Anytime I have the honor to provide a presentation on donor retention, maximizing the value of a donor database or major gift fundraising, several key questions emerge regarding prospect research.

Among the questions are these:

  • Do we need to be doing formal prospect research?
  • The Internet is so powerful, do we need to pay for professional research?
  • There is so much information out there, just what is important and what is not?
  • What are the five best indicators that a constituent is likely to make a major gift?

Luckily, we finally have scientific evidence that can answer all four questions.

The value of prospect research in major gift fundraising

One of the key findings in the recently released research conducted by Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, Dr. Rita Kottasz and Dr. Adrian Sargeant entitled Mastering Major Gifts centers around prospect research.

In addition to an added focus on donor-centered culture, tenure and training, prospect research emerged as one of the indispensable elements of a fundraiser’s major gift toolkit – and not just for large organizations, but small shops as well.

I’ll let Amy Eisenstein, one of the study’s authors, explain in an excerpt from a recent webinar:

That leads us to prospect research as well as wealth screening. Because this is going to help you figure out who needs to be in your major gift pipeline.

Now, I have to admit that for awhile I didn’t think that it was essential for smaller non-profits to have their lists screened or prospects researched because mainly, honestly, because they were spending so little time and resources on major gifts that I didn’t think they were going to get the results they wanted so the investment wasn’t worth it.

But I really have done a full 180 on that. If you are serious about raising major gifts, you will need to invest in the proper tools and systems to succeed. Honestly, the prices have come down and the technology is so advanced that there really is no excuse if you’re going to try to raise major gifts, not to invest in the proper research and screening tools and technology.

It’s so important to think of a database and wealth screening and prospect research as an investment, not as an expense in terms of major gifts. One or two major gifts the size we were talking about, $1,000, $5,000, certainly $10,000 will cover all of that investment, one major gift. It’s shocking to me how many board members will say, “Oh, it’s too expensive. We can’t do that. It’s not in the budget.” I’m thinking, “Well, if you get three major gifts all year, one of them is going to cover it and the rest is gravy so how could you not invest in those types of things?”

Honestly, the good news is that today, in the age of cloud-based systems, you really don’t have to have so many IT staff as you did in the past because it’s all online and help is just a click away.

So if you agree that prospect research is important, what should you be looking for when conducting your research?

Luckily, DonorSearch has provided the essence of this answer through their own research and experience.

By analyzing information from over 400 non-profits covering 2 million individuals who gave over $5 billion, they’ve identified the top five markers that best predict future philanthropy.

We will work backwards from least important to the most important of the five.

5. Real Estate Ownership

So often when people think of prospect research they focus in on finding assets that have been accumulated. Often time wealth is thought to be the ticket to major gifts.

Yes, wealth must be there, however, the amount of engagement and passion for your nonprofit and its cause is so much more important!

The beautiful part of real estate ownership is that it is a legal record that can be found with the proper tools and is owned by people at all levels of wealth. This asset is often important for people making their first major gift and as such can be quite valuable to any nonprofit just starting a major gift program.

4. Political Giving

We are certainly in the midst of an intense time of political giving with a presidential election happening this year. People who make mid-level to large political gifts prove that they have the wealth to do so, as well as the passion to get involved.

Exhibiting the passion via such actions as political giving is a superb indicator of possible passion for various nonprofit causes. As such, political givers are the next step up the ladder of better potential major gift donors.

3. Participation as a Foundation Trustee

Passion about and involvement with the nonprofit sector ratchets up another notch with individuals who fall into this group. They are literally giving generously of their time to provide leadership and guidance regarding the potential uses of usually large amounts of funds.

Such awareness of the impact of major grants and gifts, can only gained by being an eyewitness as it unfolds. This can be a powerful influence on their personal giving.

On a more obvious note, many of these foundations are family foundations created with large amounts of wealth. The impact such grants can have on your major gift program is huge in many cases.

Along this same line, keep a strong eye out for constituents who have established donor advised funds. A true indicator of future major gift actions.

2. Giving to Other Nonprofits

This is my personal favorite.


The reaction I see on nearly every fundraiser’s face when we reveal that a board member to their nonprofit who is making a $1,000 gift annually to them is giving ten to fifty times that amount annually to another nonprofit they are not of the board of is hard to describe. It ranges from outright shock to mild surprise to dismay.

The reason charitable giving to other nonprofits is the second leading indicator is how closely aligned this passion for giving is to supporting your cause. Such personal and family giving traditions can be nurtured with the proper involvement and relationship-building.

This is especially true should there be natural bonding links to your organization involved. Those links range from being some sort of an alumnus to previous personal experiences and anything in the middle where your charity and it’s mission overlap.

1. Previous Giving to Your Nonprofit

Despite how wonderfully obvious this prime indicator is, it is so often overlooked a bit during any major gift or capital campaign planning.

Previous giving to your charity literally pulls aspects of the previous four indicators together with a laser-like focus on your mission.

Please investigate trends as they apply here. Such possible trends as number of years of consecutive giving, increasing levels of giving, giving in more than one manner annually and stewardship actions should be noted in your database and utilized!

Yes, there are other leading indicators. In some individual cases, one or two others may rank above these five.

However, in the extended scheme of major gift fundraising these five indicators should stand the test of time and provide valuable insights.

If you have used any or all of these and have an experience to share, please do so.

We wish you the very best success in your future major gift fundraising!