Prospect Research: The Overview

by Suzanne A. Shavelson

To understand the impact of accurate prospect research, do the following exercise.

Take out a piece of paper and make two columns, each with the name of one of your organization’s major donors with whom you are familiar.  Under each name, list any and all pertinent facts about the donor.  This can include, but is not limited to interests, giving potential and connections to the organization.

Now, spend 15 minutes online researching the individual.  What percentage of the information from the columns was confirmed by your research?  If you took the time to poll the board, development committee and staff, would you have filled out your list?  How much time would it have taken you?  What is your time worth?

You get the picture. An upfront decision must be made between money vs. time.

The Large Organization Solution
Yes, an organization can do its own research.  In fact, many larger institutions hire one or more people to handle this aspect of fundraising.   In addition to staffing, the major costs incurred with in-house research are the access to professional databases.   Anyone with prospect research experience will have their own preferences for where to cull the most relevant information, but there are a few goldmines that most professionals can agree upon:  Lexis-Nexis, Foundation Directory Online, and to name a few.

Prospect Research On A Budget
Thanks to the world-wide-web, there are many ways to do research that only cost your time.  Everything from Domania and Zillow to ZabaSearch and Google can provide you with an excess of information on a particular name.  If you know a bit about the person, you can usually narrow it down to the “Joe Green” you are looking for and mine a decent amount of usable data.

***Remember that you are looking for more than what the individual (or couple) earns in a year.  True prospect research will include financial information – including real estate and major stock holdings, other charities to which the person donates time or money, personal connections to this and other comparable organizations, as well as any clues to what motivates their giving.

Motivation should be determined by a combination of quantifiable and qualitative data.  Is this a breast cancer survivor who has switched their major giving to cancer organizations?  Did their religious organization play a pivotal role during this time and is the person likely to dramatically increase or decrease giving?  Who would know this information about this person?

Another alternative is to outsource.  Your choices are prospect research organizations or full-service consultants, like Mersky, Jaffe & Associates, who have staff members who specialize in this type of research.  It may seem like an extravagance to pay for something that you could do yourself, but it is often much more cost effective to hire someone to do it on an as-necessary basis versus taking development staff or volunteers away from other aspects of the cultivation process.

No matter how you choose to attack your list, remember that the better prepared you are, the better your chances of mining the potential of your prospects.