Originally posted in March 2014, updated in March 2023
One of the most enjoyable aspects of major gift fundraising is getting to build relationships with donors—relationships that last beyond one donation and remain strong even when it’s challenging for donors to give. But often nonprofits squander the relationship-building opportunities given to them by not doing any research.
Conducting thorough donor research lays the foundation for getting to know your donors as people first and supporters second. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the donor research process and how to compile donor prospect profiles that can inform your interactions with potential donors.
What is a donor prospect profile?
A donor prospect profile is a donor management tool that organizes all the information an organization gathers about a potential donor.
According to DonorSearch’s guide to prospect profiles, this can include details about the individual’s:
- Community involvement
- Career and employer
You can also use a prospect profile to keep track of interactions with a prospect. Think of it as a living document that you’re always adding to when you get new information.
7 Tools You Can Use to Create Prospect Profiles
Creating a profile for a potential new major donor starts with conducting thorough research, and to do so, you’ll need the right tools on your side.
Below are eight tools you can use to get a fuller picture of who your prospective donors are.
Before we get started, a word of warning: the goal of research isn’t to snoop. We’re only going to look at publicly available information, but it still might feel intrusive. Your integrity is always worth more than the biggest donation a person could give. Always. (Click here to tweet that.)
A good practice is to run yourself through the prospecting tool first to help you see what comes up and how accurate it is. When I recently ran myself through the steps outlined below, I was shocked to see myself listed on the boards of nonprofits I’d completely forgotten about. It’d been over a decade since the organizations closed, but they still showed up on the list.
1. Your Donor Database
The best place to start your research is in your own database.
For each potential donor, look at:
- Their basic address information (such as city or state)
- The “notes” on their files
- The “actions” or “interactions” tab
- The “relationships” or “associations” tab
This information is only as good as the ongoing record-keeping of major gift officers. In my experience, major gift officers and nonprofit leaders rely far too much on their memory when working with major donors. Most appointments and interactions need to be documented. One client called this the “hit by a moose” plan: what would happen if you were hit by a moose? Could your nonprofit pick up where you left off? (For those of you not in rural areas, if you’re hit by a moose, the moose usually wins.)
Be persistent and tenacious in recording all the pertinent information in your prospect profile.
If you don’t have the prospect’s address or phone number, WhitePages.com is a great place to look. (Again, try searching yourself first to see what addresses come up.) This information helps fill out their profile and is required to do the more detailed wealth screening later.
One of the best donor research tools is Google. Searching a prospect’s name tends to pull up lots of information. Depending on the prospect, you will find corporate bios, alumni notes, and even community volunteer lists. You can refine your search by putting the name in quotes, adding a location, or searching their name and their business name together.
When you copy and paste any helpful tidbits onto your prospect profile, include the URL of the reference so your team can quickly read more. I like to save helpful webpages as a PDF and add them to the prospect’s file on my computer or my nonprofit’s shared server. This way, anyone can see the source material even if the webpage is removed in the future.
I also do an image search on Google. Once I find a photo that seems to be accurate, I save it to the prospect’s folder in the shared drive and paste it into the top of their prospect profile. It’s much easier to communicate with a donor when you have a face to put to their name.
4. Wealth screening tool like DonorSearch
Wealth screening tools like DonorSearch, WealthEngine, or iWave pull together all sorts of publicly-accessible wealth information and indicators: real estate holdings, stock holdings, directorships, plane or yacht licenses, etc. They also report on prospects’ charitable giving and lists if people are on boards of foundations as listed by Guidestar. And it will give you a suggested range to ask for a donation based on the prospect’s capacity.
But be careful. Many wealth screening tools only focus on whether a prospect has the financial means to donate, not if they’d be interested in making a major gift. And they don’t let you customize the report, removing listings you know don’t belong to the donor. Here’s where DonorSearch shines! They allow you to remove listings in a profile that you know to be inaccurate. They even score information reliability based on their experience doing this sort of research.
More importantly, DonorSearch is weighted more toward demonstrated philanthropy than toward wealth. They have all the wealth indicators and they will give you an estimated capacity based on wealth. But they have a much more complete list of gifts the prospect has made. So they also suggest a gift ask level based on the giving, not just the wealth. A prospect may have the capability of making a $25 million to $50 million gift. But if the highest gift they’ve ever given is $100,000, it’s better to consider asking at that level, at least at first! Plus, an perceived ability to give may be based on the value of their house. But I’ve not yet met a donor who’ll sell 1/10 of her house to support your nonprofit.
Whatever tool you use, be sure to add a PDF of the profile to the shared drive. And jot down any items of note on the prospect profile sheet.
Putting the prospect’s address into Zillow can help you find an estimated worth of their house (or houses you may have discovered in the property listings in WealthEngine or DonorSearch). This can be useful to include on the prospect profile.
If you’ve discovered clues that indicate the prospect may have their own foundation, looking up their Form 990s on GuideStar can help you get a more complete sense of their giving.
The Form 990s list both what organizations they’ve supported and how much they gave to each. Jot any worthwhile information onto the prospect profile.
7. Matching Gift Database
Some prospects may work for an employer that offers gift matching as part of their corporate philanthropy efforts. Knowing which prospects are eligible for matching is valuable, as employers will often offer a 1:1, 2:1, or even 3:1 match.
Leverage a matching gift database to check prospects’ eligibility and record it in your prospect profiles. Then, when the time comes, make sure to educate your donor about matching gifts so they can submit the necessary information to get their donation doubled!
Strong Donor Relationships are Worth the Effort
Your nonprofit’s relationship with donors is worth taking time to get right. Using these tools to set up a prospect profile can help you focus on what’s important to individual donors and find the most effective ways to communicate with them.
Creating prospect profiles can also help your nonprofit leaders. One of the top nonprofit CEO fundraising frustrations is not being properly prepared for a meeting with a major donor. Donor profiles like these will help your leaders be their best in their meetings!
Marc: Just discovered you online. I’m setting up a 501(c)(3) subsidiary foundation of an 85-yr. old, venerable 501(c)(19), and this article was solid gold…really, really helpful. Would love to meet sometime if you’re in the DC area.
Wonderful! I’m so glad!
I wish I had plans to be in the DC area soon! If you’d like to be notified, you could sign up for my email newsletter at https://fundraisingcoach.com/subscribe/ or sign up to be notified if I’m coming to your area at https://fundraisingcoach.com/book-marc/
Or both! : )8
I always suggest people use their library cards because most of the time you can search the archives of your local paper from your desktop, and that can be a very valuable source of background.
This is such useful info, thank you! I am starting a new position at my org on Monday as Manager of Dev. Research and I am going to use all this info to get me started. Thank you!
I’d add donor surveys to this list since most donor files are too big. You need to zero-in on who wants to have a 1-to-1 relationship and why.
Here’s a free guide for creating them: https://imarketsmart.com/resources/reports/the-ultimate-how-to-guide-for-conducting-nonprofit-donor-surveys/
Thanks, Gregory. But only if you are going to actually use this information. Otherwise, donors will see it simply as another marketing tool.
I am a volunteer with a non profit. Are the programs mentioned in the above article on donor research available/active in Canada?
Hi Helen, I know Canada has much stricter privacy rules. But I’d suggest you try the links. That would be the ultimate test.
You could also check with iWave. They’re based in PEI. https://www.iwave.com/
Great info Marc. THANKS!