For Impact


The Art of Prioritizing (Prospects)

Funding | | Nick Fellers

“When it comes to fundraising, tell me how I should be spending my time.” 

  • “I’m worried that we’re missing prospects and opportunities.”
  • “I don’t know how to prioritize the mix of priority projects and funding opportunities. Where should I be focusing?”
  • “I’m too busy. Can someone else in my organization set these priorities?”

These are particular types of concerns and questions I hear from nonprofit leaders. They all relate to the art of prioritizing.

Prioritizing is (1) a decision making process (2) wherein you are choosing where to spend your time and (3) it is a necessary and repeated act.

That definition is so simple that people gloss over it.
Instead we need to be grading ourselves against it.

There are typically three simple reasons teams stumble with prioritizing:

  1. They don’t take time to prioritize.
  2. They don’t know how to make decisions (because they’re not clear on strategy).
  3. They are not clear on who should be making the decisions.

Reason #1: Teams don’t take time to prioritize.

The first solution is as profound as it is simple: block out time on your calendar to prioritize.

“Although most of us have no trouble ranking the importance of decisions if asked to do so, our brains don’t automatically do this.” – Daniel J Levitin. The Organized Mind.

Show me a high performing sales person, or a high performing executive, and I will make my point by showing you their calendar. They no doubt have time, or a routine, blocked out on a daily or weekly basis to help them prioritize their activity.

Reason #2: Teams don’t know how to make prioritizing decisions.

This is especially apparent when a team has not committed to a strategy. If you haven’t picked a strategy, then you will not be able to make decisions (to advance any one strategy). In the context of large gift/grant fundraising, here are three really simple strategies for you to choose from:

  • Top-Down. Prioritize actions around your very best prospect first, and then work your way down the list. This is great for a campaign effort.
  • Routine. Prioritize your actions around ensuring that you have a calendar filled with visits and asks. Focusing on a routine-based strategy is more appropriate for organizations, or portfolios trying to develop new leads and new relationships.
  • Top-Down + Routine. This is a mix of the first two strategies. Perhaps you set priorities around your very best prospects and then backfill your calendar with other prospects.

Reason #3 – Teams are not clear on who should be making the decisions (or they’re trying to prioritize by consensus). 

This is why we bring in the roles of sales leader and relationship manager. It is the role of the relationship manager to make decisions that advance their portfolio (i.e. to prioritize prospects and actions). And, it’s the role of the sales leader to help with this decision making process through a mix of coaching, accountability, and executive leadership – which is to say that the sales leader can clarify the priorities as needed.

This has a big implication: If you are a CEO and you are the relationship manager, you cannot delegate decision making about your prospects. You could, however, empower someone else on your team to be the relationship manager.

Footnote: Planning and prioritizing are closely related concepts but they are not the same. Planning is figuring out what to do, or preparing for something. Not all planning involves prioritizing but all prioritizing follows (or produces) a basic level of planning.