Prospect Research and Major Gift Fundraising: A Guide


When it comes to your nonprofit’s annual fundraising goals, securing major gifts is likely among your most pressing concerns. Where will they come from? How large will they be? Especially if your organization is carrying out a long-term fundraising project like a capital campaign, these questions are no doubt on your mind.

Luckily, by incorporating prospect research into your major gifts strategy, your nonprofit will be well equipped to identify likely sources of the types of major gifts you need.

Prospect research describes the process of compiling and analyzing data on potential donors that can inform your nonprofit of their giving capacity (how much they could reasonably donate) and their giving propensity (how likely it is that they’d choose to donate to your organization).

Once your nonprofit gathers a robust collection of data through prospect research, you can make informed decisions on things like which donors to cultivate, who to approach for major gifts, and what size gifts you should request as part of your overall fundraising strategy.

Want to learn more about how to leverage prospect research to boost your nonprofit’s major gifts strategy? Let’s go over some of the basics of prospect research and how it can impact the way your organization secures major gifts. These concepts include:

  1. Biographical indicators.
  2. Giving history.
  3. Giving capacity.
  4. Matching gift opportunities.

With the right prospect research in place, your nonprofit will be empowered to secure more major gifts and reach your fundraising goals faster. Let’s explore these powerful prospect research concepts!

Bonus! Conducting detailed prospect research should begin during the feasibility study phase of any large-scale fundraising project, and no later! Visit DonorSearch to learn more about improving your feasibility studies moving forward.

1. Biographical information.

Before your team can begin to break down your prospect lists into specific, targeted segments, it’s important to ensure that you have the right foundational data in place on your donors.

Particularly, ensuring that you have consistent fields of biographical information on file to reference is a key step in the prospect research process.

If your nonprofit has inconsistently collected data (such as duplicate fields of similar information), or gaps in your donors’ profiles (including information that has been collected for some donors but not for your entire constituency), you may be missing key indicators of an individual’s likelihood of donating a major gift.

With this in mind, it’s important for your nonprofit to take the time to flesh out your donors’ profiles to include some baseline biographical fields. Once you do so, you can more accurately assess an individual’s viability as a major gift donor. These important fields include:

  • Name. While it might seem obvious, it’s worth confirming the legal name of your prospects from the get-go. Down the line when you may be researching their real estate holdings, tax history, or other publicly available wealth indicators, it’s important to know that you are learning about the right person.
  • Date of birth. Similarly, knowing an individual’s date of birth can help you confirm that the person you are researching is the person you want to approach with a major gift ask. Knowing someone’s real date of birth can also help when segmenting prospect lists by age or when planning a targeted donation request.
  • Marital status. Whether or not a prospect is married can reveal a lot about their propensity to give, as well as outline their connections to other potential donors. If a female prospect has taken her husband’s last name, learning her maiden name can reveal a relationship to her blood relatives that you wouldn’t have known previously.
  • Address. Having an individual’s address on file is also quite helpful. By knowing where a prospect lives, you can more accurately estimate their net worth, uncover connections to friends, neighbors, or local schools, and better assess whether they might be inclined to give to regionally-focused fundraising campaigns.
  • Institutional affiliations. Knowing the types of institutional affiliations your prospects have is crucial. In addition to learning what other philanthropic organizations they support, you might also want to learn the political party they support, their religion/house of worship, or their university alma mater.

The bottom line: When it comes to securing major gifts, building a strong foundation for your prospect research analysis is crucial. Be sure that you’re starting the process with a comprehensive donor database in line!

2. Giving history.

After you’ve ensured that your initial prospect research is in place, another area of interest for your nonprofit should be prospects’ giving histories.

When you have an accurate history of a prospect’s philanthropic activities, your major gift officer can better estimate an individual’s likelihood of providing a major gift to your campaign.

To build the most accurate giving history possible on your prospects, there are a few key areas of interest in which your team should investigate, including their:

  • History with your organization. Have these prospects donated to your cause before? How much did they donate? When did they give? If they haven’t donated, have they volunteered for your nonprofit or attended fundraising events? When targeting prospects for major gifts, you want to approach individuals with a proven history of support.
  • History with other organizations. Which additional philanthropic organizations are they affiliated with? Are they active, recurring, or lapsed givers with this nonprofit? As you decide which prospects will make successful major gift candidates, extend asks to those who have previously supported organizations comparable to yours.
  • Gift history. Knowing a prospect’s gift history (the number and size of donations they have previously given) can be an excellent indicator of whether or not they are good candidates for major giving. Gift history is one of the most accurate metrics for predicting future giving behavior.

The bottom line: Determining the ideal candidates for major gift giving depends substantially on analyzing their giving history. Once you know their pattern of philanthropy, you can better predict whether or not they’ll turn down your solicitation.

3. Giving capacity.

Assessing a prospect’s giving capacity is a crucial step towards identifying major gift candidates. As previously mentioned, one’s giving capacity reflects their economic ability to donate.

As your team looks for individuals to provide the major gifts necessary to reach your fundraising goals, knowing how much a person can give helps you avoid leaving money on the table.

When developing detailed prospect profiles, your nonprofit should be looking for publically available wealth information to inform how you assess giving capacity, with fields including:

  • Real estate holdings. If a prospect owns substantial real estate holdings, that’s a good indicator that they would be able to donate a major gift. Real estate holdings can be accessed through municipal records as well as through house hunting websites like Zillow.
  • Political contributions. Just as past philanthropic donations are a good indicator of a person’s likelihood of giving to your nonprofit, past political donations can indicate a person’s giving capacity.

Stock ownership. SEC filings are publicly available and can help your team determine the wealth of your major gift prospects. Similarly, if your prospect’s stocks have just gone up in value, that can indicate that now is a good time to make your major gift ask.

Bonus! Assessing the giving capacity of potential donors is part of a larger subfield of prospect research called wealth screening.

The bottom line: It’s not enough to simply know whether or not a donor is likely to support your organization. When securing major gifts, it’s integral to know prospect’s giving capacity.

4. Matching gift opportunities.

One specific area of interest when it comes to maximizing the impact of major gifts is identifying a prospect’s matching gift eligibility in your donor dataset.

Many businesses offer gift matching to their employees when they make donations. If your nonprofit doesn’t know which prospects work for businesses of have a gift matching program in place, you may be missing out on a great opportunity to augment a donor’s major gift.

Some donors may know that their employers match philanthropic gifts, and some maybe unaware that such a program is in place. Even more might know about the program but not be aware of how to complete the corporate gift matching process.

For these reasons, your prospect research process should include some of the following procedures to maximize your knowledge of who to approach for major gifts:

  • Segment by gift matching eligibility. Create lists of donors whose employers match gifts, and then use this data to better prioritize prospects for major gift solicitation.
  • Identify gift matching deficits. Do very few of your prospects work for companies with matching gift opportunities? Perhaps it’s worth reevaluating your prospect lists and expanding your search to include more matching gift eligible donors.
  • Determine matching gift awareness. If you uncover that prospects eligible for gift matching are not aware of their eligibility, this can indicate that they will need direction in completing the gift matching process in order to maximize their major gift.

Bonus! Looking to boost matching gift results for your nonprofit? Visit 360MatchPro to learn more about automating the matching gift pipeline.

The bottom line: When a prospect’s major gift is matched by their employer, that’s a win-win for both your nonprofit and the donor. Be sure to segment prospect lists by matching gift eligibility to make the most of your supporters’ donations!

Finding donors for your nonprofit’s major gift needs depends upon diligent prospect research. With this guide in mind, your team is ready to get started. Good luck!

Bill Tedesco is a well-known entrepreneur in the field of philanthropy with over 15 years of experience leading companies serving the fundraising profession. Bill has personally conducted original research to identify markers of philanthropy and has developed modeling and analytical products that use those markers to accurately predict future giving. Since 2007, Bill has been the founder, CEO and Managing Partner of DonorSearch.

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