By DonorSearch

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Prospect development is never easy work, but no one works in nonprofits because it’s easy.

If your organization already has a number of successful capital campaigns under its belt, prospect development is an ongoing component of your operations. There is always room for improvement, though, especially when it comes to how you manage your prospect data and identify new trends.

Or maybe this will be your organization’s first major campaign, and the prospect development process is brand new to you. Take your time and weigh all of your options. Start with this comprehensive guide to prospect research, and then begin to think about what your organization’s ideal prospect might look like.

This article can serve as useful resource for both new and experienced prospect development professionals. Let’s explore some specific development strategies to guide your process:

  1. Target your prospect development.
  2. Study up on political contributions.
  3. Drive prospect development with data.
  4. Segment your donor communications.
  5. Steward and cultivate donors and prospects.
  6. Build prospect development around relationships.

The key to any great breakthrough is a shift in perspective, so while some of these strategies might seem self-evident (especially if you already have prospecting experience), it’s important in any development role to never take assumptions for granted. You might be surprised at the kind of results a little boost in mindful forethought can yield!

Read on to discover some key strategies to consciously optimize your entire prospect development process.

Always target your prospect development.

1. Target your prospect development.

Of course you value all of your donors. Without generous support of every type and amount your organization would never have gotten off the ground in the first place. Donors and volunteers are always the most important figures of any nonprofit.

Now that your organization has grown and needs to raise some serious support for that growth, though, segmenting your donors is more important than ever. 

Who has given you major support in the past? Who might be likely to do it again, or maybe for the first time?

Targeting your development efforts is the first step to building an effective campaign strategy because major projects need sturdy and reliable frameworks. Think about every type of major supporter that you might have, including:

  • Major donors
  • Planned donors
  • Annual fund donors
  • Recurring donors or major members
  • Lifetime or annuity donors
  • Major corporate sponsorships

These are the most important prospects for any capital campaign, but remember that we can easily add to this list: potential major donors, potential planned donors, etc.

When planning your potential donors lists, don’t forget about your existing list of donors. Your current donors are people with a proven dedication to your cause, and with careful stewardship, they might be ready to upgrade their relationship from a one-time donor to a recurring donor, or from a low- to mid-range donor to a major gift donor.

Consider your volunteers when creating prospect lists, as well. They care about your cause enough to donate their time, so perhaps they would be interested in donating money as well. Some volunteers may have the capacity to become a major giver, but haven’t simply because you haven’t asked.

By segmenting your data and creating effective prospect lists, you can analyze any commonalities or trends within each category. This is how you can identify candidates for your potential donor categories because they’ll fit those commonalities and trends. This process is called prospect screening.

Prospect screening allows your data to continually remain up-to-date; this means your development strategies will be flexible and properly targeted. Services like DonorSearch will provide your organization the support needed to efficiently manage and update your existing prospect data while also automatically using that data to identify potential prospects that fit your targeted trends.

Imagine having this much insight into the wealth and charitable habits of all of your prospects:

DonorSearch's giving search tool and databases help you narrow down top prospects quickly.

Effective prospect screening is essential because it ensures that your prospect development efforts will always be targeted toward the right individuals. 

The takeaway: Don’t risk wasting your time and your nonprofit’s resources; focus on the potential prospects that your data can prove will be strong supporters for your organization by targeting your prospect development from the beginning.


Study up on your prospects' political contributions histories.

2. Study up on political contributions.

When screening prospects whose data resembles that of your existing major supporters, political contributions are among the strongest indicators of giving potential.

Your organization should consider building a prospect development strategy around political contributions, a metric which should be included in any truly comprehensive data profile.

That said, many prospect research databases focus solely on wealth as a key statistic rather than other elements of giving history that go much further to reveal the prospect’s interests, beliefs, and existing commitments. The big picture is essential to identifying the prospects most likely to want a long-term giving relationship with your nonprofit.

Political contributions are the perfect metric to gauge giving potential because they indicate demonstrated commitment and an interest in continual engagement. These metrics are a great tool for any organization, but they might represent a major opportunity for your organization’s prospect development if:

  • Your capital campaign is for a major physical construction project.
  • Your campaign’s goals are exceptionally ambitious.
  • Your organization is deeply cause-based.
  • Your organization has explicitly-stated political positions.

After all, individuals who make major political contributions stand by their beliefs and love seeing their support in action.

As you look over your segmented prospect lists, be sure to use this core metric. Several search tools exist to provide political contributions information, but DonorSearch’s databases are the most comprehensive when it comes to both wealth screening and analysis of proven interests and commitments. Unlike other databases, DonorSearch contains all the information you’ll need to make truly informed donor prospecting decisions.

Check out this sample tool and search for a name with the “political” button to see what insights you might have with access to this information:

Political contribution history reveals much about a prospect's values and giving potential.

Political contribution data can become an essential component of all your prospect development strategies. By using this data to determine which campaigns would most likely interest which prospects, you can further focus your development efforts.

Don’t forget that there are other ways to be politically active than just donations- use a robust prospect research software to discover which grassroots advocacy groups a potential donor has interacted with in the past. Does your nonprofit share a mission with one of these advocacy groups? This information gives you the proof you need to be sure that the person you’re approaching already has a vested interest in the cause that your organization serves! Understanding where a potential donor invests their time and effort is just as important as understanding where they invest their money.

By simply including this one research metric in your prospect screening, you can save your organization invaluable time and resources!

The takeaway: Political contribution history is not only easy to find through DonorSearch, it’s an incredibly accurate, useful, and underappreciated prospect development tool.


Drive your prospect development process with data.

3. Drive prospect development with data.

Now take a broader view of Strategy #2.

The incredible development opportunities afforded by access to political contribution data also apply to any other major wealth or philanthropic metric.  Too often organizations’ prospect development strategies will stagnate because they stop examining their data in new ways.

Consciously refreshing your perspective is the key to finding connections that were previously invisible!

Think about the ways that these prospect statistics could be useful in evaluating that individual’s or organization’s potential to give:

  • Detailed history of philanthropic giving
  • Political contributions data
  • Real estate and property information
  • IRS tax-exempt and grant-giving status
  • Committee or board involvement history
  • Full employment and demographic information

It’s crucial to remember that every organization or capital campaign requires a unique prospect development strategy. The nuances of your exact goals, resources, and deadlines will greatly affect not only how much support you’ll need but also what kind of support.

The research that you do on your donors is vital to every aspect of your fundraising strategy, from communications to event planning, so make sure you take the time to do it. All of the data points listed above can help you decide what tactics to try to best influence or connect with your potential donors.

This applies to any kind of capital campaign. If you’re raising money for a hospital, for instance, you should focus your energies on prospects with a proven history of healthcare giving or on companies that have existing relationships with health organizations.

Using your data to guide your prospect development process, though, also requires that you keep your database organized and up-to-date.

Continually improving your database will result in quicker prospect development and thus drastically more efficient campaigns overall.

The takeaway: By first providing your organization with access to prospect data and then letting that data guide your prospect development, you’ll save yourself invaluable time and resources over the long run.

Segment your donor communications to better target your prospect development.

4. Segment your donor communications.

Segmenting your donors and prospects by their proven or potential type of giving can be a valuable tool for your prospect development. Similarly, understanding and making use of the different communication methods that your supporters prefer is another major point that should guide your process.

Prospect development is most effective when you speak your prospects’ language.

Your new prospect who is most likely to give a major contribution would probably prefer to be contacted in one of a number of ways. It could be:

  • Through email
  • Over the phone
  • A personal letter
  • In person at an event
  • In person in a meeting

After all, a corporate executive might not bother to look over every email they receive a day, but a conversation at a fundraiser might go much further. The chairman of a major grant-giving foundation might be too swamped with other commitments to schedule a meeting, but a phone call at the right time might work much better anyway.

Preferred communication methods can be a difficult piece of data to collect, but simply asking your current donors and recording their answers can prove useful in identifying trends or making logical assumptions.

On top of giving your organization a helpful piece of information for optimizing its communication strategies, your donors will feel listened to and valued when you ask for their input and then actually use their answers to better reach out to them.

Plus, there are always useful resources out there like DonorSearch’s prospect generator to help build and segment your prospect lists:

DonorSearch's prospect generator can save you invaluable time and resources.

By letting you search the major donor lists of other organizations, this tool can become an invaluable complement to your own prospect database. By generating new mailing lists for your organization, this allows you to cross-check your prospect development and filter out any individuals unlikely to respond to your campaign.

Segmenting your donor data also allows you to personalize your outreach strategy to the priorities of individuals. If a group of donors is always more responsive during campaigns for a certain aspect of your mission, target them with communication specifically discussing that part of your organization’s endeavors. They’ll be happy to hear about the good that your organization is doing, and will be more willing to contribute when the time comes for your next fundraising campaign.

Targeting your communications in this way is a crucial step in ensuring that the time you take to reach out to prospects won’t go to waste. 

The takeaway: Segment and personalize your donor communications the same way you segment your data and research prospects at an individual level. Never initiate contact with a one-size-fits-all approach!

Steward and cultivate your donors and prospects.

5. Steward and cultivate donors and prospects.

Although it might seem obvious, it should always consciously remain at the forefront of any prospect development strategy: gifts should be stewarded properly.

Stewardship symbolizes your relationships with your donors, so never take this element of prospect development for granted.

Of course, this is not because your organization might accidentally or willfully misuse a major gift for purposes other than the donor’s intended use. Instead, you should always prioritize stewardship because a major contribution is a precious resource.

Your major donors deserve (and will want) to have an ongoing relationship with your organization and to see the returns on their generous investments.

Needless to say, donors must be genuinely thanked and kept up-to-date on your organization’s projects. Major donors, particularly, should be thanked in accordance with the size of their support.

Here are a few key ways to steward and cultivate your relationships with your existing donors:

  • Personal follow-up communications and meetings
  • Thank-you events or recognition ceremonies in other fundraising events
  • Grateful acknowledgments in your printed and digital publications
  • Important or unique volunteer opportunities

Always remembering the significance of major gifts can go a long way in building your relationships with prospects, as well. Hosting events for your donors or thanking them during other major fundraising events can signal to attendees that you are a grateful and professional philanthropic partner. One best practice is to prominently thank your major donors in your annual reports. Perhaps you invited some key prospects identified in your research for this very purpose!

Continuous personal and face-to-face communication is key to maintaining strong relationships and letting both your donors and prospects know how much you value them. Your prospect development strategies must always highlight the fact that these relationships are reciprocal.

The takeaway: Just as you grow your base of support more generally, you can develop your prospects by respecting and consciously maintaining relationships with everyone who generously supports your work.

Build your prospect development process around organic relationships.

6. Build prospect development around relationships.

This strategy is a logical extension of Strategy #5.

Cultivating and maintaining strong relationships with your existing donors is not only a great sign for your potential donors and prospects, it should completely inform your donor prospecting process.

Generally speaking, prospect development is all about building donor relationships and getting to know, on a personal level, your most impactful supporters.

When you’re initiating contact with prospects, you’re not just reaching out to complete a transaction. You’re initiating the start of a long, reciprocal relationship between your organization and your prospect, not just a business transaction.

Comprehensive prospect research tools can help immensely in building personal relationships with major prospects because they can give you a fuller picture of who a prospective donor is as an individual. While wealth screening services provide only a handful of statistics, full prospect tools and databases can reveal many deeper elements of a prospect’s habits and beliefs:

  • Detailed giving history
  • Reasons for giving
  • Personal connections that influence giving patterns
  • Professional networks
  • Political contribution history

For example, what does this giving history report tell you about the values and priorities of Bill and Melinda Gates?

DonorSearch's gift search tool lets you examine your prospect's philanthropic history.

This kind of information can be invaluable as you determine the best ways to encourage prospects in building personal relationships with your nonprofit. Your nonprofit is a conduit for your prospects to enact their values in their lives and in their community. Reaching out to people who already have a demonstrable interest in support your cause and others like it wins half the battle for you and your team.

Additionally, always consider ways to organically grow your prospect list through personal relationships. For instance, your board members should always invite and encourage their friends to get involved in your organization’s events. That initial personal connection and introduction could grow into a strong and supportive partnership.

The takeaway: Your network and relationships are among your organization’s most valuable assets. Never underestimate their ability to reveal or develop important prospects now or in the future.

No matter your experience level with prospect development or capital campaign planning, it’s crucial to always remember these core strategies.

By consciously keeping them in mind at every step of the prospecting, development, and planning processes, you can save and time and resources as you find the prospects most likely to become reliable and generous partners. 

Keep your perspective sharp and fresh to never lose sight of the basics of growing personable relationships with your organization’s most important figures – its supporters.

Check out some additional resources that can help to guide you further in other aspects of your organization’s development processes:

See prospect development and research in action!

6 Prospect Development Strategies for Professionals