By DonorSearch

DonorSearch’s blog is dedicated to covering prospect research, wealth screening, and other fundraising-related topics. Yet, our readers and customers often ask if there are any free prospect research resources we recommend. So, we reached out to Chris Dawson at University Hospitals of Cleveland to share his thoughts on alternative prospect research resources. For your reading ease, we’ve divided this insightful contribution into three parts:
  1. The Library — A Top Prospect Research Tool
  2. Case in Point — The Cleveland Public Library System
  3. Don’t Forget About The Foundation Center
Click on any of the links above to skip ahead to a particular section. Enjoy! 
Prospect research nowadays is getting to be more of a science than a fine art, because of all the amazing electronic resources available to researchers. Depending on the tools used, a good researcher sitting at their computer, probably in a cubical or back office somewhere, is able to pull in pretty much all the information they need to provide for their gift officers. Many of these new tools save a great amount of time, a great amount of labor, and can access a wider array of information than probably a researcher could do on their own without them. And they’re also quite expensive. Price is the name of the game in the research database world today, as research teams grapple with which product will best serve their needs. Other development shops, who may only have a single researcher or no researcher at all, may be sitting glumly on the sidelines, wondering how they’ll ever be able to get access to these tools. Certainly money can be found in the budget for periodic wealth screenings by companies like DonorSearch (and those are great tools for finding out a lot about the donors in your database), and maybe a single subscription to a research product could be justified, but is it enough in today’s highly competitive environment? However, I’m here to say do not despair. Because there are many tools that can help researchers and non-researchers alike perform some basic prospect research, and these tools are in many cases, completely free. Wait, that sounds too good to be true… after all, some products cost tens of thousands of dollars! And yes, they do. But there are also some research products, not specifically “prospect research products” that are actually free. And to access them, one only needs to return to the early, prehistoric days of prospect research.

That means returning to the library.

The Library — A Top Prospect Research Tool

Your local library is a hub of free prospect research tools. Yes, there was once a day, not too terribly long ago, when it was impossible to sit at your desk in your tiny cubical (well, maybe not your tiny cubical, but mine is) and access all the research tools you need. Back in those dark ages of the 1990s and earlier, you weren’t in your office, because most of your time you were in the library, doing all the digging through microfilm and microfiche, hardbound foundation directories, and later, CD-ROMs. Fortunately, library research has gotten a lot easier (and in the case of some old hardbound newspapers and magazines, far less dusty!). And for those folks in a smaller shop, or in a development shop that just doesn’t have the budget to get the fancy and expensive research tools, a return to the library can be extremely helpful. In many cases, these resources may not be able to completely replace the amazing tools on the market, but what’s available at your local library and other local resources may be enough to give you the important information that will help you learn more about your organization’s prospects. Now some free resources are readily available on your desktop… after all, a key component of research is looking for real estate records and many county websites have that information available over the internet. And you’ll find that some of your libraries also have resources available to you online, though some will require you to come in. But even if you work in a shop that has a nice big budget (these exist, right?) and can afford all sorts of fancy tools, you should still check out your local library, and nearby college libraries. Because with your library card, you can access amazing things… and you’ll find that it’s all free.

Case in Point — The Cleveland Public Library System

The public library system provides a wealth of prospect screening tools for free.

Here in Cleveland, the public library system has some wonderful tools online.

For example, a searchable database of articles from the local newspaper here, all the way back to 1845. I rarely have to search back that far (though I have gone digging back to the 1800s for some family-owned companies and old-money families here in town), but I use this resource every single day, and I’ve been using it for obituaries, wedding announcements, and for finding other biographical information. To say it’s invaluable is an understatement, especially when I’m dealing with older prospects who held their CEO jobs in the pre-internet days. Even with younger prospects, I still find information about:
  • What they may be doing for an occupation
  • Education background
  • Family history
  • Charitable giving
But there are also databases to access other newspapers across the country. And it’s free. I just need a library card. How hard is that? I’ve also found a number of business databases online that help me perform a good bit of corporate research, including some business research products that I know DO cost tens of thousands of dollars for a subscription, but are completely free online. Do I use them? Yes, all the time. I can jump into resources like: This means my research will be that much better… and the resources are free. In fact, having them available via the library has allowed me to reduce our research budget by cancelling a few subscriptions here and there for similar products. This has allowed me to use the budget we have to make sure we can subscribe to the products we can’t get elsewhere, like DonorSearch! And it’s not just Cleveland. I randomly checked out a number of libraries across the country, and was pleasantly surprised to see that most of them offered a variety of research products to allow patrons to do:
  • News searches
  • Business searches
  • Other research
And don’t forget, it’s not just public libraries; many colleges also will let local residents use their services. This tends to be more common in state institutions that are dependent on taxes and state support (they don’t like to annoy the taxpayers who support them), but even a number of private colleges will let community members register for library cards or use their research workstations. Granted, they may have more esoteric databases to explore, but you’d be surprised; many of them have:
  • Lexis/Nexis
  • Some big business research products
  • Genealogical research databases
  • News databases
  • Others that would be beneficial to a prospect researcher.

Don’t Forget About The Foundation Center

The Foundation Center contains a range of prospect research tools between its libraries and online resources. Nonprofit folks living in the New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington DC and Cleveland regions can visit their local Foundation Center to take advantage of all the free resources they have to offer. But there are also Foundation Center resources all over the country, through the Funding Information Network. These 470 partners are public and school libraries, community foundations, and other centers.

So while you may not be able to become wholly dependent on your library for your research databases, you should never overlook what they have to offer in terms of prospect and donor research that’s free.

In fact, even if you work in a shop that has been fortunate to be able to afford a number of the big research products on the market, check out your local library; there may be something they have that can help you provide additional information for your research. I know here in Cleveland I once did a presentation on research and showed the attendees all the databases that they could access for free via the library. You would have thought I gave them winning lottery tickets! Though in a way, perhaps I did! Libraries aren’t just for borrowing DVDs… they could become your new satellite office… though you may also be surprised at how many of their resources you can access from your own desk. All you need is a library card. Now quit reading this, and go check out your local library’s resources! And if you’re looking for more free prospect screening, schedule a demo by clicking below!  Free DonorSearch Demo About the Author: Chris Dawson is the Senior Prospect Researcher at University Hospitals of Cleveland. Guest Post: Want to contribute to DonorSearch’s blog? Email us with your guest post ideas!
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