I read a recent blog post entitled “Why Capacity Ratings are Bunk and What You Can Do About It,” (check it out here) which suggested to me that some folks in the Development world are thinking about capacity ratings wrong.
I’d like to start with an analogy. (I love analogies.) Imagine if someone purchased a small sedan, drove it for a while, and then had the following complaints:
– “It will not seat 366 people comfortably!”
– “The car tops out at 80 miles per hour. Why can’t it go 567 miles per hour?”
– “It does not fly. What is the point?”
– “This vehicle is visible. It should be entirely transparent.”
– “Sure, it travels through space, but it should also travel through time, forward AND backward.”
The purchaser of this car, of course, is a lunatic.
I would venture a guess that many (most?) Prospect Researchers have a story or two about how some of the fundraisers and senior leaders they work with are lunatics too.
To be fair, really none of us would suggest we know reasonable people who would complain like the purchaser in my example. These are fantastical complaints.
However, a person could strip away the last two requests (invisibility and time travel), and what we’re left with is actually REALLY reasonable: the person wants something that seats 366 people, goes 567 miles per hour, and FLIES.
This description fits a 747 pretty well.
And this, I think, is where we have a problem with capacity ratings. They really are just a small sedan, but if you’ve got someone thinking they will behave like a 747, that person will be disappointed.
In “Why Capacity Ratings are Bunk…” very early the author says the “capacity rating is … adjusted to calculate ‘the ask amount.’” Right off the bat he’s talking about a jet airplane, not a small car.
For all the reasons the author lists later in the article – we usually don’t know much of anything about a prospect’s “hidden” wealth, about their debts and liabilities, about their health issues, etc. – it would never be advisable for a researcher to use a rating to calculate “the ask amount.” The information a researcher is able to find can help create some estimates of philanthropic capacity, but certainly not an ask amount. I’d liken this difference to that between a small sedan and a jet plane.
So first, let’s get clear about that: Researchers will never be able to gather – on their own – the information necessary to come up with an ask amount. The Researcher can gather information that helps inform the ask amount, but to come up with a good solicitation number requires information that only a Development Officer or Volunteer can provide.
In other words, Researchers have access to a small sedan, not a 747.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need to do a better job of communicating about capacity ratings. If gift officers and senior leadership parade around thinking they can hop into a large passenger jet, and no one makes clear the fact that all we have is a sporty little four-seater, then it’s a very high likelihood that there will be some disappointment. Research staff are responsible for being clear with everyone about what their work does, and does not, mean.
Ultimately, I’d say that capacity ratings are no more “bunk” than a small sedan is a terrible transportation option. They each have their purpose and can be tremendously helpful tools. It is incumbent on the Researcher to be fully aware how they can legitimately use capacity ratings, and to effectively communicate that legitimate use to fundraisers.
In closing, I’ll mention that the capacity rating definition I prefer to use is something like this: the capacity rating represents a rough estimate of the best possible gift we could get from the prospect, assuming our organization is their top philanthropic priority and that they do not have any other negative factors limiting their ability to give. The rating takes into consideration only the information available to the Researcher.
This definition provides a reasonable explanation of what the rating really is and how we can think about it. On many occasions I have trotted it out to fundraisers to remind them of how they can use the ratings, and in doing so, I’ve made things a lot easier for everybody.