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DIY Prospect Research: No Leads? No Problem.

on Jul 22, 2013

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Prospect research is an area of fundraising that makes anyone BUT fundraisers squirm just a bit. Why? Because it is misunderstood! Prospect research is simply the process of finding who might be a good fit to support your cause, and ensuring that the fundraiser is well prepared for a meeting with that donor.


Why conduct prospect research?

Finding a major donor in your database, or one with that is only a degree of connection away is no easy task. Some fundraisers start a new job and are handed a well-stewarded portfolio of major gift donors and prospects, while some fundraisers start a new job and are told they need to start building that portfolio.

If you need to start building a major gift pipeline from scratch and have no budget for any outside resources, this blog’s for you.


Who is in the pipeline?

Every organization defines “major gift” differently. For some it is $500, for others it will be $10,000. Let’s start building a list of donors that meet any of the following criteria:

  1. Are (or were recently) on your board, or are a longstanding volunteer.
  2. Gave a major gift within the last five years.
  3. Gave a gift that is greater than 50% of your major gift threshold.

If that exercise yielded a short list, here are some criteria for a wider net. However, these are prospects are less likely to give than those from criteria 1 through 3.

  1. Live in a wealthy neighbourhood (look for postal codes beginning with H3Y, T3Z, M4N, M4T, T9K, more…).
  2. Gave a major gift to a similar charity (look for donor lists in annual reports).
  3. Attended an event hosted by your charity in the past year.
  4. Are, or were, beneficiaries of your charity, and is currently a donor.
  5. Have been referred to you as a potential lead from a loyal supporter.


How do you qualify these prospects?

At this stage, with a sizeable pool of unqualified prospects, we’re not going to produce a detailed profile of every donor. We just want to do an initial screen and score to qualify the donors. This will help you prioritize your call list.

Lots of prospect researchers have their own secret sauce for qualifying prospects. This is my recommendation because it’s simple and quick. Don’t pull your hair out over these scores, because they are fluid.

Give each donor a score out of 10 for these four criteria: linkage, ability, interest, timing. For sorting ease, I recommend setting up a password-protected spreadsheet like this:


Mrs. Dorothy Donor
Gave $10k to our competitor, $0 to us
Dr. John Q. Sample
Gave us $1k last year, board member
Ms. Maggie Giving
Monthly donor, recently sold business
Mr. Big Prospect
Gave $50 2 years ago, lives in Rosedale


[1] I see no reason why timing will work in favour or against, so I gave her a 5.
[2] It’s important not to be presumptuous about ability. Err on the side of caution.
[3] His linkage may be weak, but it’s better than nothing.


Now, you’ve got a list you can sort by the total score. Cheers! This entire pool of prospects are of value to you, but you’ll likely need to prioritize your time to focus on the top 20% of this list.

UPDATE: My friend Jeff Gignac‘s two cents is that you shouldn’t be doing this in a spreadsheet, rather you should have all of this live in your CRM system. This is good advice. You could do this by creating a custom field on their constituent record for the score. Thanks Jeff!

What information should I begin collecting?

A donor profile is tremendously useful to have securely stored, should the opportunity for a meeting come up on short notice. It’s important to keep two major considerations in mind:

  1. All profiles should be stored in secure location that only essential staff can access. If keeping paper files, the cabinet should be locked. If on a server, password-protected.
  2. Do not collect or store any information that you would not be comfortable sharing with the prospect.

Here are some key pieces of information that you should seek to collect, if possible:

  • Career info: what industry are they in, and for how long?
  • Alma Mater: where did they go to school, and when?
  • Affiliations: do they belong to any clubs, associations?
  • Philanthropy: can you find any proof of gifts to other charities?
  • Boards: are they on any for-profit boards? non-profits?
  • Family: do they have children, or a partner?

There are several databases of foundations, corporations and individuals available on a subscription basis, and they are great tools. If you have a budget for them and the time to use them, do it.

When should you reach out and make contact?

I recommend that once you’ve reached this point in the process, you should begin the process of trying to meet and get to know the donor.  It may be tempting to begin forecasting potential gift amounts at this early stage, but it’s best not to get too far ahead of yourself. I say this, because you’ll learn far more about a prospect in a quick phone call or meeting than in hours of scouring Google.

So…get to it!

This post was by Brock Warner. Hailing from Toronto, Brock works to foster and place value upon the act of philanthropy, no matter the size of gift. As a professional, he values the ‘how’ as much as the ‘how much’ and desire to see the fruits of my labour and energy be a catalyst for positive change. Connect with Brock on Twitter at @BrockWarner.

DIY Prospect Research: No Leads? No Problem.

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