Thoughtful Prospect Research

By Miquette Thompson, MNA, CFRE

As we prepare to enter the new year, many organizations are gearing up for the launch of new campaigns whether they are campaigns to resource an annual fund, the construction of a new building, or a growth initiative. Successful campaigns are always informed by research, so it is natural for fundraisers to find themselves looking to identify prospective donors and conducting research on current donors.  

Prospect research has the potential to uncover important details about donors that help inform donor engagement strategies and understand the likelihood of support for a campaign, but it is an imperfect science. While there are many robust wealth screening tools available for nonprofits, and the internet has made it easier than ever before to learn about people’s backgrounds and connections, it is essential that prospect research be conducted thoughtfully and always “with a grain of salt”. Wealth screening records and publicly available information provide just one snapshot of who a donor is and what they care about. For instance, in the San Francisco Bay Area, real estate holdings often skew giving capacity ratings abnormally high because of the regional housing market—while a home is an asset, the value of that asset may not be relevant in terms of how much actual giving capacity a donor has. A good exercise to further illustrate this is to think about your own true giving capacity, what public information about you is available online, and whether it is actually representative of your giving capacity. Regarding philanthropic priorities, prospect research can help you understand what types of organizations a donor supports and if there is a significant giving history. This information must also be understood with considerations—anonymous giving is always a potential factor, and prospect research does not always reveal what prompted gifts or if more than one member of a household was involved. With these many considerations, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the massive amounts of information prospect research can uncover. In these moments, it is important to reconnect with your purpose for conducting the research in the first place. Ask yourself these two questions to get refocused:

  • What am I looking for? (i.e. wealth and capacity ratings, giving trends, political giving, etc.) 
  • How will I use this information? (i.e. to prepare for a donor cultivation event, to create a moves management strategy, to set target ask amounts for a campaign)