Prospect researching can uncover a lot of information about potential supporters, but there are also a few questions it won’t answer. Charlotte Grimshaw and Conor McCarthy debunk some myths to reveal the true power of prospect researching.

What is prospect research?

Prospect research is gathering information from internal and publicly available information to inform your discussions with potential major supporters otherwise known as prospects. You can research individuals, companies or foundations and there are three things you want determine:

  1. How much can they give
  2. How likely are they to give
  3. How connected are they to your organisation

Why do prospect research?

So, you have a new fundraising project or a capital campaign which requires some major gift funding. But who amongst your existing supporters or your broader constituency are most likely to be interested in supporting this project? Or maybe you’re about to make a substantial ask from a potential major donor, but how much should you ask for?

These are some of the things that prospect research can help with.

Most organisations will carry out prospect research at the beginning of the major gift process to identify prospects. If you have a database with thousands of records, you can’t talk to all of those people. You’ll want to identify the wealthiest and most connected/engaged donors in that pool to begin a conversation with them about more substantial support.

But prospect research can also be of use later on in the process. Understanding a potential donor’s interests can help inform your engagement strategy – what to invite them to, what programs to engage them with.

If you don’t already have a direct connection with a prospect, research can help by looking at their network, while understanding wealth and previous giving can help with deciding how much to ask for.

The value of prospect research to fundraising can be in helping to decide:

1. Who to talk to about major gifts

2. Who to involve in those conversations

3. What to talk to them about

4. How much to ask them for

What prospect research can uncover

What you can find out through external research is limited by what’s publicly available, but don’t forget that you may also be able to gather very useful information through data you hold internally. Here are five things that might be of interest for researching individuals:

  1. 1.       Career information: there’s an increasing amount of this available. There are tens of thousands of career biographies in Who’s Who in Australia and Who’s Who in Business in Australia. Company websites and annual reports will often have mini-biographies of their directors and senior executives. But social media has led to a revolution in what’s available – there are now over three million Australians on LinkedIn, and their pages often contain career information.
  2. 2.       Information on income: can you find out what someone earns? In some cases, yes. Remuneration and shareholdings of board members and executive directors of public companies is available from annual reports or from a database such as Connect 4. And where you haven’t got an exact figure, there are resources to help you make an educated guess – salary surveys from the major recruitment firms can give you a sense of how much various jobs pay.
  3. 3.       Information on overall wealth: you already know about the BRW Rich 200, but there are multiple Australian rich lists – including the Mayne Rich List of some 1,500 people worth more than $10 million. That said, there are almost 180,000 millionaires in Australia, so there’s more to Australian wealthy than the rich lists reveal.
  4. 4.       Prior giving: many charities acknowledge their donors via annual reports or donor rolls, so searching these can give a sense of what else your donors are giving to and how much. Over 100,000 gifts drawn from these data sources can be found in FR&C’s searchable online database GiftSearch.
  5. 5.       Networks: who knows who? You can find out if one of your board members sits on a board or committee with a prospect by investigating their networks online.

What you can’t find out

  1. 1.       Private information: contrary to popular opinion, not every piece of information about your life is available on the internet. If it’s not available in the public domain, it’s not available.
  2. 2.       Information on employees of private companies: you can find some information here, but not as much as you can for public companies. A database such as Dun & Bradstreet Company360 will give you some information on Australia’s top 40,000 private and publicly unlisted companies, but that won’t include executive remuneration.
  3. 3.       Donations not in the public domain: if a nonprofit doesn’t thank its donors publicly or donors request anonymity, then you can’t find out about those gifts. In particular, Australia differs substantially from the United States of America (USA) in how transparent foundation giving has to be. In the USA, foundations file a 990 form detailing their directors, assets, and giving, and those are widely available. Not so in Australia.
  4. 4.       Debt: you might have found out about someone’s income, their shareholdings, how much they paid for their house. What you haven’t found out (and won’t) is how big their mortgage and other debts are. Income and disposable income are very different things.

A final tip

There are lots of research resources out there, but remember there is such a thing as too much information. Decide what you want to find out before starting your research, and don’t get sidetracked!

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