to ask thoughtful, important questions, to actively listen and appropriately respond to their answers, and to concisely report the interaction for strategy development.

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