Gift Capacity, the debate continues

We’ve been having the regular debate on gift capacity. We are researching Mrs Philanthropist, and we ask ourselves, again, how much might she donate to The Good Charity?

Cecilia Hogan, in her excellent Prospect Research: A Primer for Growing Nonprofits (Jones and Bartlett, Mass, 2004) defines capacity as:

The financial measure of a prospect’s ability to give a major gift

and then reviews measures of wealth and interest.

Many prospect researchers use formulae to calculate gift capacity. The prospect research team at Southern Illinois University Foundation gathered a collection of these formulae in 2006. And there is a log-in site – AskAnalyzer – which uses a

sophisticated algorithm that estimates the total giving capacity of your donors and prospects over five years and provides an ask range for your organization specifically.

These formulae, as David Lamb points out on his blog

are passed from researcher to researcher like alchemical lore.

Elizabeth Crabtree and Joyce Newton gave a brilliant and thorough presentation on this topic in the September 2007 APRA conference – pointing out that there is a lot we simply cannot know about an individual (her tax filings, her debts and liabilities etc) and arguing for clearer terminology, and the use of estimates based on a range. They distinguished between gift capacity rating systems that are derived from combining known assets to estimate total wealth, and those that are derived from applying formulae to a specific wealth indicator (such as the value of a person’s home.) They sensibly suggest that researchers test formulae against recent major gifts to their own organisation, to find the most appropriate formulae for that specific organisation. They argue for measuring gift capacity, then discounting for affinity and inclination.

Jen Filla at Aspire Group, a prospect research company in the USA, wrote a useful paper on the topic of capacity formulas in 2009. She defined a ‘capacity rating’ as

a major gift dollar range for a gift over 5 years if only one gift was made.

She cautions that this is strictly based on wealth indicators and not affinity or inclination and that it does not consider unknown liabilities. Jen reminds us that a capacity rating is NOT a solicitation amount.

In the same year, 2009, I made a presentation to the Researchers in Fundraising meeting on this topic at the Natural History Museum, London. I argued that we needed two measures, a ‘Gift Rating’ measure estimated rapidly using formulae, near the start of the prospect research process, and a ‘Gift Capacity’ measure, estimated by reviewing all the data on a prospect, toward the end of the research process. The Gift Rating measure acts as a filter – if the initial, rapid, assessment indicates that the prospect has wealth then she passes on through the filter to further research.

Like Jen, I argued for Gift Capacity to be based on wealth indicators and NOT on affinity or inclination. In other words, Gift Capacity measures how much Mrs Philanthropist could give to her absolutely favourite cause, in absolutely perfect conditions. Gift Capacity, if you’ll excuse the tautology, is the person’s absolute capacity. Defined like this, Gift Capacity allows researchers to compare like with like, and to prioritise prospects. After we have an idea of absolute capacity we can discount from that amount by reviewing their motivations, connection and readiness, and on that basis come to a solicitation amount (the amount we will ask the person to donate.)

Reviewing my presentation I would now make one change. I had defined Gift Capacity as ‘The largest total gift that one person can give to any one cause, in ideal conditions, in one year.’ In hindsight, I prefer Jen’s measure over 5 years.

So, my definitions would be:

  • Gift Rating: a standardised formulae-based initial assessment of a prospect’s potential giving range
  • Gift Capacity: The largest total gift that one person could give to any one cause, in ideal conditions, over five years.

No, this is not the definitive text on this subject and yes, please, I’d like to debate this with you. Email me at, and let the discussion continue.