Prospect Research: The Breakthrough Guide to the Basics

Prospect research can be a complex subject, but it’s vital to growing and developing your nonprofit’s donor base.

With over $373 billion donated last year, giving is on the rise, which means that prospect research is more important than ever for capitalizing on your donors’ generosity and building strong relationships with them.

In this guide, we’ll cover all of the basics, from the definition down to the nitty-gritty details of how prospect research can work for you!

Specifically, we’ll answer these questions:

Let’s get started!

What is prospect research?

Prospect research is the process of learning more about a specific donor or a group of donors so that your nonprofit can cultivate and manage them more effectively.

Prospect research is often used to identify and learn more about potential high-level donors who are giving below their true capacity. Major donors and planned gift donors, in particular, are often the subjects of this research.

To actually perform this important research, nonprofits can either:

  • Pinpoint an existing donor and fill in missing information that can give the organization a better sense of the donor’s giving capacity.
  • Screen a group of supporters, such as event attendees on an RSVP list, to identify new donors who may have high giving potential.

In both cases, the nonprofit seeks to gain a better understanding of their contributors by finding and assessing key data fields. Let’s talk about this point in more detail.

What data does prospect research target?

Nonprofit CRMs are full of data fields that compose your donors’ profiles (or those of your volunteers and board members). Some data points can be quite telling when it comes to understanding your donors.

Specifically, you’ll want to learn more about a donor’s ability and affinity for giving. That means that you need to understand how much your donors can give and their willingness to do so. Both of these factors are vital for gaining a comprehensive understanding of who your donors are.

We can break down these characteristics into specific data points.

A donor’s giving ability can be understood through:

  • Real estate ownership.
  • SEC transactions.
  • Business affiliations.
  • Political giving.

While this information could be captured in a wealth screening, it’s not enough to know how much your donors can give. It’s also important to know how invested they are in your cause, so that you can make an appropriate ask (and in the case of a new prospect, ensure that they want to give to your nonprofit in the first place!).

That’s why it’s important to analyze a donor’s giving ability in tandem with their affinity.

A donor’s affinity for giving can be understood through:

  • Past gifts to your nonprofit.
  • Past gifts to other nonprofits.
  • Philanthropic involvement.
  • Personal interests and connections.

With this data, your nonprofit can better understand your donors’ value to your organization so that you can make targeted asks that don’t leave money on the table.

Prospect research takes the fear out of fundraising; not only will your team know who to ask, but they’ll also have a better understanding of how much to ask for. This insider information can inspire confidence in your frontline fundraisers.

Now that you understand what prospect research is and what kind of information it identifies, let’s outline how a nonprofit can actually perform prospect research.

How does prospect research work?

To actually perform prospect research, your organization will need to invest time, resources, money, or a combination of the three. There are several strategies to choose from, depending on the size and stability of your organization.

To get started, let’s outline your options!

Prospect Screening Company

A prospect screening company can be ideal for larger organizations with the means to handle a lot of data.

Screening companies compare your donors against thousands of databases to fill in gaps in your prospect profiles and reveal information that you wouldn’t have known.

Then, these companies rank your prospects according to their potential, so your nonprofit can start strategizing.

This DonorSearch resource breaks down the questions you should ask before seeking out a screening company, so that your organization is as informed as possible!

Consultants

Consultants are experts who can lead prospect screenings or otherwise advise your nonprofit about all things prospect research.

Consultants are ideal for organizations who need to analyze a large batch of data all at once.

Since they’re temporary hires, your organization can save money in the long run by working with consultants only when you need them.

DIY

If you’re a small or new nonprofit, you may need to take on the task yourself. Public databases and resources can be utilized by talented team members to find out more information about important donors.

Though this method can be time-consuming, it saves funds where they’re tight.

In-House

Established organizations may have a full team assigned to prospect research that works internally.

This model is popular with universities, where donor pools fluctuate with every graduating class.

Why is prospect research important?

All of your donors are valuable, and you should be grateful for their gifts! However, developing your donor base is vital to making progress toward your mission.

It’s much more cost-effective to retain your donors than it is to acquire new ones; prospect research can help you make the most of the donors you already have and reach out to only your most likely prospects, saving your resources.

Plus, major and planned gift donors really keep nonprofits afloat. Their gifts will constitute a large piece of the fundraising pie, and prospect research is key for finding these high-impact contributors in the first place.

After all, major donors may be hidden in your database. It’s not unusual for donors with high giving capacities to give smaller gifts to online fundraising campaigns, such as large scale crowdfunding initiatives. This is often the case because they’re not comfortable sending large gifts over these channels.

Without prospect research, you’ll never know which donors have more giving potential. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll reveal themselves without a direct ask. That’s why it’s important to look into your database, especially as online fundraising grows in popularity.

Most importantly, nonprofits can use prospect research to build stronger donor relationships. You need your donors to accomplish your mission; the least you can do is meet them halfway by learning about who they are.

How can I use prospect research?

Aside from identifying major donors, prospect research can also enhance your fundraising strategy on the whole. After all, the more data you have, the better you can take your donors’ preferences into account.

Let’s break down the ways in which prospect research can elevate your fundraising strategy.

Determine your campaign

Understanding your supporters can help you create engaging fundraising campaigns and events that will bring in a lot of donations.

Prospect research can reveal donors’ interests to provide these insights. For example, if you notice that donors have given substantially to charity auctions hosted by other organizations, then you might want to adopt this event into your annual campaign.

As such, prospect research can help you narrow down your fundraising ideas and determine the campaign that works best for your donors.

Maximize your communications

Part of prospect research is filling in important data fields that tell you about your donors.

These data fields include a donor’s communication and giving preferences. In other words, how do donors want to interact with your organization and how do they want to give?

You can send donors more effective communications that they’ll actually respond to if you pay attention to their preferences.

For example, donors may prefer to communicate with your organization via:

  • Email.
  • Traditional mail.
  • Phone calls.
  • Your website.
  • Text messages.
  • Social media.
  • In person conversations.

Knowing how your donors want to speak with you can help you send them the most targeted, effective appeals.

Additionally, you can also use prospect research to determine your donors’ preferred giving methods so that you can craft the most effective multichannel marketing.

If, for example, a donor prefers to send checks to your organization, but enjoys the ease of online communications, you may find that an e-check or direct debit strategy would work well for this individual. If you find these giving patterns across your donor data, then you can use what you’ve learned to appeal to your donors on a mass scale.

Build your donor network

Some of the most important data that prospect research can uncover are your donors’ personal and professional relationships.

If you learn that your donors are friends with other high-value prospects, then you can leverage those relationships to gain an “in” with a new donor.

Similarly, a donor’s business affiliations can help you identify opportunities for corporate philanthropy. Donors who work at matching gift-eligible companies can be informed of the application process, so that they can double the impact of their future gifts.

Even more so, your organization can seek out partnerships with companies who can support your future fundraising events.

If many of your donors work for a company, then the CEO may be more inclined to lend a hand with in-kind donations, event support, or traditional (but invaluable) monetary donations.

To learn more about the top matching gift companies, check out this 360MatchPro resource!

Now that you have the basics of prospect research down pat, it’s time to apply what you’ve learned so that you can develop your understanding of your donors.

Then, you can take an informed, data-driven approach to fundraising, build stronger donor relationships, and and ultimately raise more for your cause!

The Alford Group is pleased to partner with DonorSearch, a prospect research, screening, and analytics company that focuses on proven philanthropy. This article was contributed by Ryan Woroniecki, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at DonorSearch.

Getting the Most from Your Board Webinar Q&A

By Molly Hansen and Laura Edman

During our recent webinar Getting the Most from Your Board: It’s a two-way street we had several questions from participants that we weren’t able to answer before the webinar ended. We’d like to share those questions – and our answers – with you here!

Q: Our board members are really busy people and never seem to have enough time to devote to our organization. How do you deal with that?

A: Be sure your meetings happen when the most board members can be there and change the day and/or time if needed. Be careful that board members don’t overcommit and sign up for too many activities or responsibilities. Think about how many meetings you have and cut back on unnecessary meetings or offer remote attendance options (video/phone).

Q: Our board attendance is really low. How can we encourage better attendance?

A: Be sure that your meetings are productive and really well-run. They should start and finish on time. Include key decisions and action items and discussion of strategic issues on the agenda, not just a bunch of reports. Include a “mission moment” that helps educate and inspire board members.

Q: What can we do to find and recruit really great board members?

A: Ask your current board members and your key staff for their ideas; share the job description and key characteristics you’re looking for with them so they know the kind of people you’re looking for. Review your donor list and consider people who are very loyal and/or generous donors. Review board lists from other successful not-for-profit organizations in your area and see if there is any overlap with your donor list. Once you’ve identified some great prospects, treat the recruitment process as strategically as you would a major donor approach.

Q: How do you “back track” with board members who came on the board with different expectations than the newer board members?

A: Meet with them 1-on-1 to explain the current expectations and why they are different than when they joined the board; find out if/why they are resistant to the current expectations; work with them to slowly “adopt” the current expectations. If all else fails, practice the “bless and release” strategy and also find another way for them to stay involved and engaged with your organization.

Q: If we want to set a minimum giving threshold for board members, what’s a good rule of thumb for how to set the actual dollar amount? And then, how do we communicate that minimum?

A: Minimum giving thresholds are complicated issues for nonprofits to consider. It depends on the size and mission of the organization. I know a major theatre that has a $50,000 “give and get” policy and a social service agency that has a $500 threshold. We recommend that all board members make a personal gift even if they have secured a contribution from their business. If there are community members on the board who have very limited means, we recommend that they give to the best of their means, at a level they would consider generous – even if it’s $5. The time to communicate this is in early recruiting conversations and include it in documented board expectations.

Q: What do you think about the pluses and minuses of users of your services being on the board. For example, for a school, what about parents of current students. Or for human services, what about an under-resourced person receiving your services?

A: It makes sense in many organizations to have what we often call ‘community members’ on boards and with some nonprofits they are required by their bylaws to have a percentage of their board comprising people who use their services, or live in the neighborhood.

Q: What is your opinion on board term limits?

A: We believe in term limits – even if it’s three three-year terms. Term limits require a disciplined and strategic approach to board development. Term limits bring additional talents and perspectives to the table. They allow organizations to “bless and release” underperforming board members. And, term limits recharge the batteries of the full board with new faces, new connections and new ideas. We recommend dividing the board into ‘classes’ and staggering terms. And be sure to keep engaged people involved after they rotate off through chairing or serving on committees – then invite them to re-join after the appropriate period of time.

Q: How do we get access to Board material samples that you mentioned?

A: You can download our full Board Toolkit here.

Q: What are some of the best online/free sources we can use to research potential board members?

A: We invite you to mine your donors for good board members: look for the donors who have given over many consecutive year and/or who are most generous. If they aren’t interested in your board, seek their advice on identifying new board members. Sit down with your current board members and do a relationship diagram or mapping exercise with them. Download: Relationship Mapping

And finally, consider these online tools:

Volunteer Match

LinkedIn for Nonprofits

If you have another question for us about how to get the most from your Board, send an email to either Molly Hansen, Vice President (mhansen@alford.com) or Laura Edman, CFRE, Vice President (ledman@alford.com).

Giving USA Numbers and Beyond

TAG group photo2Photo: Alford Group staff at As Good as It Gives: America’s Philanthropy Today on June 17, 2016 at Mesirow Financial in Chicago.

 

The Alford Group co-sponsored As Good as It Gives: America’s Philanthropy Today with Mesirow Financial in Chicago to share this year’s Giving USA numbers and discuss what the numbers mean for not-for-profit organizations.

Here are the main takeaways:

  1. Giving is on the rise

The Alford Group’s Executive Vice President Sharon Tiknis and Senior Consultant Diane Knoepke presented to the room and reported that 2015 was America’s most generous year ever, as donors collectively gave over $373 billion. Slide 7Giving is on a two-year increase, as 2014 was previously charted as the most generous year of giving. Since the Great Recession ended in 2009, giving has increased by 23 percent. Individuals continue to represent the majority of giving in America at 71 percent of total giving in 2015.

 

  1. Today’s donor looks less like Ned Flanders and more like Montgomery Burns
Flanders-Burns

Dr. Daniel Hungerman from the University of Notre Dame spoke to us about long term giving trends. Even though giving to religion-affiliated organizations currently makes up approximately one-third (32 percent) of all giving, the trend is that as religion declines in the U.S. so does giving to religious organizations (fewer Ned Flanders donors).

[Simpsons characters Ned Flanders (left) and Montgomery Burns (right).]

At the same time, there is a rise in the inequality of giving. Dr. Hungerman reviewed the findings in his research showing what has long been the 80/20 rule now looks more like a 90/10 rule in philanthropic giving where 90% of the funds raised come from just 10% of donors (more Montgomery Burns donors).

Disheartened by this news? Don’t be. Despite this fact, philanthropy continues to be quite democratic in the United States, according to Dr. Patrick Rooney at the Lilly School, and when you consider that there are more American donors than American voters, those small gifts add up to make a meaningful difference.

  1. The way forward is through mission alignment

What does this all mean for you and your organization? The most effective way forward is to think strategically about mission alignment. This means aligning your operations with the outcome-focused vision from which your organization was built.

Specifically, this means aligning your strategy and tactics with your mission to ensure you are efficient and effective. This also means aligning your impact measurement with your mission to measure the outcomes of your work versus the outputs of your work. Finally, this means aligning donor messaging with your mission so that you are appealing to the donors’ passions rather than only the organization’s needs. The key is to always have your mission and your donors in mind.

To go even deeper and tackle these topics and more, please join us for The Alford Group Summer Webinar Series where we will explore bold strategies to advance philanthropy. We hope you can join us!

Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy is the seminal publication reporting on the sources and uses of charitable giving in the United States. The production and release of Giving USA is the result of the collaborative efforts of Giving USA Foundation, a public service initiative of The Giving Institute, and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The Alford Group is a founding member of the Giving Institute.

One Key Practice of Today’s Leading Cause Marketers

Feature Image 5 Midway through last week’s Cause Marketing Forum (CMF), during Katrina McGhee’s great talk on personal branding, I noted that a significant number of the CMF presenters—representing both causes and companies—were explicitly emphasizing one key practice. These cause marketing leaders focus on their strengths. They understand their organizational strengths and partner with others to mitigate their organizational weaknesses. In contrast to the trends earlier this decade when it started to feel like major cause marketers were shifting to owning self-made cause platforms over building partnership portfolios, this strengths-based approach is facilitating significant creativity and impact.

Instead of adopting a certain trend in structure or activation, today’s cause marketing leaders are focusing on what will work for them. For some, that is creating an owned national platform with local and agency partners providing support. For others, it is forging one or more partnerships of complementary opposites who each bring what the other needs. Through collaboration, they are then able to achieve the business and social impact results that they could not have achieved on their own.

Four Examples from Cause Marketing Forum 2016:

A few examples (of many, many more) that I found particularly instructive from last week’s event:

Youth1) Aria Finger, CEO of DoSomething.org, highlighted how they use their deep understanding of what makes young people tick to ensure that their partnerships are meaningful (and hip).

  1. 2) Ido Leffler, Co-Founder and CEO of Yoobi, spoke of Yoobi’s core competencies (product, design, and creativity) and their need to find retail and cause partners to bring their vision for business and social impact to life, saying “We do what we do best and we partner with others to do the rest.”

Uber

3) Michael Meyer, Vice President of Donated Goods Retail and Marketing at Goodwill Industries International, spoke about how the organization is using its brand strength and retail footprint to provide value for partners, in return for the new audiences and distribution channels that partners like Uber and The Container Store provide.

4) 2016 Halo Award Best Digital Campaign Gold Winners Samsung and Autism Speaks Canada provided countless examples including the profound use of Samsung’s technological strength along with Autism Speaks Canada’s expertise and credibility in serving families living with autism. Together, they created and promoted an app that uses the rear-facing camera on a mobile device to help children with autism practice working on eye contact.

Whether we are designing a platform, portfolio, or single partnership, we must first get real about the strength of the currencies, competencies and capabilities that we have in the context of what we want to accomplish. Then, we need to fill the gaps through custom alliances that both expand on others’ strengths and fill a gap for them.

Thanks and kudos to each of the phenomenal cause marketers who presented and won awards at last week’s event.

Diversity and Inclusion – the conversation between foundations and not-for-profits: Thoughts from Brenda Asare

What’s happening around diversity and inclusion among foundations?

At the AFP 2016 International Conference, Brenda Asare, President & CEO of The Alford Group spoke briefly about foundations and their interactions with not-for-profits around diversity and inclusion.

Having trouble viewing this video? See it here.

The Long Road to Equity is Paved with Data, Innovation and Optimism

At The Alford Group, diversity is one of our core values and we are proud to have been the diversity partner with AFP and the AFP Foundation for the past 17 years. We hosted this year’s AFP Diversity Session, “Foundations Empowering Change: Not Business As Usual,” which featured a facilitator and panelists who are committing funds, insights, counsel, social capital, time and other resources toward building diversity, equity, and inclusion in their own organizations and the organizations with which they partner. They are:

  • Linetta Gilbert, Managing Partner, Gilbert & Associates (Facilitator)
  • Miki Akimoto, U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management
  • HeHershe Busuego, The Boston Foundation
  • Beth Smith, The Hyams Foundation

IMG_0139 -2

Let’s start at the very beginning…a very good place to start…

Remember that song from The Sound of Music? Just like Do-Re-Mi, we must understand and use a shared set of building blocks if we want to sing together. Linetta Gilbert provided us with a primer and reminder of the key terms and concepts we all need to use to share and advance our ongoing conversation. Continue reading

Have Your Cake and Share it Too

How can corporate/nonprofit relationships be mutually beneficial?

Have your cake and share it too; Image from httpbestfriendsforfrosting.com/2012/12/christmas-dessert-table-all-wrapped-up/img_6063/#lightbox/0/Relationships between corporations and nonprofits can drive important outcomes for all parties, including employees, customers, and beneficiaries. The approach to any partnership, however, can dictate its success or lack thereof. The context for your relationship can range from a hands-off, in-name-only agreement to what we’re calling a “Corporate Social Compact,” one which maximizes the results of your work together. Continue reading

Welcoming 2016, remembering Jimmie Alford, creating legacies

 

The following post comes to us from Maree Bullock, Vice President of The Alford Group, and wife of the late Jimmie Alford. We couldn’t think of a better way to ring in 2016 than to remember Jimmie’s contribution to our lives and the nonprofit sector, especially its future leaders. Enjoy the rest of 2015 and we’ll see you in the new year. Cheers.

 

Maree BullockDear Colleagues —

We create legacies throughout our lives — Some we choose — Others choose us!

Several years ago Jimmie chose to teach, mentor and coach the future generation of leaders in the not-for-profit sector. He was very intentional about that goal. In a formal way he taught at North Park University and Notre Dame University. Informally he mentored and coached hundreds — never turning down a request or an opportunity to explore career opportunities in the sector with those seeking his advice and counsel.

A few weeks ago, I hosted 5 Alford Scholars currently receiving financial assistance from the Jimmie R. Alford Scholarship Fund at North Park University. During our lunch together each scholar Jimmie Alfordshared their life story — their adversities and struggles — their determination to create their own legacies in the sector. Much of what they shared mirrored Jimmie’s own challenges and struggles. Each of the scholars learned about Jimmie’s life, determination and impact.

Today there is $250,000 in the Jimmie R. Alford Scholarship Fund. Fourteen scholars have benefited to date. Each year four new scholars benefit from the Fund.

As I write this I ask myself “What legacy am I intentionally creating? How lasting and impactful will it be?”

What legacy are you intentionally creating?

Merry Christmas and happy New Year to each of you! 2016 provides a new year to create new legacies and enhance already-created legacies.

Maree G. Bullock

Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother

From Chore Girl to Cinderella: Transforming your Annual Giving Program to Belle of the Ball

Consider one of the most popular childhood tales, Cinderella, the story about a chore girl’s transformation from neglect to fairy tale success. Cinderella lived her life in obscurity, abandoned and often mistreated by her “family,” her best attributes going unnoticed. Despite her circumstances, she still aspired to greatness. It was not until she received significant support and attention, however, that she came to achieve her dream of living a better life.

Similar to the Cinderella story, annual giving programs have become the chore girl of nonprofit fundraising. Like Cinderella’s mean step-sisters, major gift programs and large events are in the limelight, demanding valuable attention and all the best efforts a development office has to offer. Granted, they are important elements of the story and result in very real and meaningful contributions toward an organization’s revenue goals, but the focus on the visible and demanding major gift and event programs often results in neglect of annual gifts.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

With attention, support, and a little strategic planning, you can transform your annual giving program from the chore girl to the belle of the ball that it should be. Continue reading

Major Gifts Donations: Return to Sender?

Last month, the Girl Scouts of Western Washington were in quite the predicament. When confronted with the dilemma to either accept a $100,000 major gift that would be highly beneficial to the advancement of the organization and some of its participants, or return the donation and lose out on the funding but avoid having to discriminate against transgender girls, it was evident that the Girl Scouts of Western Washington prioritized their mission over money. But they didn’t stop with returning the donation. As any smart and adaptable organization would, they leveraged the opportunity and started an online fundraising campaign to recoup the $100,000, attracting nearly three times the goal in less than a week. The Girl Scouts of Western Washington’s actions showcased the organization’s values, their ability and willingness to stand up for those values, and reinforced their brand, effectively telling the organization’s story and connecting with donors who hold the same values. In the words of Megan Ferland, Girl Scouts of Western Washington’s CEO, “every girl should have the opportunity to be a girl scout if she wants to.”

So what can your nonprofit take from this story? To start, it is important to identify under what circumstance you should return a major gift or donation. Continue reading