Prospect Research is a discipline which has developed over the past 20 years in the UK as major gift fundraising from individuals has become an increasingly valuable source of income.
As not-for-profit fundraisers have come to pursue a more considered and structured approach to seeking larger gifts, so they have needed to gather more detailed intelligence on individuals specifically targeted for their capacity to give and their affinity to a particular cause.
They have therefore begun to undertake or to outsource Prospect Research.
Prospect Research entails:
Identification of High Value Prospects and Major Donor Prospects
Qualification and Rating of prospect lists of these to determine which are genuine prospects and to rank them according to factors such as capacity to give; warmth to the organisation in question; level of interest in the cause; and ease by which the prospect may be engaged by the organisation so that the strongest prospects can be prioritised
Profiling of prospects to establish biographical, career and other details to help to identify information including: the best ways to engage and cultivate prospects; which aspects of the non-profit’s work are likely to be most relevant or of interest to the prospect; how much it would be wise to ask for; who should make the ask; and whether the prospect may be able to help in areas other than making direct financial contributions, e.g., do they have useful connections?


The rise of the Internet has revolutionised research into major donor prospects, changing the scope of research as well as the way we should approach the task. Information on the Internet proliferates at an immense rate spanning news, land registry, the electoral roll and far more. When looking to identify and profile new prospects there is increasing potential to compile a more rounded picture of a larger number of prospects and whole new constituencies have opened up. Using only public domain sources, we can now discover far more than ever before about prospects’ wealth, philanthropic activities and interests and personal affairs.
As a consequence of these developments, one is presented with greater opportunities than ever before to draw up a list of prospects who have more affinity with one’s cause and less likelihood of appearing on every other not-for-profit’s prospect list.
However, the growth in sources of information also means that the process of prospecting has become more challenging. More than ever before, carefully honed techniques for efficiently trawling the web, an ability to stay abreast of new developments and a sound knowledge about the structures of different professions and fields of business will greatly enhance success in identifying and interpreting the relevant information within an appropriate timeframe and budget.

Managing research

The case for careful planning and active management of research would be difficult to overemphasise. This has always been extremely important, but has become far more so as the Internet has taken a central role in the research process – the tendency of this medium to draw one into compulsive searching necessitates the implementation of strong procedures to keep it in check.
The systems implemented to manage research will be dependent upon the other structures and procedures in place and therefore will vary from one organisation to the next. However there are some principles which are useful in determining how to approach this.
First of all, it is essential to ensure that one considers carefully how research reports will be integrated into existing systems for storing and retrieving information before one begins to compile them. If research is not integrated into fundraising procedures it can easily get sidelined later on because key staff are entirely unaware that it exists, or they do not know the context in which it was conducted and so are unsure of exactly what it is and how to use it. This is clearly particularly pertinent when there are staffing changes, but is also a factor in any busy department where procedures and systems underpin communication and information flow.
As the relationship between the organisation and the prospect develops, so will the fundraiser’s understanding of the prospect, including what might motivate him or her to give; which person connected to the organisation he or she most enjoys talking to; to which aspect of the organisation’s work he or she might be most likely to give; and for how much one might successfully ask him or her. Therefore, in order to capture as much relevant knowledge as possible and to avoid the loss of gems of information not available within the public domain such as might be revealed in a face-to-face discussion with a prospect, research should be an ongoing process integral to prospect management, tracking, cultivation, solicitation, thanking and follow-up. Procedures should allow for information gathered during any part of this process to be fed back into research reports.
Researching effectively rarely entails gathering as much information as possible about a prospect. The greatest constraints for a researcher and fundraiser are those of time and budget and a judgement always needs to be made about how much time it is cost-effective to spend researching any individual prospect or pool of prospects. This will depend upon the stage at which one is in the fundraising cycle. It is generally not necessary to compile detailed profiles of individuals until a meeting has been arranged and it is wasteful in terms of time and other resources to do so as no fundraiser, however high her success rate, will succeed in engaging every prospect she approaches.
Due to the compulsive aspect of the Internet and also the temptation one might have to avoid the nerve wracking first approach to a major donor by prolonging the research phase, there is always potential for research to develop its own momentum. This can result in the fundraiser/researcher losing sight of the goals in terms of what will be needed for the specific fundraising task in hand and beginning to be led by the research itself; the phrase “tail wagging the dog” is apposite.
Developing tools to help with planning research in terms of defining exactly what information is necessary and relevant, how long will be allocated to each research task and how this task will be approached is crucial in order to rein in research and keep it proportionate to the fundraising needs.
The following documents are extremely useful when seeking to plan and manage prospect identification research:
A Research Brief… …defines your research aims and helps you to plan resource allocation, deadlines and budgets for a project.
It should be tailored to the specific type of research being conducted, but should almost always include the following details:
a description of the fundraising project or appeal and the background of this
outline of identification criteria (i.e. what are the characteristics sought in terms of wealth; interests; geographical location or connections; philanthropic history; age etc.)
description of the information required for each prospect
details of any exclusions criteria or exclusions lists – who should NOT appear in the prospect list?
a target for the numbers of prospects needed
a timeframe (with consideration of factors such as event dates, time available, what would be a proportionate effort given the scope of the project etc.)
A Research Template… …will specify which fields will be included in the research report and how this will be formatted.
A Research Plan and Diary… …will help to plan how the aims set out in the brief will be achieved.
This can be formulated through a brainstorming session, either alone or in a group, whereby all present think of all the possible research routes that might be explored in order to find prospects who meet the criteria.
A quick, easy way to do this is to make a list of all of these and then allocate each of them a number according to how fruitful one might expect them to be to arrive at an order of approach. One might start by pursuing the avenues considered to be most likely to generate strong results in order to be as time-efficient as possible. This list can be used as a reminder of the ideas suggested at the beginning of the project and can be added to during the process of the research, so that there is no need to interrupt the pursuit of a particular research path to investigate a new idea – all ideas are recorded and can be revisited to later, but flitting from one search to another rarely allows for sufficiently focused research.
Research Summary The end of each research project affords a valuable opportunity to record details of the project which can provide information to help in the construction of a longer term overview of those prospect constituencies which are relevant to the organisation/particular projects of the organisation. This will ensure that over time a picture of the potential prospect pools can be built, allowing for a more targeted approach to future prospect searches and more realistic research parameters for future fundraising projects. It allows the fundraising/research team to develop an informed research strategy.
In order to develop and optimise prospect pools, it is necessary to conduct research into existing supporters and also to have a research programme which allows for the identificatin of new prospects who are not yet involved with the organisation. In other words, there is a need to conduct both internal and external research to identify prospects.

Internal research

Begin by gathering the lowest-hanging fruit, which means identifying prospects who already have a connection to the organisation.
Internal Networks
Often the most valuable internal route for identification of major donor prospects is via people who are already closely connected to the organisation who may be prepared to network on its behalf. In order to exploit these, it is necessary to draw up some brief information about some of those people closely connected to the organisation who are most likely to be connected to wealthy individuals. This will help to pinpoint individuals who are likely to be known to them, to whom the organisation might request an introduction. People who might be profiled on this basis include:
Warmest Major Donors
This list is a good place to start, but is not exhaustive and, depending on the structure of the organisation, there may well be other avenues to explore here.
It is also useful to apply this principle in reverse, showing those people who might reasonably be expected to be well-connected – such as the people on the list above – a list of potential prospects and asking for feedback about which of these they might know. It is necessary to establish if they are prepared to facilitate the building of a relationship between the organisation and the new prospect. It helps to be specific about the nature of support that is sought but also helps to be flexible and open to ideas and ready to suggest alternative ways in which these people might help if the initial request does not find favour.

Identifying Prospects

Whilst it is best to begin by looking at those prospects who already have a demonstrable connection to the organisation, it is also vital to look beyond to identify brand new prospects in order to avoid missing potentially excellent opportunities and to ensure that the prospect pipeline continues to develop over the long term.