By Estee Pierce

Are you a non-profit executive wondering how to get started with the lengthy and important work of properly researching your most valuable major gift prospects? They say that knowledge is power, and certainly the power you need is the information about your prospects’ lives that can make the difference between getting that six figure donation from them, or missing out.

This article is an attempt to introduce you to prospect research, and will hopefully empower you to make the right choices and get the donation money your organization needs to succeed. It is the second part, in continuation of a previous article about major gift prospect modeling, written by Matthew Dubins. (See the end of the article for a URL of the first part.)

Part 2a – Value of prospect research
Nuanced prospect research can help to verify and illuminate a prospect’s capacity to donate to your organization, their propensity to make a major gift, and their affinity to your cause.

A detailed written profile on a prospect can shine light on so many things, such as their career history, ancestry, political contributions, giving to other non-profit organizations, net worth estimates, real estate tax assessments, and much more. These briefings may include details on spouses, children, extended family, interests and hobbies, as well as religious, board, and club affiliations. Giving patterns may be evaluated, and networks of board associates may be webbed for possible connections.

However, it’s not realistic for an organization to have detailed multi-page dossiers on every active donor in its database, let alone every promising prospect. In general, this kind of long-form research is at its most valuable when, based on the information available, a prospect has passed through an initial stage of vetting and is in the cultivation stage, where the organization engages in the tricky work of asking the donor for money.

Part 2b – Simple steps to start your research journey
At the prospect discovery/identification stage, I recommend a middle way, to use small amounts of prospect research to flesh out promising scored donor data.

The thumbnail bio
You’ve verified the top-rated prospect is who they appear to be. Your next task at hand: to synthesize as much prospect data as you can into roughly 150 characters, addressing the following questions:
• Who is this person?
This can be as basic as “Hedge fund big wig” or “Real estate scion.”
• Why are they important to this organization?
“Why they’re important “ can range from who knows them, to what boards they serve on, to what they’ve expressed interest in through giving to other organizations, and so on. You have room for creativity here, but you don’t have room for a lot of language! Think of this as micro-blogging, but for your prospect pipeline. The goal here is to quickly turn data into actionable insight.

Examples below.
• Fort Worth billionaire. Art lover. Knows Tom. Has expressed interest in deepening relationship.
• Hedge fund big wig. Red River Trust board. Elusive, but capable of transformational gift. Food & art.
• Stalwart local philanthropists. Close w/Catie. Priorities: Health, Education, Arts & Culture.
• Boston billionaire financier. Shed board. Interested in transformational giving, not small checks.
• ATL media & auto conglomerate Cox Enterprises heiress. NYPL trustee. In ‘17, gave NYPL $15M.
• Librarian. Park Ave coop. Source of wealth unknown. Donor to wide range of arts/culture orgs.

The process will be methodical, and can take as long as 20 minutes per individual — but is a significant savings from the time it takes to write a full profile on a prospect. Thumbnails can be done by dedicated prospect research staff, database professionals, support staff, or can be outsourced to a consultant.

Once a prospect has been scored, thumbnailed, and integrated into the donor database, the thumbnail bio can be exported into dynamic reporting for prospect management, used as cheat-sheets for event or meeting preparations, and in general equip a fundraiser with just the right amount of information before approaching a new prospect.

Thomas Hardy once wrote “waste not, want not”. I truly believe that when it comes to major fundraising campaigns, that the less time your organizations wastes soliciting the wrong donors, the more likely you are to speak with the right donors, securing those mission critical funds needed for success. When you combine the crucial practices of major gift prospect modeling and prospect research, I truly believe that your fundraising campaign will not be left wanting!

Estee Pierce is an independent researcher and consultant focused on arts, education, environment, and social change nonprofit organizations.

Reference: Dispensing with the hype and finding the real power in donor data.

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