12 Great Ideas for Prospect Research in 2013

Resolving to make better use of prospect research in 2013 – or just interested in some new ideas for the coming year? Here are some suggestions to inspire you!


Are your organization’s fundraisers taking trips to warmer climes for events and meetings with snowbirds next month? Now’s a good time to do some simple data mining to find great prospects for fill-in visits while there.


Now is a good time to do an electronic screening of some or all of your organization’s new donors from the previous year. Which ones have the most potential to be major donor prospects? Develop a strategy to engage newly identified prospects by May.


What did your fundraising division do exceptionally well in 2012? Where do you need to do some work? Use analytics in-house, or have an independent audit done to measure last year’s fundraising/research performance. Set targets for using research throughout the year based on the priorities and needs you identify.


Tax season is here! Which of your prospects have giftable stock options? Several free and fee-based sources allow you to create alerts to keep current throughout the year on directors and executives of public companies who are required to report their stock and options holdings and sales.


Take a lesson from political fundraising: Targeted emails based on click-throughs and web usage have meant huge gains in involvement and donations during the last two presidential campaign cycles. Can you use market research techniques for prospect research purposes to discover what your annual fund donors are specifically interested in supporting?




For many educational organizations, June is the time to research parents of incoming students. How well do your data transfer systems integrate for ease of access to allowed information? Do you have a plan to manage this time-sensitive research? Create a process document for this important activity so that your best practices are repeated every year.


This is the month to declare independence from all of the prospects in your tracking system that have not budged (despite your best efforts) on the pipeline in the past year. All of the great new prospects you identified back in February should now be in your relationship management system. Draw up plans for new ways to engage them in the fall.


The beautiful waterfront of Baltimore, Maryland will be the location for the annual conference of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement on August 7-10. The APRA conference is the place to be for prospect researchers and front-line fundraisers who want to learn cutting edge techniques and resources. Come prepared to learn – this is a no-fluff conference, and every aspect of research is covered, from the ABC’s through complex algorithms.


Back to school means making sure you have up-to-date information on your very top prospects, and on all of the new prospects you’ve identified over the year. Get ready now for those year-end solicitations so you’re not faced with a December research profile queue crush.


Find creative ways to use social media and relationship mapping to identify potential board members and other top volunteers. Who amongst your constituents have high Klout scores? Which ones are hubs on a relationship map? Find and use tools that help you pinpoint influencers who can be advocates and help you engage with a new circle of donors.


Does your organization put on a lot of events this time of year? If event briefings are part of the research priorities that you set back in March, now may be the time to update your event briefing template(s) and policies for information access – not overload. Plan now so that the right people are getting the right amount of information on time and within budget.



Before you renew research subscriptions for the coming year, take a look at the fundraising operating plan and talk with colleagues about priorities ahead. Will the chief fundraising officer be traveling internationally to meet with donors? Maybe it’s time to look into international research resources, training, or outsourcing options. Are you about to launch a campaign? You might need to budget for screenings or analytics now.

What resources will you need to be successful next year? Great success with prospect research is all about being prepared. Happy New Year!

They’re going to leave (unless you keep them)

This year’s AFP/Urban Institute Fundraising Effectiveness Project reported that for every 100 new donors that supported a small-to-medium sized nonprofit in the United States last year, 107 donors left. Even more starkly, “every $100 gained in 2011 was offset by $100 in losses through gift attrition.”

Every year small-to-medium nonprofits are working harder just to break even.

Overall the study found that the largest gains come from new donors and the largest losses came from lapsed new donors.

Lapsed new donors.

These are the friends that should be easiest to keep. You’re still in the honeymoon phase. They’re excited about your organization enough to make a first gift. Sure, some of them will have given because of a road race or a golf tournament or in memory of someone. But most of those new donors should spell opportunity, not the promise of future loss. And as we’ve been told a hundred times, it costs less to retain a donor than it does to acquire one.

For larger nonprofits (organizations raising $500,000 and more) the figures are very different. For the most part, the more money an organization raises per year, the less likely they are to have donors leave them. Their losses due to attrition are cut by half.

So what’s the difference between small organizations and large ones? How are the larger ones able to keep their new donors?

A stronger fundraising infrastructure makes a big difference; overhead isn’t a bad thing when it is used effectively. The report strongly recommends building internal capacity overall and then annually providing extra budget support to the areas showing the greatest opportunities and success. Most of the larger organizations use prospect research to identify the new and renewing donors that have the highest potential to be upgraded. If yours doesn’t do that already, now is a good time to start.

What can you do now?

We’re swiftly coming up to year-end and your organization will, with luck, have an influx of brand new donors that you don’t want to lose next year.

This January, use prospect research – do an electronic screening of those new year-end donors. Apply data analytics to find the hidden gems in your database. Research the ones with the most potential to find their interests and philanthropic capacity. If you don’t have internal capacity, hire a professional. Prospect research may be an overhead expense, but it’s more expensive to keep treading water year after year.

Resolve to keep more of your new donors next year. You can start now.

How the Occupy movement is changing philanthropy

My friend Allison is a filmmaker who creates spellbinding, gorgeously crafted visual stories. Allison’s movies pull you into a microcosm and then surprise you with how a story about a creature you’ve never given a second’s thought to impacts your daily life. For her current film, Allison used KickStarter to help fund her project costs.

My friend Jim is also making a movie. He’s using Indiegogo to crowd-source funding for his upcoming film, Pretend. I noticed while I was at Jim’s fundraising page that the American Red Cross is also using Indiegogo to raise money for those left in the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy. In fact, Indiegogo and PayPal have teamed up to waive all fees to lots of verified nonprofits raising money for Sandy disaster relief.

Services that help (frequently well-established and large) nonprofits enable walkers, runners and golfers to raise money for their causes have been around for a long time. But more directly “people powered” philanthropy is on the rise and these new infrastructures like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GlobalGiving and pioneer microlenders like Kiva help donors directly fund people and tiny nonprofits that wouldn’t normally come up on their radar.

I started thinking about this evolution in giving when I read a New York Times article someone shared on Twitter last week about Rolling Jubilee, a 501(c)(4) fund created by Strike Debt, an offshoot of the Occupy movement. Called “a bailout of the people, by the people,” funds donated are put into a pool that purchases – and then dissolves – peoples’ consolidated debt for pennies on the dollar. According to the Rolling Jubilee website, for every $1 donated, $20 of debt is absolved. As of today, Rolling Jubilee has received over $362,000 resulting in over $7 million in debt relief. People-powered philanthropy that even Forbes thinks is a good idea.

What do these new ways of giving and interacting mean for the future of fundraising? And why should we in prospect research care? Crowd-funding, social impact bonds and micro-lending don’t immediately spring to mind when you think about select, small groups of donors that prospect researchers normally concentrate on. But for the data analysts amongst us, it’s an exciting proposition: large numbers of new donors that are deeply, personally invested in our cause. Is our field’s recent growth in the application of data analytics perfectly timed to meet this new way of fundraising?

When do you use prospect research?

I’m preparing a web seminar for fundraising consultant Lori Jacobwith’s Ignited Online Fundraising Community this Thursday to introduce her group to prospect research. Lori has been providing coaching and continuing education to her clients through the Ignited Online community for over four years, and I’m impressed at her dedication to capacity building within the fundraising profession. I’m looking forward to sharing what prospect research can do and when to use it.

As I’m putting together my presentation, I was thinking about how to graphically show when prospect research is most helpful, and created this image.

We may identify new prospects with a wealth screening, with data analytics, by happenstance, in conversation with our volunteers or a number of other ways. Something in our identification methods tells us that a prospect is a good fit, but most of these ways don’t involve intensive one-by-one research.

As the relationship progresses with mutual interest on the part of the donor and the nonprofit, Research is used intensively help build a deeper connection. Information gathering is both primary (in conversation with the donor) and secondary (using online and offline resources to collect information).

After the gift is given fundraisers tend to need very little information; much is already known about the donor and their interests. Research may be used to help with stewardship of the donor or their family. For example, news alerts may be used to send a note of congratulations for a birth in the family, a company sold or a marriage announced.

Does this match your experience? When does your organization use research the most?

We don’t need no education

Well, that’s just a big ‘ole fat lie, isn’t it? Any prospect researcher out there who has blown your socks off with a list of great new prospects they got from mining the database has training to thank for it. Ditto someone who proactively provides information from alerts they’ve created from Lexis Nexis or a search engine.

These sorts of skills don’t grow organically out of a new researcher’s brain, I don’t care how smart they are. Investing in prospect research training makes staff more efficient, and it also makes fiscal sense.

For example: everyone on my staff (myself included) is required to attend at least two continuing education seminars or conferences a year as part of their annual performance evaluation. If we’re not keeping up on the latest resources and techniques we’re not doing our best for our clients, and that will sooner or later impact my company’s bottom line for a whole variety of reasons, not least of which is team-member satisfaction. When I get a great employee, I want to keep them.

It’s good business, whether you’re a for-profit or a nonprofit.

Can’t afford it with the budget you’ve got? There are lots of free or low-cost continuing education options out there, too, through professional associations like APRA and through vendors.

Take a look at upcoming events for the next few months both virtual and in real life:

September 18: APRA/WealthEngine web seminar: “The New Face of Prospect Research” (Free to APRA members)

October 10-12: APRA-Canada conference: “Leading Discovery” at the Courtyard Marriott Downtown in Toronto

October 19: NEDRA day-long seminar: “Research Basics Bootcamp” at Northeastern University

November 9: APRA-Upstate NY Fall Conference: “Predictive Modeling from the Ground Up” at the University of Rochester

Not to mention lots and lots of free or low-cost replay seminars from APRA and most of the vendors out there.

Have I left any off? Want to promote your prospect research event? Comment and let us know!

Are you ready for ‘Back to School’?

When there’s a kid in your house, ‘tis the season for starting fresh. New notebooks, new pencils, a new calculator…it’s equal parts thrilling and daunting to look at the pile of brand new things and imagine them being used. Even though I’m long out of school, for me September always brings with it a sense of excitement and nervous anticipation about what’s ahead, even more so than January 1st.

In fundraising (or really in any field that uses reports), now’s a good time to take a fresh look at how we share information with each other to be sure that we’re doing it well.

What might that mean for you?

  • Are the reports you created during the last campaign still working for the between-campaign period?
  • Do you have new leadership that has a lot of information needs (but you’re giving them reports their predecessor helped you create)?
  • What do frontline fundraisers and leadership need to know to do their best work? Is it different than four years ago when the profile format was created?

In this pre-dawn period before the fall season really heats up with meetings and events and homecoming and all of that – now’s a great time to set aside a few hours to talk with end users of your work. Ask your clients…

  • Are we giving you too much information? Too little?
  • Can we create a variety of report types that meet different needs?
  • How can we help you be more self-sufficient?
  • What kinds of information would you like pushed to you?

Be creative! There are all kinds of cool tools out there now for you to try! Do a little fun research to find dashboards … mapping … analytics … apps … even something as simple as re-thinking report formatting can help breathe new life into the mundane. (In fact, I heard a little bit of gossip from the APRA conference: a certain university with an awesome name now formats profiles so they can be easily read on an iPad – how’s that for creative thinking!?)

What do you want to do differently this new school year?


Breaking into prospect research

So after much soul-searching and advice from friends, partners, relatives and career/guidance counselors, you’ve decided that prospect research is the career path for you. Congratulations! It’s the best job in the world. Yes, really.

You’re not alone, though – this time of year I usually speak with three or four people who have recently discovered prospect research and are interested in informational interviews to learn more about breaking into the field. Most of the time they ask, “How can I differentiate myself?” Here’s my advice for ways to do that:

1.  Do your homework

If you want to get into prospect research, you need to prove that you’re a natural at it. Prospective employers are looking for people that can’t help but find the answers to questions.  Here are some to get you started:

  • What professional associations do prospect researchers belong to? Is there a local chapter nearby?
  • Do the professional associations provide introductory training?
  • Are there other places for training available as well?
  • Is there a listserv for prospect researchers? 
  • Are there leaders in the prospect research/fundraising field active on social media? (Follow them! Read what they recommend!)

2.  Network

Contact people in the field near you and ask them to meet you for 30 minutes in person (preferred) or on the phone for an informational interview. Chances are good they are not going to hire you, but if you make a good impression and they hear of a job in the near future, you could end up on someone else’s short list. Some key things to remember:

  • Be respectful of their time. Start wrapping up your call or visit after 28 minutes have passed – if they encourage you to stay longer, follow their lead.
  • Have your list of questions ready – remember, you are the interviewer. 
  • Provide them with a resume at least 24 hours prior to meeting you.
  • If it’s natural, weave into the conversation things you have learned about prospect research from your homework as a basis for your questions. (For example, “I saw on prspct-l that researchers talk a lot about analytics. Would you say this is an area of growth in the field?”)
  • Ask for others they might recommend you speak with (but don’t be surprised if they ask to think it over).
  • Send a thank you note or email within 24 hours.
  • When you do get a job in the field, get back in touch to let them know and thank them again for their time with you.

3.  Educate yourself

Remember those local chapters and those training sessions you found out about when you were doing your homework?  Go.

  • If you’re serious about a career in prospect research (or any field), you need to invest in your future. You’d expect to take the time to learn and to pay for an advanced degree in business, architecture or any other specialty before you broke into those fields, wouldn’t you?

 4.  Offer to volunteer

Some established prospect research shops need extra help that they can’t afford to pay for. In exchange for some of your time, you’ll get valuable on-the-job training and (if you do a good job) a reference and another line or two on your resume.

  • Although nonprofits large and small need volunteers, if you are specifically looking for prospect research training, focus on volunteering where there are experienced researchers that you can learn from.
  • Be willing to do some clerical work in exchange for training on research resources, methods, and search skills, but be clear in your expectations for volunteering what you want to gain from the experience.

 5.  Keep a positive attitude

I know, it’s really hard to break into a new field. But if this was what you were born to do, keep at it. There are nonprofits hiring researchers right now, and there are job boards to keep a watch on. Keep educating yourself and become engaged in the research community.

Have you been successful in breaking into the prospect research field recently?  What suggestions do you have for others?

Researching Trusts and Foundations in Europe… and beyond

A prospect research colleague at a nearby university contacted us at HBG to learn more about researching trusts and foundations around the world. I thought you might like to see the resources we suggested for her.

The always-wonderful Foundation Center in the United States has created a reference page chock-full of free and fee books, guides, websites, databases and more to help you locate information on grant-making organizations worldwide. Check out the page at http://foundationcenter.org/getstarted/topical/international.html which includes country-specific resources. Of course, the Foundation Center has their own trusted Foundation Directory Online for US-based foundation searching.

England-based fundraising consultancy Chapel & York has created a free searchable database called GrantMakers Online. New trusts and foundations are added daily directly by the foundations themselves. Visit http://www.grantmakersonline.com/to have a look.

The Directory of Social Change in London is another long-trusted resource used by researchers and front-line fundraisers alike for information, guides and advice on every aspect of fundraising. Their online resource guides include Trustfunding.org.uk, companygiving.org.uk and governmentfunding.org.uk. Visit their main site at http://www.dsc.org.uk/Home.

And before we leave the UK, we can’t miss GuidestarUK at http://guidestar.org.uk/. Sister site of the very useful Guidestar.org in the US, GuidestarUK provides both free and fee-based access to their database of over 162,000 nonprofit organizations (including grant-making trusts) in England and Wales. Also in the Guidestar family are Guidestar Israel (http://www.guidestar.org.il/), Guidestar India (http://www.guidestarindia.org), and Philanthropy.be (http://www.philanthropy.be), available only in French or Dutch.

The European Foundation Centre in Brussels maintains a vast storehouse of knowledge about foundations in continental Europe and the UK. Visit http://www.efc.be to see their list of members and explore the resource library with white papers, web links, books and more on philanthropic giving trends and information related to foundations in Europe.

Imagine Canada maintains an online searchable database of trusts, foundations, companies and government sources of funding from across Canada and the US. The fee-based directory has information on over 10,000 funders. Visit the Canadian Director of Foundations and Corporations site at http://www.imaginecanada.ca/directory


Also in Canada, FoundationSearch provides fee-based databases highlighting foundation and company funders located in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Visit their website at http://www.foundationsearch.com to take a tour of their searchable resources.

I hope this tour of global sources for grant-making foundations was helpful – please feel free to suggest more!

UPDATE!: From research colleague Liz Rejman who suggested two more Canadian fee-based services. Thanks, Liz!:

CharityCan: http://www.charitycan.ca

Ajah Fundtracker: http://ajah.ca

Ten tips for a successful wealth screening

You may remember a few months ago I talked about how Brown University got a 500% return on the proactive research they did for the Boldly Brown campaign.  One part of that was successfully integrating the results of several wealth screenings that they did.

Because some of the vendors are offering database screenings at a deep discount this quarter, a number of our clients are taking advantage of the savings … which means that it’s screening analysis season here at HBG!

Andrea, Jennifer and Maureen have been collaborating closely as a unit and with our clients on these screenings, and I’ve been really interested as I listen to them share ideas over lunch or at our afternoon tea breaks.

There’s a lot of delight and excitement when a screening is returned, but also some regret when they find an opportunity that was missed.

What I hear from their conversations underscores that how you approach a screening really makes a difference in the end result.

So I thought I’d ask them to share their top tips for making the most of an electronic screening so that we can all boost our return on screenings to Brown proportions.  If you have more tips to share with readers, we’d love for you to add them!

From Andrea:

I’ve become a big fan of wealth screenings lately.  I’d say my top three tips are:

  • Include as much information as possible: middle initials and spouse names are particularly important in helping save time later.
  • Don’t trust the database’s judgment: verify everything! Screenings are a good jumping off point but the human element of analysis is important.
  • Once the data is returned, try several different sorts to see if there are any trends.  I generally start to look for patterns sorting by confirmed assets, then by identified assets and filtering by state, zip, and past giving.  It’s really interesting what you can find!


From Jennifer:

  • Pay particular attention to high net worth individuals in New York City – chances are if they own a co-op apartment that the entire co-op building is being counted in their assets.
  • Cleaning the data beforehand is well worth the time investment. Fix any typos and check to be sure addresses are consistently entered – bad data is the #1 way why matches aren’t made. Time spent on this in advance can save lots of time (which is money!!) confirming later.
  • Don’t include anyone that only has a PO Box address.  Either leave them out or find their street address.


From Maureen:

  • Purchase an address update (NCOA) as part of the screening if you haven’t done one recently – a significant match point for assets is address.
  • If your budget is tight, don’t waste it on screening donors that you already know well.
  • Depending on the size of your screening, make sure to allocate at least one staff member to do the analysis when the results are returned.  Screenings are expensive and you don’t want the results to just sit there gathering dust.
  • Don’t screen if you don’t have the front-line fundraising staff to follow up on the leads that are produced.  Be strategic in the number of prospects that you screen and consider doing rolling screenings.

A Day in the Life

As I listened to my colleagues talking about what they were working on in our staff meeting last Thursday, it occurred to me that the varied nature of the work we do here at HBG is really interesting.  It reminded me that one organization I used to work for put on a yearly program for major donors called “A Day in the Life” that brought together these donors with key scientists, faculty members and researchers for a day of lab tours, presentations on new discoveries, and classroom visits where donors could sit in on a lecture.  Fascinated by a sneak peek into the cutting edge research, discovery and learning that was happening, donors truly felt a greater understanding of what took place there and how their involvement made a difference.

We’re certainly not a part of a formidable university, but we are a research, teaching and learning organization, and I thought that you might find it interesting to take a tour around our offices (both real and virtual) and get a sneak peek into what goes on during a typical day here at HBG.

Let’s start by walking out the door of my office and through the reception area.  Around an angled not-quite-corner is the office where Jennifer and Andrea work.  I see Andrea putting the finishing touches on a report to one of our clients that we just helped with an electronic wealth screening.  The client, a private school in the United Kingdom, wanted to know who their top 10 prospects are within their US-based alumni.  Our contact “J” plans to show the report and brief biographies Andrea created to their US support foundation board next week.  Andrea tells me they’ve got some great potential donors, and she’s looking forward to hearing how the results were received and how the meetings went.

Her office mate Jen is in a buoyant mood today (which to be honest is pretty typical for Jen – especially when Oreos are nearby, as they are today).  Jen just got off the phone with “C,” a fundraiser at a health-related non-governmental organization (NGO).  Jen provides dedicated research support to the NGO 18 hours per week, and right now they are building up their prospect pipeline.  Jen just found out that C got appointments with six of the people she recently identified, and that two individuals Jen previously identified just agreed to serve on a new advisory board.

As I walk out of Jen and Andrea’s office, I come to our common room.  This space serves as a meeting area and lunch room but since it has a bay window, a couch, a coffee table and a few nice chairs we tend to call it the “living room.”  It’s also home to the HBG candy dish, a group effort which currently features a selection of hard caramels brought back from Costa Rica.  Naturally, I have to make sure they’re still edible 😉 as I pass by to visit Maureen, HBG’s Director of Research.

Maureen’s office is on the other side of the living room.  She’s on the phone at the moment, interviewing a director of prospect research at a hospital who is kindly participating in a landscape analysis we’re doing on behalf of a client.  We have discovered through our work with this client that they are completely deserving of all the respect they get as a fundraising powerhouse.  Always eager to stay at the cutting edge, our client wanted to be sure they were performing well compared to their peers.  Maureen is responsible for interviewing prospect research leaders at four peer institutions and pulling together their information in a neat grid to share with our client and all the interviewees.

Moving out of the office and into the ether, Kenny, Rick, Elizabeth and Heather all work from their virtual offices.  As a group we communicate most often with each other via instant messaging when we have something quick to say or ask, so back in my office I get in touch with them via IM to find out what they’re up to at this moment.

Kenny reports that he’s just finished up and sent off two full profiles for the client he works with on a dedicated half-time basis.  His next project is an in-depth profile of a company, one of Kenny’s specialties.

Rick’s in the middle of a prospect identification project for a school of communications at a university.  The school is hoping to partner with high net worth philanthropists in their area with a demonstrated interest in investigative reporting, emerging media technology, sports communication, and science and health journalism.  Rick’s a crossword puzzle fan, and I wonder if projects like this provide him a fun puzzle with a meaningful solution.

Elizabeth and Heather are working collaboratively on a project to parse out the top philanthropists in a particular major US city and discover what these donors support.  They’re working together to provide dedicated full-time support to a major biomedical research center that uses their prospect research skills in a lot of creative and strategic ways.

And me?  I’ve just sent off a set of post-visit recommendations to one of my favorite new clients in Philadelphia.  They’ve just built a young (in experience) but intelligent and eager new prospect research and analytics team.  We’re working together to get them ready for some seriously transformational fundraising and I spent part of last week doing some training with them.  They’re quick learners and I’m really looking forward to visiting with them again soon.

So that’s the tour around the HBG offices today and a glimpse at what a typical day is like for me and my team.  We’re busy and enjoying the variety of projects we’re doing.  How about you?  What projects are you working on today?  We’d love to hear!