Generic filters
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in excerpt

James V. Toscano

About James

Constituency: They May be Sitting Right in Front of You

As part of a group organizing a development office for The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra years ago, I ran a number of mailing lists by the committee. Certainly all agreed that season ticket holders were clearly a prime constituency.  When we got to the single ticket buyer list, derisive comments emanated from staff about a “dog list.”

“If they can’t even afford season tickets, they’re nowhere near giving us money” went up the dismissive cry.

“Wait a minute.” chimed in the volunteer fundraising consultant, “Who’s to say that not buying a season ticket disqualifies them? Maybe they’re very busy people, or highly sophisticated about the music they want to hear, or just don’t like most of your subscription concerts!”

After the artistic temperaments settled down, I offered to do a pilot campaign through direct mail and telefunding.  The results were so spectacular that we expanded the effort to the entire list, netting a 25 percent return and about eighty thousand “dog” dollars, as I called them. These donors were sitting right in front of them all the time!

The Lesson

The lesson is obvious. Don’t let your perceptions and stereotypes get in the way of developing your organization’s constituency. Get to know your constituency and do it strategically and systematically.

Donation dollars follow values; donors share explicit and implicit values with the nonprofit organizations they support. Donor values, interests, relationships and involvement are paramount. Now, how do we find these donors?

The lesson learned in the anecdote above is that many are already in our “seats.”  Institutional memory being what it is, we often forget founders, former board members, former foundation, government and organization funders, former individual donors, former participants or clients, and former volunteers. That’s one place to start.

Dumping Former Donors

For example, I’m constantly amazed at how rapidly we dump names of donors who don’t give for a few years without even asking them why they’re not giving.

When you think that the average person initially makes a donation after about seven to eight requests, it seems plainly inefficient to let them slide away after two or three consecutive years of non-giving. Perhaps they’ve been away, or have kids in college, or have been ill, or moved, or a thousand other things that led to a non-response.

Or, and this is the case with many, we are just not familiar enough with them to have our request at the top of their consciousness.  With institutional donors, it may be an implicit rotation, or change in guidelines or interests, which do sometimes bounce back.

While we would like to think that we are the most important thing in people’s lives, for example, we are not, and sometimes we are marginal to the point that they forget to send money, not because they don’t want to but because other events in busy lives have precluded us.

Volunteers as Donors

Another example is that we often separate out volunteers, citing the cliché about their giving “time not money.”  However, study after study, census after  census demonstrate that households in which there is not significant volunteering contribute almost half as much as those with volunteers. Our volunteers are our  prospects and donors!

Clearly volunteering is a function of education and/or income; in this instance, however, the volunteer is on our scene and he or she knows us, shares our values, and is a wonderful prospect for a donation or an increase in an existing donation.

The Importance of Research

One of the most useful exercises with boards, development committees, volunteer solicitors and staff is to do as detailed a constituency circle (or pyramid) as possible, not just once, but continuously, posting the chart in a prominent place at all development committee and rating committee meetings.

Asking the committed to identify a development prospect is a double win: a new name and a potential peer solicitor of the prospect.

Hank Rosso separated the major headings in this exercise into “ Suspect, Prospect, and Donor.”  However it is done, either in concentric circles or ascending levels in a pyramid denoting involvement and commitment, the task is the same: to fill in specific names and/or characteristics of persons, foundations, corporations, organizations and government agencies.

Research is the centerpiece of this work to identify constituency, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. All of those names elicited in the exercise above then become the subjects of further research.

The Best Source of Information on a Prospect

Obviously, the best source for information on an individual is the person himself or herself.

Published reports from or about other suspects and prospects are readily available and constitute a front line in the continuous quest for the support that is potentially there for us. Government publishes and posts more information than any other source; foundations and corporations are spottier, although more and more are turning out good information and guidelines in print and on the web.

Many research services are also purchasable, ranging from the Foundation Center, to newsletters, to individual prospect research firms.

Secondary sources are also most useful, from libraries, internet, proxy statements, newspaper morgues, court records sources, to asking involved people who they think might be likely prospects.

I have been known to check available probate court records and divorce settlements to find out “Who Got What?”  Certainly we need to elevate the methodology in our research as high as we can, although all systematic work to get at data is important.

 One of the better sources of suspect and prospect information is the annual reports of our “competitors,” those engaged in various aspects of promoting the same values we uphold.

Although we often see ourselves as unique, if not God’s gift to the nonprofit world, donors often lump us in categories. We are saved, however, by another fact — that many donors give to a number of like-minded charities, often averaging about seven or eight.

Research done by us or through others is a keystone in all of development work.

Periodic surveys asking donors and friends to give feedback to us are vital, as are focus groups probing the qualitative aspects of our appeals to various groups of potential donors. Continuous dialogue with our constituency provides the feedback that keeps our development program vital.

The Role of Opinion Leaders

Not all prospects are equal in financial potential; some prospects fill another role in society: opinion leader. It is the opinion leaders, those who through position, personality, communication skills or other leadership qualities sway the opinions of many others, who should be given priority in our cultivation and solicitation efforts.

The opinion leader not only gives, but also “gets.” It is the opinion leader who emerges as the committee chair, the solicitor, the board member, the major donor.  And it is always that very special opinion leader, that courageous opinion leader, to whom we look for the lead gift in our capital campaigns.

Opinion leaders still need to be motivated, to be cultivated. When they “get it,” however, they really get it and move mountains to help us. I once staffed a Development Committee that was totally comprised of high-level opinion leaders; they also were presidents of  the major banks in town, corporate presidents, heads of investment houses, and law partners, but they were all opinion leaders as well.  It was a thrill to behold to see them whip through prospect lists, vying for who would get to call on the best of the lot!

This type of grouping is out of reach of most of us, yet that is why I call them opinion leaders rather than civic leaders or corporate leaders or the usual. In every social stratum, in every group, there are always opinion leaders, and that is still where you must start to optimize the development program.

Prime Times

All donors are not equal in yet another dimension.  In all of our donors’ life cycles, there are prime times when they are capable of making a significantly larger gift. Promotions and other business successes are cases in point, as are marriages, anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, and births of children and grandchildren. Certainly anticipation of death, and death itself, have always been a major focus of development efforts.

In all of these life cycle events, there is occasion to celebrate and to mourn. Psychologists tell us that gift giving on these occasions heightens the experience of the event, makes it better. And memorialization of a loved one often assists in the grieving process, giving continuity to the values and aspirations of the deceased and comfort to those feeling the loss.

To think about our special organizational constituency in all of these contexts is to take the first active step in the building of an enhanced development program. Clearly the responsibility of the development function, in consultation with boards, development committees and the like, must be about research and it must be about people.

The ultimate aim with any constituency is to know, to understand, to evaluate, and, ultimately, to predict directions in which it wishes to go in supporting us, and to take leadership in educating that constituency so that we arrive at win-wins, with the donor satisfied and the non-profit successful.


This article was contributed by James Toscano and Dania Toscano Miwa, of Toscano Advisors, LLC,


Copyright © 1992-2020 CharityChannel LLC.


Leave a Comment