Prospect Brane-Wave

The Prospect Value Chain

The standard view of prospect management in major donor or “strategic donor” programmes is that it’s a chain, or a cycle.  First we identify a person, or a foundation or company, then we research them a bit, then we meet them, then research them some more, then decide (“qualify”) if they are worth developing as a prospect, and then cultivate them, ask them and steward the donation that they make.

At Factary we talk about a Prospect Value Chain, with a series of steps (Suspect, Prospect, Qualified, In Cultivation…) along which the prospect moves. Each step adds value to the prospect, and each implies a corresponding increase in investment in the prospect, an investment principally made in staff and volunteer time (hence the Prospect “Value Chain”).

The idea originated in ‘Customer Relationship Management’ a phrase that has been in use since the early 1990s, and which became part of software when Tom Siebel founded Siebel Systems Inc in 1993. [Source: “Customer Relationship Management, Concepts and Technologies”, Frank Buttle, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2009.] By 1998 Ian Gordon was writing about ‘The bonding staircase’ linking customers’ relationship intensity and the purchase process and working through steps (Prospects – Testers – Shoppers – Accounts – Patrons – Advocates – Awareness – Interest – Evaluation – Trial – Adoption – Commitment) that resemble the Prospect Value Chain [Source: “Relationship Marketing: new strategies, techniques and technologies”, Ian Gordon, Wiley, 1998.]

Not Real Life

It’s a neat idea. But it looks increasingly unlike real life. As an example: many donors arrive with their first gift already in hand. At one leading nonprofit with which we work, the major donor team gets notified when someone makes a gift of €500 or more. These donors did not pass through the Suspect – Prospect – Qualify stages.  Last week at a research organisation client I heard that a Government donor had met a scientist out in the field and had decided there, on the spot in Africa that, yes, they liked his research and would fund his project. That donor does not appear to have been qualified and cultivated. At a university recently the Development team told me how their major donor fundraiser had headed off from a cultivation meeting directly to a new prospect whose name and number had been mentioned at the meeting. Again, no qualification by the research team.  And I heard about someone who was well-known to one part of the University but who was new for Development – she was ready give without being cultivated.

You will argue, technically, that yes, of course she had been cultivated. Just that the cultivation took place outside the Development department. In fact these examples can all be made to fit the classic Prospect Value Chain approach. It’s just that they don’t fit very well. It is time for a rethink.

If it works, don’t fix it?

The Prospect Value Chain has worked well for a number of reasons. It’s a process with milestones, and that’s attractive to managers. Being able to state definitely that Jane is an Unqualified Prospect while Abdul is “In Cultivation” means that we can count the Janes and Abduls.  Each has a flag or position in the Prospect Value Chain.

But unless Abdul is a first time donor, or you are running a very simple fundraising campaign, he’s likely to be in many positions on the Prospect Value Chain at once; he might be a donor to an Annual programme (and thus in Stewardship), a Prospect for a Scholarship appeal, In Cultivation for a Capital campaign, on the board of a foundation that is a Qualified Prospect for your science appeal…

Where you have multiple fundraising products, or when you are beyond your very first major appeal, you are likely to face this tricky multiple-positions issue. This is a linear model in a network world.

It helps that the Prospect Value Chain puts labels on relationships. Many of our Customer Relationship Management programmes use these labels. The label ‘In Cultivation’ means, in practice something like:

“Well, Marty met her a couple of weeks ago and had, you know, one of those conversations. She told him all about her son’s application to the Uni and, although Marty told her he couldn’t help she seems to think he can. She tried the same thing at the dinner with the Vice Chancellor last week and, frankly we’re getting a bit tired of her…”

Categorising this prospect as ‘In Cultivation’ is a useful shorthand, but are we losing granularity?

Dimensions, the new Universe

And then there is the problem of squeezing prospects into one dimension. Here is the issue: we know that over the period of a cultivation various changes take place. A donor who barely knows us becomes a friend, or at least a professional acquaintance. She meets, makes contact with, other people in our organisation. This is the Connection Dimension. At the start of the process she had some perhaps only partly formed ideas about helping people from the poor neighbourhood where she grew up. By the end of cultivation she has a precise idea of exactly what she wants to do and how she is going to measure its impact in her birth community. Her motivations have shifted, or evolved or clarified. This is the Motivation Dimension. Back at the start she had a series of concerns about the college’s management and its finances, and was in fact talking to two other nonprofits. This is the Objection Dimension. And there are dimensions for Trust, for feeling part of a process (the ‘Participation Dimension‘), for cash and gift values…

Now try to fit that model to the classic, linear, one-dimensional Prospect Value Chain. Or boil all of that down to the one word “Propensity” [to give].

Just to complicate life a bit further, each nonprofit will have its own specific Dimensions: if yours is a faith-based nonprofit you might have a religious Dimension, for example. If you campaign you’ll have a political one.

People move across these Dimensions all at once.

A map would show the collected multi-dimension as a brane, with Dimensions curving across space and time, and touching at many points. These touch points are where a prospect’s Dimensions influence each other: last week one of your prospects met your leading research scientist. As a direct result she is much more motivated to support you, and feels a stronger connection; she and the scientist got on well. Her Connection Dimension touched her Motivation Dimension and both grew. Another prospect, who had quite a few concerns about your organisation, went to a meeting and learned that one of her barrier issues was resolved – in other words the Participation Dimension touched the Objection Dimension and both have shifted; she’s participating more and objecting less.

I get the cosmic idea, Chris. But how we could use this stuff in real life, back here on earth?

OK, let’s start with scores. Many organisations use scores to help them sift out the best prospects from a large pool. For example, we use a simple 1-3 scoring scheme for motivation. Jane, who is very keen on our cause, gets 3, while Pete, who couldn’t care less, gets 1. We score in the moment, and we don’t keep historic scores.

If we had kept a history of Jane’s scores we would have noticed that her interest in us tails off when the gap between meetings with her gets longer than six months. Her connection to us weakens and her motivation falls. With another more demanding donor we see the same effect after only four weeks of no contact. Back with Jane, we have identified that there is a problem with trust – she’s not making the big donation and a mutual friend has mentioned that it’s because she does not fully trust us to deliver. Looking back at her history of scores we can see that her trust score blipped positively when she took part in a planning group for the new laboratories. Participation built trust. So we plan a series of participations and consultations for her to restore trust.

You are thinking (I can see the thought bubble) “…this is just common sense. It’s what we do with prospects and donors every day!”

And that’s my point. Yes, this is what you do every day. But it is not what your CRM database is showing you. That is still showing this stuff as though it were one-dimensional. And if you use a scoring scheme like the one I have described, your wonderful CRM system is probably only recording the score here, today. It is not retaining all that valuable historic score data. So what you do, and what your database shows, are two different things.

Time to redesign the database, anyone?

Drawing Pictures

And what about the power of images – the images of Dimensions? Factary has recently learned the power of images in prospect research. Last year we moved from describing the people known to a prospect (her relationships) in words, to mapping these relationships as a diagram. Showing them as a visual, colourful map has totally changed the way we analyse and ‘read’ relationship’s information, helping clients to see the strategic potential in relationships. (See Factary Atom for more.)

Could we do the same with these many prospect Dimensions? Imagine a 3D map, over time, of one prospect’s Dimensions, showing Motivation soaring up when Trust grows, and showing, graphically the tragic impact on Objections when Participation drops. The map would highlight future dangers so that we could prevent them in time. Each prospect and donor would have their own map, and its shape would likely be characteristic of that donor (the sort of stuff we know now as ‘… she likes to be invited to events but doesn’t want to sit on a committee…’) Repeat the shape in the next cultivation, and you’ll get the same level of success.

Real life is messy

Dimensions, allowing us to record over time the many factors that lead to a person’s decision to donate, would allow us to craft a truly memorable customer experiences for our donors. And they would bring our systems in line with what is actually happening in messy, complicated real life.

Don’t get me wrong. The Prospect Value Chain has many, many advantages and I use it all the time. But it will not be around forever – maybe now is time for new thinking.