A (Very) Quick and Easy Guide to Donor Prospect Research

One of the most critical aspects of a sustainable nonprofit fundraising strategy is identifying and cultivating major donor prospects. After all, major donors provide your organization with its largest gifts, empowering you to do more for your beneficiaries and grow your nonprofit over time. 


Successful major donor fundraising starts with thorough prospect research, also known as prospecting. Prospect research is the process of discovering high-capacity donors with the financial means, personal interest in your cause, and philanthropic habits that indicate they could make significant contributions to your nonprofit.


There’s a lot that goes into an effective prospect research process, and whether you’re an experienced fundraiser needing a refresher or you’re new to the major gift fundraising scene, it’s important to know the basics. 


In this (very) quick and easy guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about prospect research to identify  major donors for your organization and how you can use information from your research to build lasting relationships. 

Prospect Research vs. Wealth Screening: Knowing the Differences

As you learn more about prospect research, you’ll likely come across the term “wealth screening.” Some organizations see these terms as interchangeable, when in reality, wealth screening is part of a comprehensive prospect research process. Here’s a closer look at the specifics:


  • Prospect research allows your organization to find new prospects that are not yet donors to your nonprofit’s community. It’s a comprehensive process that takes into account an individual’s wealth, interest in your specific cause, and general philanthropic habits. However, you likely won’t be reaching out to complete strangers—you’ll know these individuals somehow, whether you’re connected with them through a corporate partnership, their past involvement with your organization, or some other way. 


  • Wealth screening is the process of looking within your current donor pool to find individuals that have the financial capacity to level up their giving. 


There is a time and a place to use both of these processes. But prospect research is the process you’ll need to use if you’re looking for new major donors. It can help you gain a fuller picture of these individuals and identify the aspects of your cause and opportunities for involvement that resonate with them. 

The Elements of Prospect Research 

To conduct prospect research, you’ll need the right tools on your side, and you’ll also need to know what you’re looking for as you gather information about potential donors. Understanding these elements of prospect research can empower you to find viable prospects for your cause and begin building strong relationships with them. 

The Tools 

There are a number of tools you can use for prospecting, and each nonprofit’s toolkit will likely look a little different depending on your unique approach to prospect research, as well as the providers you work with. 


However, there are some general tools you’ll want to use no matter what, including:  


  • Prospect research database or generator solution: These tools compile prospect data and help you create lists of promising prospects. According to DonorSearch, some solutions even come equipped with artificial intelligence capabilities to help you further qualify your prospects. 


  • Your CRM: Although you’re looking for major donors that aren’t yet in your donor base (and thus not in your CRM), you can use your CRM to identify individuals who are connected to your prospects, making outreach more effective. For example, you might find a prospect’s professional connection or family member is already part of your community. 

  • SEC and FEC filings: Stock holdings and political contributions can be powerful indicators of a prospect’s financial capacity, and you can find this information through and the FEC’s database.

  • Matching gift database: Matching gifts are a form of corporate philanthropy in which donors’ employers financially match contributions that their employees make to charitable organizations. Use a matching gift database to identify whether a prospect’s employer offers gift matching so that you can encourage them to submit their matching information when they make a donation. 


In addition to these tools, you can also use Zillow to learn about prospects’ real estate ownership, LinkedIn to examine a prospects’ educational and professional history (and the professional connections you share), and various social media platforms to learn about prospects’ interests, values, hobbies, and families. 

The Markers 

Once you’ve assembled your arsenal of prospect research tools, you’ll need to start identifying the markers that denote whether a prospect is someone who you should work to get to know and involve in your cause. 


Using your tools, you’ll look for the following three markers, which together indicate an individual is a viable prospect:


  • Affinity Markers: These markers show an individual has a personal interest in supporting your specific cause. These markers include: 
    • Past involvement with your nonprofit and similar organizations 
    • Political affiliations and donations 
    • Connections to your current supporters 
    • Personal interests and values 

  • Capacity Markers: These markers show an individual is in a financial position to make a large gift to your nonprofit. These markers include: 
    • Net worth 
    • Real estate ownership
    • Stock holdings
    • Business affiliations 


  • Propensity Markers: These markers show an individual has a habit of giving to charitable causes. These markers include: 
    • Showing up on donor lists for other organizations 
    • Board or advisory committee service for other organizations 
    • Fundraising event attendance 


Clearly, this is a lot of information to consider for each individual prospect your organization discovers, meaning that prospect research can take a lot of time and effort on your team’s part. That’s why some organizations prefer to hire a prospecting consultant to support them in this process. 


According to Donorly’s guide to hiring a prospect research consultant, there are some things to keep in mind when choosing the right partner. These include the scope of your needs, your budget, your organization’s time and location requirements, the consultant’s track record of success, and how well the consultant fits into your internal culture. 

Putting Prospect Research Data Into Action

Once you’ve identified potential major donors, it’s time to use what you’ve learned about them during the prospecting phase to build strong relationships that will eventually lead to a meaningful donation ask. 


Here are some tips for doing so: 


  • Get to know them as people. Have conversations with your prospects! Call them on the phone, or invite them to meet over coffee or lunch. Learn about their lives, including their careers, families, hobbies, and their interest in your specific mission. During these conversations, be authentic and curious, and afterward make a note on what you’ve learned so that each conversation can build on the last. 


  • Invite them to get involved in ways other than donating. As you work up to asking your prospect for an initial donation, deepen their connection to your work by inviting them to volunteer, attend events, or even do small things like follow your organization on social media or sign up for your email list. 


  • When the time comes to make an ask, create personalized donation appeals. It could take days, weeks, or months to build a relationship with a prospect. But when they’re ready—when they’re truly invested in your cause and you know they’re ready to take the next step—it’s time to ask them for a donation. Create a personalized donation appeal to share in a face-to-face meeting that defines your organization’s need, explains what that need costs, and addresses your specific ask. Then, wait for your prospect to respond—hopefully with an enthusiastic yes!


Throughout the cultivation process, return to the data you’ve gathered on your prospects. This information can guide your conversations and help you make more tailored invitations for involvement and donations. This will make the experience more personal and meaningful for each individual prospect, laying the groundwork to help you retain their interest and support for the long term. 

Prospect research is a critical part of any nonprofit organization’s fundraising efforts. It allows you to identify major donors, and, more importantly, gives you the information you need to start building relationships with those donors. 


Use the information in this (very) quick and easy guide to fine-tune your prospecting efforts today, and don’t forget to consider working with a prospect research consultant to make the process even easier and more successful. Good luck!