There is a discussion going on about how to label the person who gives money to an organization. Is the individual a donor or a prospect? In most health care and educational institutions, the fundraising folks use the word “prospect” when speaking about donors. In many other organizations they use the word “donor.” Jeff and I prefer the word donor. I’d like to explain our reasoning here.
You might think that worrying about what label to use is a waste of time. I don’t think so, and here’s why. The way you think about someone affects the way you treat him or her. And, as you will see, labeling a good donor a prospect can have, in my opinion, some negative relational effects.
In the donor environment, a prospect, by most definitions of the word, is “a person likely to succeed as a potential donor to help another person or organization.” So, breaking that down, it looks like this:

  • A person – this is good. At least we have a human being.
  • Likely to succeed – This is about an expectation that this person may give – there is a strong possibility.
  • Potential donor – Again the possibility word “potential” is in here. Something good “may” happen.
  • To help another person or organization – This is the right “destination.”

Contrast this to the definition of a donor: “a person who gives something to help a person or organization.” So, this looks like:

  • A person
  • Who gives something – This person is actively engaged. There is no hoping he or she will give. There is a clear understanding that this is an active, engaged partner.
  • To help a person or organization.

You may look at these two words and their definitions and say, “Aw, come on, Richard! You’re splitting hairs here! A prospect. A donor. There really isn’t any difference between the two. After all, in every donor relationship you have to think about the prospect of securing that next gift. So what’s wrong with using the word prospect to define the person?”
Here’s what’s wrong. If you think of the donor as a “prospect” or the “next gift as a possibility,” then you are focusing the relationship with the donor on a financial transaction. And what’s wrong with that, you might ask?
Jeff and I have continued to say that major gifts work is not about the money. It’s about helping donors to fulfill their interests and passions for a hurting world through your organization. So the relationship is way more than getting the next gift. It is about providing information, building relationship, dealing with questions and concerns, offering insights into how the donor’s interests and passions can be fulfilled in an even greater way – it is even about walking with the donors on whatever personal journey they choose to include you.
All of these activities are not embodied in the word “prospect.” The only thing that word or label conjures up is transaction, money, or the prospect of getting the money. This is not good, and it’s why we do not like the label.
When you are viewing your good donors as partners instead of sources of cash, you cannot help but call them donors and partners, not prospects.