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A MAJOR Shift? Social Media’s Influence on Prospect Management

Allow me to spare you my rhetoric on how, despite ideas to the contrary, there IS a plethora of wealth living in online communities. If you still have a tent in the camp that thinks otherwise, I direct you to Justin Ware’s post that will blow holes in your outdated theory.

This post proceeds with the assumption that MOST of the prospects in a given portfolio are somewhere on social media. That being said, social media strategy at the top of the donor pyramid is still ambiguous at best. However, as I hope I can demonstrate below, there’s reason to believe we’re beginning to turn the corner.

When I entered higher ed more than four years ago, it was clear that the idea of using Facebook or Twitter to engage high capacity donors was laughable. To be honest, just the idea of having a social media team in advancement was a punch line for happy hour humor.

Now it’s 2015, and while some institutions are still struggling to implement a social media engagement strategy for their advancement operation, other schools are upping the ante by utilizing social media to hook their big fish.

Bad Data and Blocked Calls: Social for First Contact

Before I wax poetic about technology’s role in aiding fundraisers, we must first recognize how it has made our lives miserable. Caller ID isn’t new, but it’s still a convenient way to ignore calls from people you’d rather not talk to. Couple that with the ever-challenging task of getting through an administrative assistant to speak to their boss, and you have a world where the phone is becoming increasingly unreliable.

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We used to write lovely letters to prospects. While some say that doing so today is a rare delight for the recipient, it’s also not likely to reach its intended target. And while writing letters to someone we already have a relationship with can be seen as touching, when it comes to breaking the ice, it’s easy to imagine we end up in the same pile as a “once-in-a-lifetime credit card offer.”

I spoke with an Ivy League major gift officer, who asked to remain anonymous. (We’ll call them “Ivy MGO”… what a reputation I’m making for myself.) According to Ivy MGO, even the most dedicated of analog communicators are beginning to shift their strategy: “Even gift officers who have been at this a long time are decreasing the amount of letters they write. It’s takes a lot of time, and it frequently just ends up in a pile of unopened mail on someone’s desk.”

Email, while statistically the leading communication for call-to-action conversion, is also becoming a lonely place for gift officers attempting to make first contact. Many people are overwhelmed with email and find it easy to ignore or delete, plus email filtering means there’s always a chance our messages end up next to pharmaceutical promotions in the email graveyard known as the spam folder. Combine all of this with data gaps, and Ivy MGO says social is becoming one of the more viable options for outreach.

“Oftentimes we don’t know the right contact information for a new prospect, or we’re being ignored when using the traditional communication channels. So we’re kind of forced to use social media because at least you know it’s typically a direct line.”

That’s probably one of the most underestimated points when it comes to social media and high capacity prospects. Unless these people are huge celebrities or political figures, they’re probably managing their own social accounts. That provides an opportunity the other channels don’t offer: the lack of an intermediary. A response isn’t guaranteed, but at least it offers a better chance of hitting the intended target.

To Drop or Not to Drop, That Is the Question

Gift officers have the challenging task of deciding when a prospect is a lost cause. Some prospects take the guesswork away right off the bat and make it clear they’ll never give. According to Ivy MGO, the “never, ever” responses vary:

“Some people respond and make it very clear they have no interest in giving you money. Some think your school is already rich enough and they are already directing their philanthropy to other nonprofits and/or local organizations. Some don’t have a reason; they’re just not philanthropic.”

For the prospects that seem generally anti-philanthropy, the communication channel probably doesn’t matter. However, social could offer hope for those that say they direct their money elsewhere. If those prospects are in any of your social communities, the MGO could work with the community manager to implement a strategy that shows how local nonprofits are benefiting from research being conducted at their alma mater. The gift officer could then follow up with a message to the prospect, gently suggesting they take a look at the content being posted.

Although it’s not a surefire way to convert them, you can slowly chip away at their misconceptions by telling the university story from a point of view that will resonate with them. At the very least, it’s worth trying before banishing them to the abyss of dropped prospects.

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For those who don’t respond to traditional channels at all, a gift officer might be tempted to drop them under the assumption that no communication equals no desire to engage with their alma mater. Ivy MGO says this is a dangerous assumption—the reality could be they just prefer a different communication channel.

“How much a gift officer uses social media usually comes down to their own comfort level, but I do think there are prospects being dropped that could have been engaged through social media.”

Case in point: I worked with an MGO here at Cornell on a prospect who had not replied to phone, emails, or letters for two years. In the nearly 30 years since graduation, this major gift prospect had made only two gifts totaling just over $1,000. When I reached out to the prospect over Twitter, the response was instantaneous. Over the past two years, the prospect has spoken at three events and pledged $75,000.

Like you’ll see with any TV weight loss plan, individual results will vary—but this is a real-life example that I think can be repeated. The main point here is we can’t throw prospects to the curb before we’ve done due diligence on social media. Over the past few years, social has risen above phone and email in terms of time spent on the platforms. We have to begin seeing social media not as a time-killing hobby, but as a preferred method of communication.

The More You Know: Social Media for Prospect Intelligence

Breaking the ice with a new prospect is always a challenge, but with social media, you have an opportunity to learn more about prospects before those necessary face-to-face meetings.

Erin White, Director of Major Gifts and Planned Giving at the Santa Catalina School (K-12) in Monterey, California, says she doesn’t lean on social as much for first contact, but has seen the benefits of using it to communicate prior to the first meeting.

We rarely (never) use social media or texting to initiate a conversation with a donor that is not as well known to us. Increasingly, I’ve asked to connect with potential donors via LinkedIn prior to a first visit. This seems to be fine with them, and it’s a way for me to express interest in who they are and share a little bit about me before we meet.”

Because travel is becoming more expensive and advancement budgets are constantly under scrutiny, getting the most out of an in-person visit is more crucial than ever. You also have to bet that high capacity individuals don’t have a ton of free time to break away for coffee with a fundraiser. Considering these challenges, starting a relationship on social offers both parties an opportunity to learn more about each other and allows the sit-down to be more efficient.

Social media certainly has the potential to play a big role in kicking off a relationship with a new prospect. However, to think its role ends there would be failing to take advantage of what social media is designed for: cultivation.

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Social Media for Prospect Management and Cultivation

When you’re trying to build and maintain a relationship with a prospect, social media can provide a unique window into their lives that you can’t see by looking at the alumni database or real estate holdings. For Erin’s team at the Santa Catalina School, connecting with prospects on social media is just part of the job.

If we’re personal friends with donors on Facebook or are connected via LinkedIn, it keeps us linked to them in a personal way and vice versa on a regular (and somewhat passive) basis. So, for instance, I know when one of our donors has just gone on vacation, had a baby, or gotten a promotion.”

Ivy MGO has seen a similar approach in their office, with many fundraisers using social platforms to stay in touch with prospects.

“There are certainly some officers who don’t want to mix personal and professional, but more than you would think, officers are using Facebook and LinkedIn to better understand the people in their portfolio. In some instances, they’re connecting with them directly. Other times they’re just observing.”

Fundraisers are always looking for an inside edge to connect with their prospects. At the institutional level, we’re locked in a constant struggle for up-to-date information about our donors. Social media assists with capturing both. In an age where donors increasingly want a more intimate giving experience, gift officers have to meet that demand. Social media can help an MGO develop a relationship that’s more personal and meaningful, versus the transactional feel of fundraiser to alumnus/a.

As Erin explains, social media has been a helpful means of maintaining relationships with prospects between visits and solicitations.

“As a major gifts person, I tend to put a lot of stock in face-to-face contacts. However, now that I think about it, many of those face-to-face contacts lead to personal links on social media (e.g., many times an alum will friend me after a visit), and that connection can keep the relationship ‘running’ in between face-to-face visits.”

We know we can’t be everywhere at once, but now there’s a way to offer smaller touches at a rapid rate. This is especially important considering the competitiveness that now exists within the nonprofit space. Donors in 2015 want to feel valued, and they want to be in close contact with the places they’re sending their money. You can’t meet for coffee once a week, but you can “like” a post on Facebook, voice support for a business venture on LinkedIn, or retweet them on Twitter. Managing a portfolio of prospects is a tough task, but social media can make the job more efficient for the MGO and more meaningful for the donor.

We’re Just Approaching the Starting Line

I want to clear: I’m not insinuating that NOT relying on social for your major gifts program is a recipe for disaster. If you’ve read my whitepaper (shameless plug), you’ll see I’m fully aware that the status quo of major gift fundraising is working.

Social media should not be the sole tool on the gift officer’s superhero belt—but it should be ONE of them. The ability to use social to gather intelligence about the people in your portfolio and cut to the chase with an effective engagement strategy can create better relationships with big donors, while also helping you make informed decisions about who should stay in the fold or be punted to the annual fund. (No offense, annual fund.)

The line separating the personal and professional relationships between gift officer and prospect has always been blurry. I haven’t done it, but I imagine you have to really get to know someone before you ask them for a million dollar gift. Likewise, the donor probably has to feel good about the person they’re handing the check to.

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Social media is just the most recent way to blur the line, albeit at a more intense level. In the ever-challenging world of fundraising, we need to explore all avenues. In fact, it sounds like more MGOs are jumping on the social bandwagon every day, as evident by this insight from Ivy MGO:

“You would be very surprised to know how many gift officers are using social media here. I’d say it’s about 50/50.”

I am surprised. But I’m also excited to see how social will continue to improve our work, while also enhancing the donor experience.

Want more strategies for using social media to prospect? Download our whitepaper:

Donor Identification in the 21st Century

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  • brentgrinna

    Well said, Keith. Prospect researchers and major gift officers used to have to do all kinds of manual digging to glean donor interests, affinity and capacity. Now prospects are sharing that info freely, but we’re only starting to integrate that data into fundraising workflows. Exciting stuff!