Needle In The Haystack

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

A critical step in securing major gifts is knowing your donors. Approaching donors as individuals, not bank accounts, humanizes the major gifts process and takes the sting out of ‘the ask.’ What is the linchpin to getting to know your donors? Research!

Comprehensive donor research can help you get over the hump of making that call or sending that note. Donor research, or prospect research, not only reduces the fear of the ask, it is also the first step in building relationships with donors. It tells you about your donor’s interests and desires, and it helps you find the ‘needle in the haystack’ so you can focus your personal attention on donors that have the highest capacity to give.

There are several aspects of prospect research.  One of the best ways is to run a wealth screen of your entire donor database, using a service such as Donor Search. Cross referencing hundreds of pieces of public information, Donor Search will provide you a complete wealth profile of each prospect. This profile includes: their giving history to other charities, any Boards of Directors they may sit on, any private foundations they may be affiliated with (and the assets of those foundations), SEC holdings, etc. All of this data produces an estimated capacity for your donor, an amount your donor could reasonably be cultivated for over a 3-5 year period.

But there’s more. It’s always helpful to vet, or back up, your wealth screen results by looking at specific pieces of data more closely; especially for your major donors. For instance, doing a Google search to surface your donor’s hobbies and interests can let you know if they run marathons, play in a softball league, or attend significant fundraising events on a regular basis.  Looking at websites like Zillow can help you verify the value of a donor’s real estate, with an indication of what their mortgage might be.

You can then take their real estate value and vet it against their employment history, using sites such as LinkedIn, and use websites such as Glassdoor, to determine salary histories for recent positions in the field. In this way you start to get a picture of the donor’s revenue vs. expenses with some indication of what their discretionary income might be. The donor’s history of giving and their estimated discretionary income are the two most significant factors in determining a their ability to give to your organization for the first time, or to increase the size of their gifts.

By the way, are you uncomfortable with the seemingly invasive, ‘big brother’ aspect of prospect research? Well, can you imagine a for-profit company seeking an investor’s support without first doing their homework? Reputable researchers adhere to ethical guidelines set forth by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement. These professional organizations require protection of donor’s rights and provide guidance on lawful and ethical collection of donor information. In short, a prospect researcher only looks at donor data that is public information and relevant to cultivating the donor.

As Managing Director, I oversee the prospect research processes for all of our clients at LAPA. I would be glad to speak with you about what your organization is doing, our could be doing to surface and vet the donors on your database that could take you to the next level.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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