How to Get Your Board Members To Help Identify Major Gift Prospects

Have you tried asking for board members for prospect names lately?

Bet I can tell you what happened!

They dodged the subject. They avoided the discussion. They fled the room!

Looking for Daddy Warbucks!

Here’s why:

Identifying prospects can be difficult for many board members. That’s because they are often uncomfortable sharing the names of people they know.

They are afraid they will be asked to “hit up” their friends.

I don’t blame them. Who wants to offer up their friends for a solicitation?

Start them at the highest level.

The approach I”m offering here is all about strategy at the highest level.

This is a “game” you play with your board members.

(What, a game? What???)

If you know anything about my approach, you know that I try to lighten things up when it comes to fundraising. (“When in doubt, throw a party!”)

I try to lower the pressure and make the fundraising discussion more casual. I lower the stakes.

If you can make it fun and interesting  - then everyone will be more productive.

“Who are 10 people who can catapult your organization’s financial future?”

Let’s get your board members thinking about very very high level prospects.

Major prospects.

People who can make a huge – not small – difference.

I don’t want them to focus on $100 or even $1000 prospects.

Typically older donors are the ones who make the big gifts.

I want them to think much bigger.

Let’s focus on identifying the few wonderful donors (foundations, corporations, individuals, organizations) who could absolutely catapult your organization to a whole new level. (wonderful thought, isn’t it?)

This is the level that can make a huge impact on your community or your cause.

VIP’s are Very Important Prospects.

They are the civic, political, philanthropic, religious, corporate or social leaders in your community. These major donors and key leaders should of course be your top priority.

Not only do they give, but they are also important opinion leaders who can influence many other people.

Think broadly.

But DO think big!

Here’s how to play the VIP Prospect Game with your board members.

I do this at every Easy Fundraising for Board Members retreat that I present. And the board members – and staff – love it.

Here’s how to play the VIP Prospect Game.

Tell the board members:

Studies show that women are more charitable than men!

1. Take out a small scrap of paper.

2. You do not have to turn this in!

3. See if you can identify 10 people (or sources of revenue) who could actually catapult your organization’s future.

4.  The people you name could be current or former donors.  Or they could be prospective donors.

5.  They have to be people who your organization could reasonably approach. Not somebody pie in the sky.

Then I sit down quietly and let them work.

It’s fun to see the thoughtful looks on faces around the room.

Give them plenty of time here.

Then I say,

6. Now please turn to the person next to you and discuss one of the names on your lists.

(Here we are starting them on the next step – actually discussing cultivation strategies.)

Processing the Exercise

One of my goals is to get them used to this kind of high-level thinking. So I need them to reflect on the process itself.

Give them a few minute to discuss, and then say:

“What was your experience list doing this exercise?

They make lots of interesting comments.

Someone may say: “It was good to focus at such a high level.”

Or someone might say “I don’t know anybody who can make this list.” Or you’ll get anything in between.

Lower the pressure and you’ll get more done.

The hook in this exercise is that they don’t have to turn their list in.  (You may not like it but we need to start here.)

It makes everything different. They are free to think broadly and not be self conscious.

They’ll be much more creative by themselves or in tiny groups than they will in a full board or committee meeting where they are going to measure their words.

Think in terms of “catapulting” your organization.

AND because they are thinking in terms of “Catapult,” they are working with a more exciting potential vision than just another $100 donor.

Here’s what will happen after this exercise:

They’ll come to the staff afterward and ask “what about Mr. Jones? Do we know him? Has he ever given? I think I might be able to get the door open to him.”

Just wait and see.

I love the concept of “catapult.”

As one board member in a retreat told me,

“It puts everything on a completely different level. It’s challenging. And it’s where we SHOULD be focusing.”

This gets them out of “managing” and into “strategic thinking” – particularly thinking about strategic alliances that could change everything.

Don’t waste time thinking small.

A VIP Prospect Task Force

You don’t have to leave all this good thinking to waste.

Now you have them warmed up and focused in the right direction. You have their attention. You have their interest.

See if you can take it a step further:

Ask for volunteers to form a VIP Prospect Task Force.

The VIP Task Force will meet twice with the staff and create your organization’s VIP Prospect List.

Every time I do this, I have at least half of the board members willing – and wanting – to talk more about this topic.

You’ll even find board members who used to be reluctant –  now they are willing to work on the Task Force!

And you have taken a major step forward getting your board started in fundraising at the highest level.

Bottom line:

Here’s what this game does for your board members:

It introduces them to a new way of thinking called “Prospect Identification.”


It introduces them to the whole idea of cultivation strategy – how to get the door open at the highest possible level.

This is a great way to introduce key Major Gifts concepts to board members, AND get their immediate buy-in and participation.

Do you think this could work for you?

Leave me a comment and let me know!

  • Bhorwitz

    This is terrific.  I’d like your thoughts about the board member who is the most connected, offers prospects, yet for some reason is reluctant to open the door or attach his/her name.  Thanks.

  • david

    Once again, you’ve given us a great idea and made it seem so simple! I look forward to your Friday emails! Thank you.

  • Lyndi

    I’m trying it next week!

  • Kelsey

    I used your VIP exercise this Wednesday for a board of which I am a member as we are going to start a capital campaign. It was very well received and fun.

  • Anonymous

    I’d try this game with the board member to lower the pressure and see if they will just brainstorm. The board member thinks it’s all about money. If that’s true, he/she will back off. If it’s about involvement, they may be willing to open the door.

  • Anonymous

    Kelsey – so glad it worked! : )

  • Anonymous

    Thank YOU David. Let me know how it goes!

  • Sandy

    Awesome exercise Gail!!  It’s a great way to get people thinking in a low-pressure way.

    Sandy Rees

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Sandy!

  • Marsha

    This is a great idea, it creates a comfortable, interactive approach.  I am going to try it