What is Prospect Research?
Prospect research is a technique used by fundraisers, development teams, and nonprofit organizations to learn more about their donors’ personal backgrounds, past giving histories, wealth indicators, and philanthropic motivations to evaluate a prospect’s ability to give (capacity) and warmth (affinity) toward an organization.
Prospect research is essential for identifying high-impact donors within an organization’s current donor pool and in the larger community.
Understanding Prospect Research Basics
What kind of information is included in prospect research?
What types of nonprofits conduct donor prospecting?
Prospect research can be used by a variety of fundraising organizations to improve their fundraising efforts. Below, you’ll find a selection of the entities that take advantage of prospect research and descriptions of how each utilizes the data from the screenings.
How does prospect research differ from wealth screening?
Choosing an Approach to Prospect Research
In-House Prospect Research
DIY: Do It Yourself
Full-Time Research Staff
Prospect Research Consultants
What are you looking to gain?
Consultants can be a fruitful addition to your existing team, but you have to be strategic about who you hire.
And your first question should be, “What are we looking to gain?” In other words: “What kind of research do we need, and what do we need it to yield?”
Once you have an answer to that question, whether it’s identifying X amount of major gift prospects in a certain region or creating a short list of top prospects, you’ll be in a better place to make a decision on which consultants you choose to go with.
Additionally, knowing what you’re looking for from a consultant will help them succeed in the long run because you’ll be able to provide them with guidance and direction.
What kind of access do you have to them?
From a logistical standpoint, you need to consider what sort of access you’ll have to your consultant(s).
- Will they be working remotely?
- Will they work from your office?
- Are they nearby?
- Will they be available full-time?
Every consulting firm isn’t right for every nonprofit.
Consider the level of assistance and support your team will need and recruit accordingly.
Do they have samples of their work?
As you make your decision, review samples of the types of profiles your consultants put together. Most have a few examples of the various donor profile options they offer.
Not only will this preview give you a sense of the options you’ll have, but it will also provide an example of the quality of their work.
You should have a good sense of what their finished products will look like before bringing them on to help.
Learn more from the consultants themselves:
Donorly is a prospect research consulting firm dedicated to matching their nonprofit clients with the right major donors. Focusing on comprehensive research techniques, Donorly draws from a huge variety of resources to achieve fast results fully catered to your nonprofit’s particular mission and goals.
Aly Sterling Philanthropy
This consulting firm has proven experience helping nonprofits of all shapes, sizes, and focuses build sustainable solutions to help strengthen key aspects of your operations. Specifically, this firm focuses on assisting fundraising, strategic planning, executive searches, and board governance.
Averill Fundraising Solutions
Averill has proven itself to be an extremely effective partner for nonprofits seeking to give their capital campaign an edge and increase fundraising capacity. As such, Averill can offer invaluable guidance on the best methods and tools to identify and target key prospects for your campaign.
Prospect Screening Companies
Getting Started with Prospect Research
The Process Behind Donor Prospecting
1. Create a plan of attack.
Once the data is in your hands, it’ll be tempting to dive into the results first and ask questions later. To ensure that your team is taking the most responsible and reasonable approach possible, it’s best to plan out exactly how you’ll be handling the process prior to beginning.
- What are our fundraising goals?
- What high-level fundraising approaches will we implement with our data?
- Who will manage our prospect screening process and incorporate it into our overall fundraising strategy?
Your plan should include:
- Setting screening goals (such as how many new major gift prospect profiles you’ll want to add).
- A timeline for the project.
- Instructions on departmental responsibilities.
The better your planning is, the better you’ll be able to utilize your results.
2. Clean up your data.
Cleaning up data before you conduct fundraising research is essential to receiving the most accurate and helpful results. Usually this involves consolidating duplicate profiles, updating outdated contact information, and removing lapsed donors from your list.
Database areas to focus on include:
- Donor contact information
- Important internal giving data
- Existing relationship data
How extensively you clean up your data depends on the state of your existing information. Your data doesn’t need to be perfect — it just needs to provide enough information to reap usable results.
3. Validate your results.
Once your results are in, you’ll want to validate them. You need to ensure that they’re accurate and make the most logical sense.
For instance, if a donor has a common name, the research might have pulled data for someone else who shares that name. Or, you might not have the most up-to-date real estate records on a prospect.
If you take the time when your results first come in to ensure their accuracy, you’ll have to spend less time on the other end accounting for misinformation.
Prospect research is an immensely useful tool, but only when it’s done correctly. Whether your in-house team put together your profiles or a screening company did a bulk screening of your donor list, you’ll want to validate the results.
4. Analyze your prospect research results.
Your screening results will provide a wealth of useful information.
The best step you can take once you have this data at your fingertips is to analyze it.
Part of the analysis process is devising a system to rank your prospects and sift out the candidates who would be most likely to contribute the most.
Obviously, this analysis provides a way for your organization to decide precisely who it is that you want to target for cultivation and solicitation.
5. Make a solicitation plan.
Planning for the big ask is a crucial step in any fundraising research process you go through. You have the necessary and pertinent information gathered together, sorted, and properly ranked. Now is the time for prospect development, in which you’ll foster relationships and learn more about your prospects as individuals.
Taking those different data segmentations into account, craft appropriate strategies for soliciting donations based on what you know.
6. Solicit donors.
Now that you’ve done your homework and plotted a course, it’s time to get to asking! Take everything you’ve learned and let it inform your work.
After your prospect research, you should have a better sense of:
- How much you should ask for.
- What communication channels a donor prefers.
- What your donor connects with at your organization.
You’ve spent considerable time building out your donor profiles, so you should use them!
Especially as you cultivate major donors, keep track of your efforts in your database so that your team can make adjustments.
7. Make improvements.
After you’ve gone through all of the steps of researching, cultivating, and soliciting, it’s time to take a step back and assess.
No process is streamlined during the first pass. And that’s perfectly okay.
As with any other effort your nonprofit makes, getting the hang of prospect research will involve a learning curve.
Improving your technique will take time, but in the end, the efforts you expend to refine your process will be well worth it.
Donor Prospecting Research Tools
This list of prospect research tools can help you get started with preliminary fundraising research. These key pieces of the puzzle can help you to assemble a meaningful picture of your prospects as individuals, volunteers, donors, and so much more.
The DonorSearch Blog
Our blog features a variety of educational articles on topics including prospect research, major giving, capital campaigns, and more.
DS Giving Search Tool
DS Giving Search is a free prospect research tool that provides access to a condensed version of DonorSearch’s philanthropic and political contributions data.
Charitable Giving Database
Our charitable giving database is one of the largest and fastest-growing collections of philanthropic data in the country.
Social Connection Resources
Benefits of Prospect Research
Refining Your Prospect Research Efforts
How do you choose which prospects to screen?
One way you can refocus your efforts to maximize your return on investment is by segmenting your donors by historical gift size.
Practically speaking, this means setting your sights and conducting screenings on donors who have already given large amounts in the past.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the research bears out that even major gift donors who have given once are likelier to give in the future than anyone else.
The frequency and recency with which a donor has given is a fantastic predictor of their warmth toward your organization.
Whittle down your donor lists for screening by narrowing your focus to include only donors who have given frequently over time.
You may also want to look into screening donors who’ve given to other similar nonprofits. Perhaps their loyalty lies with a certain cause and not just that particular organization.
You can either choose to screen your event attendees before or after a major fundraising event, such as a gala or a donor dinner.
The advantage to screening before lies in the fact that you can use your findings to target specific attendees over others.
Alternatively, you can conduct a screening after an event has occurred to inform your organization’s cultivation and stewardship strategies moving forward.
What factors predict future giving in prospects?
What areas of fundraising can prospect research help?
Corporate giving programs are driven by employee contributions. The more employees give to nonprofits, the more their company will donate. If you know that certain donors work for companies with these matching gift programs, you can more effectively reach out to them.
When seeking major gifts, it’s vital to include prospect research as one of the steps you take in the identification phase. With the help of prospect research, it becomes far easier and less overwhelming to try to pinpoint potential major gift donors.
A huge factor in the success of your capital campaign will come down to how well you handle the quiet phase; or, rather, how well you’re able to acquire major gifts before the campaign goes public. Prospect research will point you in the direction of the best candidates for major giving.
Planned giving prospects are often viewed as difficult to identify. Although they share some traits with major gift prospects, their markers are not as universally known. Prospect research will highlight the key traits you need to know to locate planned giving prospects.
Many of your best candidates for major and planned giving are already part of your donor pool as annual fund donors. Prospect research takes your existing donor list and highlights the top prospects among it so that your front-line fundraisers can begin the cultivation process.
Like hospitals with grateful patient programs, schools (both K-12 and universities) have a high turnover rate, but theirs is because of the natural progression of students. Parents of new students and graduates themselves should be screened yearly to evaluate giving potential.
Additional Resources on Donor Prospecting
The Fundraiser’s Guide to Prospect Research
Need a little more information on using prospect research to supplement your fundraising efforts?
This guide from Double the Donation will tell you everything you need to know about prospect research.
Wealth Screening: The Definitive Guide
Wealth screening plays a crucial role in successful prospect research. Thus, it’s important to thoroughly understand how it works.
Learn more about wealth screening and how to use it with our definitive guide.
Major Gifts and Major Gift Officers: The Basics
One of the biggest reasons organizations turn to prospect research is to help them identify potential major gift donors.
Discover more about major gifts and how you can successfully solicit them!