Prospect research is one of the most important aspects of nonprofit fundraising. If done well, it can change the focus of a nonprofit organization’s fundraising activities dramatically and in a very positive way.
Today, there are numerous distractions in our work in the nonprofit sector, including exploring many new and exciting methods of conducting fundraising online. But we should not be blind sighted. Simple, focused and smart Internet research can take your organization to new heights of fundraising success. Some of this is “low tech” and DIY (do it yourself), and other methods are quite advanced, as this article will discuss.
For a few “low tech” research suggestions, you might enjoy two public presentations I gave in 2020 on prospective donor research. Those links can be found in the Media Room on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog.
One nonprofit noted online a few years ago,
“When you compare that to direct mail, web maintenance and design, special events and other fundraising costs, prospect research is a small investment that yields greater returns and one that we’ve seen contribute to our fundraising growth …. Overall, our ROI from prospect research these past three years in 2,766%. It may seem like an incredible number, but it’s one that shows the power of prospect research and the true potential that exists when coupled with a well-functioning, aggressive fundraising program” (Houston Grand Opera).
I have used a wealth screening service called WealthEngine during the organizational phase of three prior capital (major gift) campaigns. In each instance, it took time to sell the idea of investing in this kind of “high tech” prospect research to the organization’s leadership and to members of the Board. Some were very reluctant. They felt this kind of information-gathering might constitute an invasion of privacy. But the fact is, the information WealthEngine draws upon is publicly-available. WealthEngine and similar platforms abide by strict ethical guidelines.
In the case of each nonprofit with which I worked, it was eye-opening how WealthEngine showed us we were focusing on the wrong prospects. For instance, those who get a lot of attention in the media may not be your best prospects, nor the most capable, in the end.
It also takes time to learn how to interpret the data uncovered by wealth screening firms, and to research and evaluate each prospect in detail. WealthEngine provides its data by running your list of donor and prospective donor names and addresses through their databases. But it is up to each organization to learn on its own how to use/evaluate the data (Microsoft Access is a software program that can help you there). Be prepared: patience is a virtue.
Going through this process turned our major gift campaigns on their heads. For those of us who struggle with “donor burnout,” seemingly no prospects at all (but very worthy projects), and a lack of knowledge about the backgrounds and interests of our donors and prospects, this kind of service is one you should investigate.
Having said this, nonprofits must be prepared for another possibility. If you have spent a great deal of time nurturing relationships with a select few, it will take time to incorporate your newly-discovered wealth screening prospects into your “major gift” cultivation plans. Balance your excitement at identifying the new potential donors with careful consideration as to how you will bring them “up to speed” about your good work.
Be careful not to leap into making a significant request for financial support until the proper groundwork has been laid. As Robert L. Thornton III – an outstanding Dallas volunteer with whom I worked in the 1990s – once said: this is when you need to be doing, “the slow dance.”
Security is a critical issue when one works with information provided by wealth screening services, even though the data can be found online, with diligent research and/or via subscription services. Be careful when you produce “printouts” of donor data. Don’t leave them lying around so that untrained staff or the public can see them. Secure the information “in the cloud,” and when you are done, be sure to invest in and use a shredder or delete them from your computer’s hard drive and your cloud platform(s). And, you might invest in a VPN, or Virtual Private Network service.
For those who work with wealth screening services as consultants or for a prescribed (limited) time frame, I recommend once your assignment is complete, ask the host platform to officially delete your online account access. Then, delete the master file completely from your computer.
In truth, after a certain length of time (a year or more, for example), wealth screening data becomes outdated. People’s circumstances change, they acquire more things, and they sell or lose others. Their personal “value” can change dramatically. This is one reason you may want to consider having your prospect lists run again through a wealth screening service later on.
Regardless, you should protect yourself – as well as the nonprofit, the confidential data you have been privy to, and the donors you are searching for – once you are no longer associated with the project for which the data was originally requested.
I would argue that publicly-available data is essential to properly developing a request for financial support and to focusing on the best possible prospective donors. But handling that information carefully is key – as is realizing that development professionals cannot (and should not attempt to) control every aspect of giving. See my article, “Listening to Donors and ‘Serendipity’ Happens.”
Last but not least, I know in Texas we have a lot of privately-held companies. The net worth of some potential supporters will therefore not be captured by wealth screening services. In fact, I have seen prospects valued at hundreds of millions (according to friends and professional colleagues), who show up as owning only an automobile. Hence, wealth screening services cannot do all the work for you. Traditional methods of online research and confidential inquiry among colleagues may yield better information in the end.
Additional Thoughts and Resources
Sometimes you do not need to engage such an advanced research system. Think this through. Smaller communities often already know the best prospects for their nonprofit projects. Sometimes what is need is something else like improved public relations, communications, and cultivation. I have experienced this on several occasions. Having said that, if your donor base is so burned out you believe your campaign has no chance of success, consider wealth screening.
If you have questions, use the secure contact form on this website to reach me. And again, have a look at my two 2020 presentations on research. Happy searching!