Whether your organization is a seasoned veteran with prospect research or a wide-eyed rookie, you should seek ways to get the most out of your investment. DonorSearch’s team has compiled advice from twenty fundraising experts on how nonprofits can make the most of prospect research this year at your organization.
Use tools and available resources to save time and increase efficiency
Make sure your development team is taking advantage of the various tools and resources available to conduct prospect research. New applications and prospect screening services can improve the effectiveness of your prospect research efforts. Also, explore the free resources available to nonprofits to see how they can supplement your fundraising activities.
Elizabeth S. Zeigler, President of Graham-Pelton Consulting, says:
In 2015 more so than ever before, major gift fundraisers must craft individualized cultivation and solicitation strategies in order to best engage prospective donors and match their interests to the needs of the nonprofit. Graham-Pelton Consulting relies on DonorSearch research culled from dozens of sources to provide informed counsel that results in solid solicitation strategies and increased confidence in the person that will make the ask of the donor.
Marge King, President of the InfoRich Group, says:
Using simple tools like bookmarking services and Evernote can increase a researcher’s efficiency. All prospects are unique, so finding tidbits of information about a prospect’s neighborhood or business sector may be just as unique or obscure.
For example, according to IdeaPlotting, many of the most successful businesses have been started out of people’s homes or garages. While Google, Apple, and Microsoft are all now household names and you know all the wealth information about the executives, it wasn’t always this way. There’s a good chance you have donors running successful businesses that you don’t even know about.
Or as another example, how many taxidermists have you researched? None? I’ve researched one in 15 years and it took some time to sift through sites related to taxidermy to find the useful sites for prospect research purposes.
Using a good bookmarking service that allows user tagging or comments so that you may find that website that lists taxidermist fees or other obscure sites is key to efficiency. What is on the Internet today may be gone tomorrow. So, I also recommend using tools like Evernote to collect, organize, and store useful data like salary surveys.
Chris Dawson, Senior Prospect Researcher at University Hospitals, says:
My main advice is to be aware of all the possible tools that you can use as a researcher. By that I mean that while it’s easy to pick up a subscription for a service like DonorSearch, or LexisNexis, iWave, or any of the other companies (and I always do recommend that researchers look into these companies and get what subscriptions they can), a good researcher should always be aware of other resources that may be available that they didn’t originally consider, allowing them to expand their research capabilities, often at no cost.
The Foundation Center, with locations in New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Washington, are full of free resources to help researchers … and the Foundation Center also partners with a variety of local libraries and college libraries to have certain resources freely available there
And speaking of libraries … I can’t speak to every city library out there, but we found out almost by accident that Cleveland’s public library system had a host of research resources that were freely available to anyone with a library card. We were actually able to reduce our research budget by switching over to some of the research products that were available for free, rather than paying for them.
We were able to access a surprising amount of newspaper databases, biographical databases, and business databases (including one that I knew had an annual subscription fee of $45k/year) all for free.
Other cities have similar research databases available through their public libraries, or via college libraries. I always urge researchers to seek out what their public library has, as well as area colleges (many of which allow local citizens to get library cards to access their collections).
In a single swoop, researchers can expand their capabilities, for no extra cost. These new sources certainly allowed us to offer better and more extensive information in our profiles, which has benefited our gift officers.
Incorporate Social Media into your Fundraising Activities
The rise of social media has huge implications for prospect researchers. Consider how your nonprofit organization can use social data to learn more about potential donors.
Jay Frost, Senior Partner at Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, says:
We are witnessing the biggest shift in the history of organized philanthropy. No longer do we just reach out to new friends for support. Donors are now coming to us. And reaching out to their peers to support us as well. The universe of contributors is no longer local, or even national, but international. And we can learn far more today about what is in the minds and hearts of prospective supporters than ever before.
All of this is the direct result of the social media revolution. And it is up to us, this generation of fundraising professionals, to determine if we want to be merely marketers or relationship builders. To become true advocates for philanthropy, we must pay careful attention to how people define themselves and their relationships. The largest opportunities for advancing our organizations exist at the intersection of great financial capacity and deep affinity. And the map to that intersection is available to us through prospect research informed by social media.
Maria Semple, Owner of The Prospect Finder LLC, says:
Don’t forget to set up some “Saved Searches” on LinkedIn’s Advanced Search page so that you can put some proactive prospecting on Auto-Pilot for 2015! So simple to do and you can save up to 3 searches under a free LinkedIn account and LinkedIn will email you the search results on a weekly or a monthly basis….you decide.
John Killoran, CEO of @Pay, says:
Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest can be great tools to increase the amount of donations your organization is raising for via social apps on mobile devices. By incorporating fundraising appeals into those social channels, you’ll increase the anticipated ROI your organization will receive from its social media presence instead of just raising awareness.
Create processes and systems to organize and implement your prospect data
Too much data can be overwhelming if you don’t know how to use it. Put into place systems that can capture the information your organization gathers and establish processes to put that information into action.
Joshua Birkholz, Principal at Bentz Whaley Flessner, says:
Encourage your research team to move from providing facts to offering judgment. You will be well-served to leverage this function for prioritizing your work. Development will always involve sitting in someone’s living room asking for money. This activity is not easily scalable. Determining which prospects to see is scalable. Let Prospect Research help choose which living rooms.
Thomas Sonni, President of Greater Mission Development Services, says:
In our work with clients, prospect research has been a powerful resource because of how we have learned to organize, cross-analyze, and further develop the data by integrating the findings with client-supplied giving data and local knowledge. We use our own custom rating strategy for potential gift levels.
The combination of refined information translates into creating strategic tools such as gift tables, goals, campaign timetables, and particularized plans linked to how many likely lead gift candidates exist at each key pledge level. One specific example of this approach is the way we often set a minimum threshold for active giving. Then we identify which active donors meet any of the capacity criteria for significant large gifts. Looking at combinations of key data simultaneously leads us to identify those constituents who are most likely to be qualified leadership gift candidates for our clients.
Brian Lacy, President of Brian Lacy and Associates, says:
It is important to keep donor databases clean! Prospect research is less effective when you start with the wrong addresses for too many top prospects. Limited annual giving budgets are misspent when appeals are mailed to old addresses, student callers call wrong phone numbers, and e-solicitations are never received. By keeping your donor database updated and with the fewest possible errors, you lift the fundraising effectiveness of your team and their results.
Adam Weinger, President of Double the Donation, says:
Don’t forget about integrating matching gift data into your prospect outreach strategy. Many companies offer matching gift programs to their employees which can increase the potential value of individual donations. What’s more, some companies will even match major gifts of $5,000 or more.
No matter what tools you use, don’t forget the basics
No amount of fancy tools, tricks, or shortcuts can replace the basics of fundraising. It is important to remember that your organization should not lose site of its fundamentals as it develops its fundraising capabilities.
Margaret Gallagher, Assistant Vice President of CCS Research, says:
Prospect Research is an integral part of any fundraising campaign. Getting the correct information to the individuals who will be cultivating and soliciting can be challenging, but seasoned prospect researchers know just where to look.
After completing a screening with a service like DonorSearch, the client will assess their results and see which matches yield the most promising potential. At this point, the researcher steps in to see if there are any additional nuggets of information available that might yield a higher ask amount.
I liken getting all the information about a prospect to putting a puzzle together. You need Biographical information, like address, education, date of birth, and any other pieces of information you can find. Corporate information can provide the most interesting piece of the puzzle in that it may include compensation. Honors, awards, and corporate affiliations give you some insight into the personal behavior of your prospect and just how engaged he or she is with their community.
Wealth Assessment information can include real estate values, stock holdings, other director compensation, lawsuit winnings or any other information obtained that affects the monetary piece of the pie. Finally, charitable contributions will show you where and in what amounts your prospect has given in the past. Don’t forget to include political donations. The best indicator of future giving is the prospect’s history of past giving.
Don Souhrada, Vice President of Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt, says:
It’s important to be focused on a group of people that you want to bring to conclusion. For example, when you screen an entire database, you can get greedy when evaluating potential prospects. Instead of running too quickly through your list of prospects, try focusing on a small group of high potential donors to bring them to resolution and foster a positive perception of your organization.
Alison Sommers-Sayre, President of APRA, says:
The promise of technology is great and one we should all embrace, but we must beware of being led astray by that promise. Today we need highly skilled prospect development professionals more than ever, to navigate the tools available, to use them effectively and at the end of the day to do the critical analysis and investigation that turns all of that data into something on which our fundraising partners can act.
Abby Jarvis, Marketing & Outreach at Qgiv, says:
Make sure your website and donation forms are putting the best foot forward for your organization. A poorly constructed donation form or a form that isn’t optimized for mobile may stop a prospective donor from making a gift to your organization. An optimized donation page is something that no organization should be without! Check this list for some good examples of other organization’s forms.
Poonam Prasad, President of Prasad Consulting & Research, says:
The new trend in Prospect Research is a focus on Data Analytics and Visual Analytics. These are amazing new tools for understanding and presenting large volumes of information. However, not too long ago, I attended a presentation about a very large billion dollar campaign at an Ivy-League university. In the end, the campaign succeeded because of less than 10 transformational gifts from donors who had been cultivated over a long period of time. Be sure you never lose sight of who your top 10 donors are, or could be, as you review and present data using the trendiest new tools.
Sarah Bernstein, blogger at the The Fundraising Back-Office, says:
Capacity assessment has an important place in prospect research and fundraising strategy, but it is not the only language in which the story of a prospect can be told, and it never paints a complete picture. You can use capacity to prioritize prospects, but you should make the most of prospect research by looking beyond the numbers to discover relationships, interests, and conversation starters. Prospect research has a role at every stage of the cultivation cycle.
As I wrote in my final presidential column of the APRA Wisconsin newsletter, The Research Report, last year: ‘Our goal in ratings, profiles, and bios should always be to tell a story that creates interest and informs the development of a donor-centric strategy, whether the immediate next action is to make the first phone call, cultivate affinity for our mission, solicit a gift, or steward a lifetime of generosity.’ Prospect research increasingly needs to leverage both familiar and emerging technologies to seek innovative ways to tell more compelling stories using more efficient tools.
Make sure prospect research is always done with your fundraising goals in mind
Success in prospect research is defined by success in fundraising. Consider how each new piece of data on your prospects will help your fundraisers be more successful when soliciting donations.
Tom Ahern, President of Ahern Donor Communications, says:
Fundraisers are sales people. They have to make a sale to a prospect. Knowing that prospect as thoroughly as possible before attempting a sale is simply the smart way to prepare. You still might fail, but you’ll fail for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
Jennifer Filla, President and Founder of Aspire Research Group, says:
Prospect research developed in response to fundraisers’ need for more information. The research should always serve to enable fundraising. The question to answer is: ‘Does the information I find and the delivery format enable the fundraiser?’ Too much, too little, or in the wrong format? You need to adapt and change.
Helen Brown, President of Helen Brown Group, says:
Plan prospect identification projects in close collaboration with frontline fundraisers. You’ll get a better end product that will meet their needs and get them excited to get out the door.
Bill Tedesco, CEO of DonorSearch, says:
It’s important for nonprofits to understand the variety of data types that fall under the umbrella of prospect research. Organizations that focus too much on one type of data such as wealth indicators are losing out on additional types of information, such as philanthropy data, which may more accurately predict a prospect’s likelihood of making a charitable gift. By compiling a complete prospect profile with a diverse array of properly weighed data points, you provide your fundraising team with everything they need to be successful.
But remember, a good development team is more than just front-line fundraisers
Prospect researchers have a unique set of skills that can help balance out a nonprofit’s fundraising team. They can bridge the gap between the raw data and the story it tells about a specific prospect.
Diane Valdivia, President of Pinpoint Prospect Research, says:
… I think that, despite the prospect research profession’s evolution and substantial growth in the past 10-15 years, there remains a lack of understanding by nonprofit management of the value and return on investment prospect research brings.
For example, if provided the staffing dollars in 2015, would the average director hire additional development officers or prospect research staff? From what I’ve experienced in over twenty-five years of fundraising — both as a development officer and a researcher — prospect research would not be a first consideration. And that’s too bad because a good researcher is not only an analyst but a strategist who is, essentially, a match-maker in finding key partners and supporters for your organization.
Don’t ever lose sight of the ultimate philanthropic mission
While raising money is important, it’s ultimately a way to help achieve your mission as an organization. Always remember to keep your nonprofit’s mission as the focus when connecting with potential or existing donors.
Amanda Jarman, Principal of Fundraising Nerd, says:
Be effective, efficient and ethical by doing research for a reason. Know the “why” behind your research, and keep your efforts focused on the just-in-time information that’s necessary to take the next step with the prospect.
Karen J. Stone, CEO of Donation Force, says:
It’s important for nonprofits to always keep their mission front and center to everything they do. The first step to doing this right is picking a nonprofit mission statement that accurately represents your organization and what you’re out to accomplish.
We hope this expert advice can help you get the most out of prospect research at your nonprofit organization!