Making Time for Prospect Research

Not every nonprofit has the resources to employ a full-time prospect researcher, much less an entire team of researchers, but most would agree that prospect research is an essential factor in fundraising success. For the greater portion of my own fundraising career, prospect research was just one of my responsibilities. Since many of my other responsibilities, in particular gift processing & acknowledgment and financial reporting, were both time-sensitive and top priority, I needed to develop ways to integrate research into my daily routine. One simple tactic to make time for research is to regularly block the time off in your calendar, and to stick to it. Whether that works in your situation or not, here are some simple ways to make a little time for research every day:

  1. Make research part of every task. For example, during gift processing (or as you review the daily gift log), keep your eyes open for interesting names, affluent addresses, personal notes and, of course, surprise large gifts. How large? That depends on the benchmarks of your organization. But it can also depend on how much time you have available at the moment. Before you move on to the next gift, or the next name, poke around in their database record, and do a quick internet search.
  2. Do a little research every day. You will find it is often easier to do some quick research when you first discover a name than if you save it on a post-it note for a slow Friday afternoon. As most of us have found, those slow Friday afternoons are often rarer than $1 million gifts.
  3. Recognize that different tasks require different levels of research. A quick search of what is already in your database, or easily found on the internet, is usually quite enough for an initial phone call, especially if that call is a thank you. You probably won’t need a full profile (and the eight or more hours that can take) until you are very close to solicitation and need to carefully refine your strategy.
  4. Know when to stop. It can be way too easy and tempting to pursue every tangent. With every click of your mouse, you need to ask yourself whether what you are finding is important or merely interesting. The merely interesting may help you develop a richer portrait of the person you are researching, but it may not immediately (or ever) get you closer to your goal of a fulfilling mutual relationship with the donor. Knowing when to stop is just as important when you are finding nothing, which can be even more time-consuming than finding something.
  5. Keep the database open all day long. Record everything you find in the course of your day into actions, ratings, attributes and notes. A Florida address may be an indication of wealth, interests and hobbies, and can also be a way to increase contacts with your donor. So add the address to the database! Often the most important information about a prospect is their history with your organization: their correspondence, event attendance, volunteer activities, and of course meetings. It is critical to find a way to record all these important touch-points in the database with as much detailed information about them as possible. The payoff? The more data points you record in your database as they happen, the simpler your job will be when it comes to developing strategies for individual donors, and creating tailored lists for events, mailings, wealth-screenings, and feasibility studies.

Finally, commit to following up. This is possible no matter your job title. Use your research findings to personalize acknowledgement letters, to create lists for peer-screening, qualification, or simple thank you phone calls, or to create a truly donor-centric strategy. As you integrate the results of your research into your “regular” job, you will see the value it provides. This should make it easier to continue to make a little time for research every day.


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