4 Tools You Can Use to Conduct Prospect Research Without a Full-Time Researcher

I am pleased to welcome Bill Tedesco, founder and CEO of DonorSearch, as the first guest blogger on The Fundraising Back-Office.

Bill-Tedesco

In an ideal world, if an organization needed a new staff member, the Executive Director could wiggle her nose, click her heels, make the request, and the perfect employee would appear.

In the real world, funding is tight and nonprofit employees have to be expert multi-taskers, folding numerous job requirements into one-size-doesn’t-really-fit-all positions.

It is quite common that smaller to mid-size nonprofits don’t have the means to hire full-time prospect researchers, but that fact does not make the need for prospect research any less critical.

To help those organizations that want to implement prospect research, but don’t have the ability to hire a researcher at the present time, these four tools can provide the necessary support to get going with your research.

These tools will help guide you through a productive trip down the prospect research rabbit-hole.

#1: Prospect Screening Companies

Subscribing to the services of a prospect screening company, like DonorSearch, is a great way to conduct prospect research without having to hire a full-time research staff member.

Prospect screening companies do the heavy lifting for organizations. They take your donor list, whether it is large or small, and compare those donors and prospects against a group of databases.

Screening companies will use a combination of publicly and privately available databases and then take the information learned and compile the data into prospect profiles.

With a research company’s help, your busy staff can focus its efforts on using the prospect profiles for fundraising, rather than the building of them.

To put this in other terms, imagine the prospect profiles are all homes in a new neighborhood. The screening company is the construction company and your organization is the real estate group.

Not everyone is equipped to build a home. It is important to know your limits and acquire assistance when it is needed. We don’t need any fundraising houses falling down!

#2: The Foundation Center

The Foundation Center is information central for the philanthropic community. The Center houses an extensive and exhaustive database on grants and grantmakers.

The website offers a mix of free and subscription-needed services.

A great feature of the center is its collection of actual libraries that nonprofit professionals can visit and get research help from the librarians on staff.

If you live in one of the following cities:

  • Atlanta
  • Cleveland
  • New York
  • San Francisco
  • Washington, D.C.

Visit a Foundation Center Library and enter prospect research heaven. Even if you cannot get to one of the main libraries, their website is comprehensive and extremely helpful.

While we’re on the topic of libraries, don’t overlook your local public library. Sometimes it helps to incorporate “old-fashioned” methods of investigation into your prospect research.

#3: Social Media

We all have a bit of a sleuth instinct. Social media feeds into that tenfold. Rather than using social media to see what your high school nemesis is up to, put your skills to good and charitable use — conduct prospect research.

LinkedIn and Facebook are great places to start.

If your prospect has a LinkedIn, you’ll learn valuable details about his business affiliations and employer information. You could quickly see returns on some of that information.

Imagine learning that a donor works for a company with a generous matching gift program. Once you know that, you can promote the gifts to the donor and encourage her to submit a request, leaving your nonprofit with twice the expected funding.

A public Facebook profile will result in slightly different, but just as pertinent, information. A person’s Facebook page reveals his or her social connections and interests. The former are good to know for networking reasons, and the latter are good to know for personally connecting to said donor.

People spend much of their time living within their online profiles, and their online presences provide a good outlet for getting to know them better.

#4: Zillow

Real estate ownership acts as a unique marker. It can indicate both a capacity to donate and a philanthropic inclination.

In many ways real estate ownership is considered a traditional wealth marker. If you own real estate with a high dollar value, you have money. One plus one equals two. The relationship makes sense. Interestingly though, certain dollar amount thresholds are statistically connected to charitable giving.

For example, donors that own $2+ million in real estate are 17 times more likely to give than an average prospect.

It is in a nonprofit’s best interest to screen for real estate ownership, but if time and resources are limited, there’s a quick and easy option for searching, Zillow.

Once you have your prospect’s address, which should already be in your donor database, you can search for it using Zillow. The website will give you an estimated property value. It is as simple as that.

If your organization is still looking for more help, but you’re not ready for a full-time staff member, consider contracting prospect research services out to consultants. They can be a strong option, either in the short term or as a program launching point.

There are plenty of other tools and resources out there to supplement the prospect research efforts of nonprofits. They help make the real world slightly more ideal.

 

Bill Tedesco is a well-known entrepreneur in the field of philanthropy with over 15 years of experience at the helm of companies serving the fundraising profession. He has personally conducted original research to identify markers of philanthropy and has developed modelling and analytical products that use those markers to accurately predict future giving.

Since 2007, he’s been the founder, CEO and Managing Partner of DonorSearch. DonorSearch is one of a small group of companies providing wealth screening, philanthropic reviews, and online prospect research tools exclusively to the nonprofit market.

 

No Trespassing? Privacy, Property, and Prospect Research

Home, home, sweet, sweet, home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!
~ Home Sweet Home by John Howard Payne (1791-1852)

According to a recent Pew Research study, only 22% of Americans are comfortable with government putting data about individual mortgages online, while 54% are comfortable with the government sharing real estate transactions online.

Just think for a moment. What might this perception mean for the practice and ethics of prospect research, where online access to property data can be our bread and butter?

When I’ve given how-to presentations about prospect research, I have always advised my audience that prospect research “begins at home.” A double meaning is fully intended. I recommend that they begin with the constituent records housed in their databases, and with their prospects’ homes as the primary identifiable asset. And, for the great majority of the prospects we look at, those whose philanthropic capacity is less than $1 million, a home or homes may be the only hard assets we find to construct that capacity number. In fact, the wealth in homes and neighborhoods can be such reliable predictors of capacity, that the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association uses Census tract data as a placeholder for capacity in prioritizing unrated prospects.

As prospect researchers, we know that transformational gifts are more commonly given from assets than they are from income. So the property assessment or mortgage data we find is often just the beginning of our prospect research story. Many of us will try to take a look at pictures of the property on Google Street View or Zillow, looking for amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, lake access, and long, winding driveways. In a similar vein, we will comb through contact reports and internet searches for information about things like art collections, boats, and antique cars. All of this helps us refine the asset inventory which shapes our philanthropic capacity calculation, and – often more importantly – provides a glimpse into the interests and passions of our prospects.

So how can we reconcile this Pew Research report with our practice of prospect research? For, just as a home serves as a bellwether for philanthropic capacity in prospect research, it also serves, for many, many people, as the bellwether for their own personal privacy. And I don’t imagine that they would be reassured knowing that the registrar of deeds has paper, microfiche, or electronic copies of all their property transactions and mortgages.

Every year or so there will be a news story about prospect research and advancement offices digging into their donors’ private lives. Jen Filla, of Aspire Research Group, presented an on-point analysis and resource list of this phenomena in 2012. There is no shortage of more recent stories any of us could add to Filla’s bibliography, like this one about social media which appeared in the New York Times on Jan. 4, 2015.

In his book, Privacy (Picador, 2012), Garret Keizer conducts a wide-ranging philosophical and historical analysis of privacy. In discussing the history of the concept of privacy in American law, Keizer points out two important moments, both of which frame their definition of privacy with the home. The first is, of course, in the Bill of Rights, in particular, the Fourth Amendment. This is the amendment which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure.” The second moment is in fact the first American court case in which the word “privacy” actually appears: DeMay v. Roberts in 1881, in which the court wrote “the plaintiff had a legal right to the privacy of her apartment.” Keizer describes how American case law equates the home with privacy:

As the judge in Payton v. New York (1980) noted, there is a “zone of privacy” in America that is nowhere “more clearly defined when bounded by the unambiguous dimensions of a person’s home.” (82)

The home can be a symbol of privacy and a measure of wealth. But, in the words of John Howard Payne, the nineteenth century poet and songwriter with whose words I began this piece, it can also be a place of comfort:

To thee I’ll return, overburdened with care;
The heart’s dearest solace will smile on me there;
No more from that cottage again will I roam;
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

A comfortable home: one which offers private solace, and which signifies a certain level of wealth.

It is telling that Pew Research also uses the word comfortable to describe how people feel about the government publishing property data. Does the word “comfortable” suggest that the boundaries of privacy are relative – different for every person – and not simply that which is not public? And, with these hard numbers to show us how people feel about their property data and privacy, is it enough to tell ourselves that the data we access and use in prospect research is always and only public data? I’m afraid I don’t have the answers.

Data In – Profile Out

It should come as no secret that I am a proponent of automating the prospect research profile as much as possible. In fact, in my final presidential column for the APRA Wisconsin newsletter, just about a year ago, that was just one of the paths down which I suggested so-called reactive research would need to head. I won’t rehash what I wrote then; you can read it here.

Of course, it was easy then for me to extol automation. For one thing, it had been over a decade since I had actually typed a profile in a Word template. For another, I was a member of one of Wisconsin’s largest prospect research teams, and had easy access to our database, and several profile report formats, from work or from home.

Now that I am consulting, things are very different. I am still not typing profiles in Word templates, but it is something I consider a possibility, now that more of my work is done remotely and without direct database access. But when I am asked for recommendations, I always try first to find a database solution.

One of my current clients, an independent school, uses The Raiser’s Edge, and had already created a Word merge to pull some individual prospect data – gift summaries, children, contact information, etc. – into a Word document. They didn’t call this a profile, and the task they wanted my help with was in gathering biographic and professional information on each prospect into a brief paragraph which they could type into their Word document. I immediately thought we should put this background information into a Note in The Raiser’s Edge and to add that Note type to their merge template. Creating this new Note type accomplished two things. One, the information was easily retrieved into their prospect document. Two, it was captured in the database to refer to in the future. Best of all, it was easy to add the new Note into the merge file, and even easier to create the new note type.

Fast forward a month or two, and this client now wanted a way to codify foundation interests and to identify potential donors to new capital and programming initiatives. Using the Philanthropic Interests table on the Prospect tab in The Raiser’s Edge was the easy part. It didn’t even take us that long to come up with a list of about 20 different interest areas we’d like to track and be able to query.

But how to capture nonprofit board service, volunteer roles, and gifts to other organizations? Well the Prospect tab of The Raiser’s Edge has a Gifts to Other Organizations table, and my client had already populated it with information from past screenings and data appends. One look at how that table structures data, though, and we could see it would not be our answer this time. For one thing, there isn’t an easy way to enter the dollar ranges found most often on nonprofit annual reports. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Gifts to Other Organizations table does not have a way to visually and strategically connect giving patterns to things like board service or a spouse’s volunteering. A simple Note can do all of that, and can be formatted to export easily into a Word merge or a Crystal Report.

Our solution this time was to create two more Note types. A Philanthropic Note was used to document board and volunteer service, and significant gifts (generally gifts above $1,000). And a Foundation Note was used to capture basic Form 990 information including assets, gifts received and grants paid, a list of directors and officers, and a brief list of the largest grants made. Both of these notes were added to their existing Word merge template, along with the background information note, to form a simple and easily editable, profile.

Each note in The Raiser’s Edge has a Description field, and with our Background, Philanthropic, and Foundation Notes we used this Description field to track the date when the information was last updated. Now, before running a profile report, anyone can quickly see how stale the information might be, and what they might need to refresh.

Once upon a time, a profile may have been a catalog of everything we knew about the prospect. More often today, a profile is strategically designed for a specific purpose and context. Often a profile may not be the only way to answer a question, or it may not be the best way. Each of these philosophies and situations could be satisfied with either a typed document or a database report. Some might even be happy with an email. But I bet they would all agree that if something is in the profile it should also be in the database. Indeed, the profile template should serve to remind us of the categories of information we need to capture and verify, just as a research checklist reminds us to leave no stone unturned. And when profile information is in the database, it can also be used to create prospect pools, or to do data mining or modeling, or simply to help those who follow you understand your prospects as well as you do.