Tag Archives: prospect identification

Pictures and Patterns: Decision-making with Fundraising Insights

Imagine you emerge from a strategic planning session and your task is to raise more money from corporations. Your organization wants to expand its reach and you need to take the thousands of corporate donors in the database and transform them into a fundraising program. Why? Because everyone “feels” like there is a lot of opportunity there. Where do you start?

One of the most common mistakes in fundraising is to make decisions and invest money and resources in strategies that are based on intuition and anecdotal evidence alone. Let’s face it, sometimes it works, and maybe that’s why the behavior is so persistent. But much of the time data-weak decisions fail miserably, often slowly and painfully with lots of fingers pointed. There is a better way.

Leverage the talents of prospect research to paint pictures and identify patterns!

Well-trained prospect research professionals are methodical and analytical. That means that we enjoy solving problems, untangling messy information, and putting order to chaos. Share with us your dilemmas, your problems …your fundraising hopes and dreams. We can help you succeed!

In the new corporate fundraising program example, it means painting a picture of our corporate donors:

  • Where are they located?
  • How many of them are there and at what giving levels?
  • How long have they been donors?
  • Are they small, closely held companies, or large corporations?

And then identifying clusters and patterns:

  • Are there groups of donors in particular industries, geographic locations, or company size?
  • Do the donors that give the most and most frequently have anything in common?
  • Is there anything about the data that can help us understand the giving behaviors? Can we see any correlations between data points?

There is no standard checklist for exploring this kind of information. It requires a keen understanding of the fundraising being undertaken matched with an analytical mind trained in using data to solve problems.

When a prospect research professional works with you to explore your data and make an initial assessment, you can decide on strategies and tactics that will raise the most money now and in the future.

For example, you might discover some companies are more “ripe” for a new approach than others. If they have been giving frequently and increasing their giving, visiting them and discovering their philanthropic needs might uncover a unique corporate approach for your organization that you hadn’t thought of!

Knowing that your best donors are dominated by small, closely held companies gives you the opportunity to find out why. What makes your organization so attractive to them? Are they really individual donors in disguise or do they have company objectives for their philanthropy?

Uncovering an unusual pattern, such as expressions of faith on the company website, might give you an insight that challenges the way you perceived your donors and that opens the door to much deeper relationships.

Fundraising success through insights is not so much about the tools – data mining, statistical analysis, profile research – it’s about giving the donor story inside your data a voice.

When you hire a prospect research professional to help you understand your data, you are hiring someone with a unique skill set – someone who can uncover and communicate the “story” inside your data.

More Resources

How do I make prospect profiles work for me?

I work with quite a few fundraising professionals who are taking a leadership role for the first time or are heading into their first ever serious fundraising campaign. Suddenly you have to figure out how to make the leap into managing significant gifts and create a major gift program that delivers. That’s a lot of pressure!
So, of course, you demand – and get – a budget for prospect research. Way to go! Now what?

What is prospect research exactly and how does one USE profiles?

As I mentioned in Re-Wiring the Trusty Profile, it helps when you and your team discuss and recognize how and where traditional prospect research, such as profiles, fundraising analytics, and relationship or prospect management intersect at your organization. Even in a small team, you’re no doubt running a full development program. Research will likely touch many parts of that program.
For example, I had a researcher describe to me how her initial snapshot profile went directly into the donor database for prospects that were assigned for a first visit. It was up to the gift officer to print the snapshot report and make the visit. Is that traditional prospect research (e.g., snapshot profile) or prospect management (e.g., proactive prospect assignment)? Well, it’s both, isn’t it?

But to know what you can get out of a profile, you need to know what goes into it.

In 3 Strategies to Choose a Research Tool I show you a graphic and describe the five building blocks of the profile. This structure identifies what information is relevant for fundraising, but your profile format could be any kind of mix-and-match from these building blocks.
In Can You Really Trust Prospect Research? I talk about some of the commonly held misunderstandings about the voo-doo we researchers do. There’s a lot of confusion about what information we can find and how accurate or complete it can be.
As a fundraiser meeting with donors, you are performing primary research. You find out all of the information we researchers usually can’t. In your face-to-face meetings you discover people’s philanthropic passions, family and health situations, and their interests and personal connections to your organization. What information do you need to perform those visits and ultimately ask for a major gift? Once you understand the five profile building blocks, you will be much better placed to answer that question well.

But the very best move you can make to use PROFILES WITH POWER is to communicate with your researcher!

With the five building blocks of the profile as your conversational guide, examine what you need to know at each stage of your interactions with donor prospects. What does your researcher recommend in terms of software subscription tools versus manual research?
In some situations you might do well with a quick look-up in a tool on your own and a first visit before asking for a researched profile. And sometimes getting a researcher’s edge from out of the starting gate will deliver better results in a shorter period of time.
Once you understand what you need and when, can you break it down into two or three types of standard profile requests? Of course you can always make exceptions – you’re the boss! But standardizing your practices will make it easier to manage expectations and easier to onboard new staff as you continue to grow.

Prospect Research is good and exciting work!

Discovering people’s paths to wealth and their expressions of philanthropy is sheer pleasure. As a prospect research professional I love being part of the team that connects people to the joys of giving. When I can work closely with a front-line fundraiser to cultivate and solicit a transformative gift it’s a breath-taking experience!
The power of profiles can be yours – especially if you treat your researcher as one of the fundraising team. Who knows? Your prospect research professional might just turn out to be your secret weapon!

More Resources


Learn to perform basic prospect research and find information on your prospects – fast!


Get your free Resource Collections member login to gain access to profile templates, commentary, and more. Click here to access.

Net Worth: Nasty, Nice, or Neutral?

cash-1169650_1280There was a cry for help on the PRSPCT-L list-serv: “I’m a new researcher and my boss wants me to provide net worth on a prospect. He says it was the previous practice to do this and I can get what I need to calculate it from Dun & Bradstreet.” What would your response be?

To begin, a simple definition of net worth follows:

Assets – Liabilities = Net Worth

The Three Common Responses to Net Worth

If you mention “net worth” in the prospect research field, you will likely hear one of the following three responses:

  1. Don’t do it! Or you will be voted off the prospect research island!
    The argument against estimating net worth is usually this: If we cannot find or know the values of all assets and liabilities (which of course we cannot), then we have no business estimating net worth. This is often a strong, unequivocally held opinion.
  2. Hide that you are doing it by using another term or keep it behind the capacity rating calculation.
    This is the most common practice in our field. Instead of using the words “estimated net worth”, researchers rephrase with a term such as “estimated wealth”. Even more common is to use the results of wealth surveys, such as the chart on page 19 of the Capgemini 2016 World Wealth Report, to estimate net worth based on a known asset such as real estate and then take a percentage of estimated net worth as the gift capacity.
  3. Boldly present estimated net worth.
    There are researchers who feel comfortable presenting estimated net worth. Some provide disclaimers or educational explanations to communicate better generally or to clarify outlier situations.

Easy Formula, Tricky Calculation

Assets – Liabilities = Net Worth

The formula looks so simple, but this is deceptive. As prospect research professionals we know that we can’t discover and value all of a prospect’s assets or liabilities. It is the reason we use the word “estimated.”

Among the challenges in estimating net worth, there are two that jump out quickly:

  1. Many assets (and liabilities) are troublesome to value – none more than private company ownership.
    I have discussed the difficulty of private company valuation before. A common route to wealth is to start a private business, and many of these successful entrepreneurs want to “give back”, among other motivations for giving.
    And it brings us back to our fellow researcher’s list-serv plea. Dun & Bradstreet (DNB) sells data, including estimated values of a private companies. Assuming we know how much of that company our prospect owns, we could use the DNB dollar amount to estimate the prospect’s ownership value. Or could we? DNB uses its own formulas to estimate and can be very far off the mark.
  2. Are we talking about titled ownership such as a name on the deed, or influence over money, such as sitting on a grant-giving family foundation board?
    Our prospect could be a child of a wealthy family with very few public assets identified. And yet, we may find she has influence over millions of dollars in a family foundation. Estimated net worth and gift capacity clearly diverge at this point. You might estimate a low net worth, but still consider her to have a million dollar gift capacity because of her influence over grant giving.

Logic and Emotion – Let them Collaborate!

There is nothing simple about money. Money is one of the most emotionally volatile topics you can discuss, and those emotions flow into the workplace. Addressing your own emotions and biases about money is the first step.

You might want to seriously consider whether your difficulty imagining the wealth of multi-billionaires is affecting your ability to logically estimate net worth or gift capacity – and whether you have negative emotions attached to great wealth accumulation. Emotions are not your enemy. Ignoring them is.

Now you are ready to balance how you and your gift officers “feel” about your prospect’s potential wealth with the logical, quantifiable assets and liabilities found in the public domain.

Following are the most frequently used tools or ratings:

  • Estimated Net Worth
  • Gift Capacity Range
  • Affinity (how close they feel to your organization)
  • Philanthropic Inclination (do they give at all?)
  • Linkage (how are they connected to your organization)

When used responsibly, estimated net worth is one more tool prospect research professionals can provide to assist frontline fundraisers in creating major gift solicitation strategies. Don’t be afraid to use it!

More Resources You Might Like



Join the Resource Collections online community to access this handout. Use it to facilitate discussion with your gift officers and leadership.


Fire your Prospect Researcher! Artificial Intelligence (AI) has arrived.


For years now we’ve been told that Artificial Intelligence was going to take over prospect research tasks. Truth is, it has. Well, some of them anyway.

Consider wealth screenings. What used to take month after month of tedious, routine, baseline capacity rating work now takes less than an hour. Upload your file, it processes, and presto! You have gift capacity ratings on your prospects based on external wealth matches.

Or how about the user-friendly lookup tools, such as iWave’s PRO, that remove the first step of searching that prospect research professionals used to perform?

Does all of this mean prospect research is on the fast track for complete takeover by the machines? Should you fire your researcher? No way!

Artificial Intelligence has had a lot of hype over the years and very little real action – until now. A few events have led to some breakthroughs:

  • The internet has made vast amounts of data available, which can be used to train computers.
  • Graphical Processing Units (GPUs), the specialized chips used in PCs and video-game consoles to generate graphics, have been applied to the algorithms used in deep learning, a type of Artificial Intelligence.
  • Capacity to run GPUs can be rented from cloud providers such as Amazon and Microsoft, allowing start-ups to innovate.

Self-driving cars may still be on the horizon, but the bots are on the road already! They can schedule appointments on your calendar, draft replies to emails, and even read radiology imaging studies more accurately than a radiologist. The Economist describes the opportunity and threat quite succinctly as follows:

 “What determines vulnerability to automation is not so much whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar, but whether or not it is routine.” (6/25/2016)






It’s easy to leap to the conclusion that prospect research professionals will lose their jobs to the machine – much of what we researchers do is routine – but that would be forgetting how machines have changed the world in the past.

Across the centuries, people have feared the march of the machines. In the late 1700’s to early 1800’s the Industrial Revolution rocked our world. As recently as the 1980’s, the rise of personal computers revolutionized the way we work. And with every introduction, much hand-wringing and predictions of unemployment were had.

How will prospect research professionals likely weather the advancing army of machine algorithms and programs?

Much the same as we adapted to wealth screenings and tools like iWave’s PRO. We learn new skills that wrap around the new technology. We leverage the new technology to work for us and for our fundraising team. We change the tasks we perform.

Prospect research professionals have a unique blend of skills. We can scan mountains of information and pull it together in a way that is meaningful for your specific need, whether that is creating a $5M gift strategy or a $5B campaign. We recognize the opportunities for our organizations in the data patterns the machine discovers.

If you want your organization to keep in step with the advances of machine learning, do NOT fire your researcher! Instead, reassure your prospect research professional of her value and insist that she take advantage of training that will give her the skills to use new technology. If you do this, she will be better able to guide you into new worlds, such as fundraising analytics … and beyond!

More Resources You Might Like


So much wealth in China! So little time!

asiaglobe_smThis past weekend I sat down and listened to frontline fundraisers and prospect researchers talk about how they work efficiently and respectfully to raise money in China. It felt long on a Saturday afternoon, but it was worth every minute. If you can find a viewing, go watch it!

If not, here are some of my top takeaways from NEDRA’s Panel: Inside Chinese Philanthropy recorded from their May 30, 2014 event with researchers from Tufts, Harvard, and MIT, and international frontline officers from Tufts and MIT.

On Teamwork

  • Put in place REALLY skilled fundraisers: the prospecting, cultivating and stewarding I heard talked about was very skillful and effective; this is not the time to practice
  • Teamwork between research and fundraiser MORE important: a constant feedback loop between frontline fundraiser and researcher is necessary to tease information out of sources
  • Develop a network of translators: you may be surprised how many people in your organization are fluent in other languages; these people can turn into keys unlocking the one piece of information that leads to a treasure chest full!
  • Contact information is the most important piece of information and the most difficult to find
  • A story was told about a frontline fundraiser sending cold emails in Southeast Asia and securing three $1M USD gifts for a specific initiative! (back to REALLY skilled fundraisers)
  • Get data collection and entry correct, especially events that are actually attended (back to the importance of contact information)

On Research

  • Create search tip checklists for each prospect: you don’t want to forget or make another researcher re-learn all the clever ways you found information on that prospect
  • Capacity requires country context research: because there are often fewer hard asset numbers to gauge capacity, you need to get a feel for how the prospect stands in her own environment
  • Names are so many different ways that it gets difficult (back to search tip checklists)
  • News is the best source for information: Factiva lets you search multi-languages
  • Access and connection is also key: they almost talked about relationship mapping, but didn’t

On Culture

  • Parents: get them in the first year!
  • This is the first generation of wealth: some may want to enjoy their wealth for a bit; don’t forget they grew up without luxuries like refrigerators; they are just reaching middle-age
  • The wealthy are often followers: showing peer giving is helpful
  • Attitude to U.S.: we appear very wealthy when they still have a lot of poverty; business and local pressures to support home projects; may want to show how their U.S. giving helps Chinese at home or abroad
  • Government: there are restrictions on exchanging USD and a cap on giving; may also want to be anonymous or hide wealth; party members and government dominated firms are not going to give

On Patience

  • Must be committed to cultivation over a long time: philanthropic culture is still transactional and local
  • Some programs started in the late 1980’s/1990’s and just now gaining serious traction

Research Tools Mentioned


 Other Articles You Might Like


Re-Wiring the Trusty Profile

There’s a bit of buzz about whether prospect research is going to get dumbed down by smart software products or if it will get lifted into the realm of strategy and management. The reality is probably a bit of both. Today I thought I’d bite off one little piece of the bigger conversation. I want to take a tried and true prospect research task – the trusty profile – and toss it up in the air to discover a new perspective on its utility and value.

Conversation Starter

Sabine Schuller jump-started the dialogue on the PRSPCT-L list-serv with an article,Is a Googlized Workplace Replacing Dedicated Competitive Intelligence Resources? Substitute “prospect research” for “competitive intelligence” and you can join in the exchange. Helen Brown did! She opined on the topic with a blog post, Prospect Research’s Strategic Advantage, suggesting that prospect researchers offer “experience, context, and strategy”. Mark Noll and Chris Mildner commented about the need for prospect research to concern itself with ROI. They told us we have to demonstrate how research translates into increased gift levels.

Can We Re-Wire the Humble Profile?

As you might have noticed, the topic has many layers of discussion points and profiles are somewhere amongst them. Can we re-wire the humble profile to make it more strategic and cost efficient? What does that mean?

I’ve heard conversations along these lines:

  • The paper profile is dead. It should all go into the database.
  • Research should be finding the basics – ability, inclination, linkage/affinity – and spend not a minute more.
  • My gift officer was struggling to connect with a prospect and I dug deep and found some nuggets of interest that helped him to solicit and receive a multi-million dollar gift.

My two cents? They are all correct! Prospect research is positioned differently at each organization depending upon the structure and culture of its fundraising operations. But sometimes people are so excited about their success with their hammer that they begin to view every problem as a nail, even if it’s a screw.

My favorite type of client to work with has no research staff and is tasked with raising million-dollar gifts. She relies on the paper profiles to give her really deep insight into what makes this prospect tick because the pressure is high to get the largest gift possible for her organization. She doesn’t hesitate to call me and question the information so she can feel confident in her ask amount.

It’s my job to know how much and what kind of detail to include.

That’s a big sentence. And it leads me to an interesting interaction I had recently with another client. We were talking about her need for corporate research. She wanted all the usual info, but they had specific strategies they were focused on for corporate prospects. My profiles are typically organized to best present the information collected, but what I was hearing was that she wanted to know exactly how to approach the company for each strategy.

So I reorganized the profile to highlight info relevant to each strategy first and then other sections to hold traditional, but necessary, information second. I did the first couple of profiles to be sure it worked and, well, it felt awkward. It took extra effort to parse the information into the right spots. I truly had to think first about the strategy and second about the information I was scanning. But it kept the profile laser-focused on what was most important to creating the cultivation and solicitation strategy. That felt good!

But, What About You and Your Office?

When deciding how much and what kind of profile types your prospect research department should be producing, I recommend engaging your fundraising staff in dialogue around these big questions:

Does everyone understand…

  • What the three main functions of prospect research areas are? (Prospect Identification or proactive, Prospect Profiling or reactive, and Relationship Management)
  • How those functions affect and support their specific specialty (events, annual fund, major and planned gifts, alumni relations, etc.)?
  • Where they fit within the strategic goals for the organization’s overall fundraising?

(Just remember that, as in search technique, less is often more. We’re not talking two weeks of training, but a simple, framework discussion.)

With everyone on the same page, now you can begin to have a discussion about things like if and when prospect research should be doing in-depth, six to twelve hour individual research profiles or who should be preparing bullet points for major gift prospects at events.

Now everyone knows where the priorities lie and how prospect research is going to be used to support them. It might not make everyone happy, but hey, happiness is a personal journey, right?

Onward to the Future!

Yes, the world is a-changing. We need to have the confidence and courage to re-engineer our services. We need to become more competitive and tie what we do to its impact on giving. And as we pursue big-picture discussions about the future of our profession, we need to recognize the diversity of our experience, context and strategies to create best practices focused on problem-solving.

With professionals like Sabine Schuller, Helen Brown, Mark Noll, Chris Mildner and You, I have no doubt we can ride these waves of changes with aplomb. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

Relationship Mapping for New Prospects

I just can’t stop thinking about relationship mapping! Probably because I am deep within a project to use relationship mapping to generate new prospects and illuminate the path to identified prospects within a campaign. A soft touch for new software, I really, really want the product I’m using, Prospect Visual, to deliver the goods. But will it?

The Many Shades of Relationship Mapping

Relationship mapping is not new, but some of the tools used to find relationships are new. Essentially, you create a visual (think family tree style) or data map (like in Excel or a database) or both of someone’s relationships. Many organizations collect this information in the donor database as an afterthought or “extra”. Relationships might be mapped to family members, boards served, club memberships, religious involvement and others. Why, you could even map all of the interrelated relationships of the Mad Men television show characters…

Mad Men Relationships

In higher education there may be a wealth of information from the school that connects individuals to one another, such as club membership, degree majors, and sports participation among many others. In 2012, Queens University presented at a CASE conference on their use of TouchGraph to map relationships within their own database.

What some new products, such as Prospect Visual and Relationship Science, are attempting to do is allow you to take the relationships you have collected on one individual and find paths to reach other individuals “out in the wild”.

LinkedIn does a reasonable job of this for prospecting within business networks. I have used LinkedIn, in combination with verbally asking people in my network, to identify paths to prospects I would like to cultivate for business. A personal introduction by someone with a strong relationship is much preferable to a cold call!

A nonprofit organization can use a trustee or engaged volunteer to introduce it to new prospects who are likely to have an affinity for the organization. Nothing new about that!

The Missing Piece: Spheres of Influence

What is new is identifying, perhaps by visualizing, someone’s sphere of influence. Some people are connected to more people and some people have many people in their network that are strong or deep connections. Strong connections suggest that the person can influence the other person. In the triad of Linkage-Ability-Inclination, relationship mapping provides the piece research has not always been so good at delivering in the past: Linkage.

In our book, Prospect Research for Fundraisers, Helen Brown and I discuss relationship mapping in the last chapter. Helen provides a great example of an organization that used its alumni group on LinkedIn to identify individuals who were highly connected and then qualified them for affinity. This process uncovered some great new prospects.

Jen Filla’s Facebook Spheres

I attended a course at the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay led by social media expert Bryn Warner, and I created a visual representation of my relationships from my personal Facebook page, which I have included here. Just look at all the connections around my husband and my favorite live-music venue, Mahuffer’s! Clearly this represents a sphere of influence. And it’s a messy, tangled ball of yarn, yes? I did not take the time to manipulate the graph results to make it pleasing to the eye or to make the names all readable. Make no mistake, these tools may be powerful, but they are time-hungry beasts!

Analyzing and Verifying

My experience so far using Prospect Visual is two-fold: (1) Visualizing spheres of influence is effective in identifying promising paths to new prospects; and (2) Just as in a wealth screening, this big relationship database is great at prioritizing, but I still have to analyze and verify the information.

What I have been doing so far in Prospect Visual is identifying clusters of relationships – spheres of influence – inside and outside the defined group of individual, foundation and corporation prospects in our project space. While one trustee may have strong relationships to identified prospects, another trustee may have a deep and wide network with organizations and people that my client has not considered before.

Once we see a sphere of influence, the next step is to confirm it truly exists and then discover whether there is any ability or inclination. Because there are errors in the underlying database of relationships – such as duplicate records and connections that are just plain wrong – the connections must be verified. And once the connections are verified, further research is needed to discover those shiny glimmers of affinity.

Getting Results

As with wealth screenings, moving the process from mass prioritization all the way through cultivation and solicitation takes time. It will likely be at least a year before any results, let alone gifts, are realized from the effort. And this project is not exactly number one on everyone’s to-do list. Prospects and donors in active cultivation and solicitation create the crisis of time that vacillate the prospect identification project between hot and cold attention.

Who is at the Watering Hole?

Are you actively using relationship mapping techniques and tools? Do you plan to? Do you wish you could be a fly on the wall hearing about it? Join the conversation! In a geographically dispersed environment where many of us perform prospect research solo, sharing our work successes and challenges builds our profession and ourselves.

Relationship Mapping Work Group

Aspire Research Group has created a free-to-participate work group that meets online. You can join the conversation – or lurk about listening – by signing-up for the email list. I’m looking forward to sharing with you!

How to get from $250k to $40m

You *want* to read this story about how the Wishard Foundation took a donor prospect from “If you’re coming to ask for money, I don’t even want to meet with you” to a $40 million naming gift. And when you’re done come back to this post and I’ll tell you what the prospect researchers were doing behind the scenes!

Where’s the Researcher?
Okay, if you look at the Wishard Foundation Staff page you won’t see a prospect researcher listed, but with that many gift officers and a manager of development services you’d at least expect a gift entry person, so let’s just speculate that there is someone with at least partial responsibility for research.

Getting the Edge with Donor Profiling
The president comes back from meeting a multi-millionaire who tells him to come back with a fundraising proposal and to make it “bold”. I betcha President Vargo was HOT for every scrap of information that could be found on Mr. and Mrs. Eskanazi. In my imagination I can see that prospect researcher sweating it out hour after hour, posting questions on PRSPCT-L, calling her APRA colleagues for tips and finally, hopefully, being a part of the conversation with the president about how much to ask for.

Identification – The First Step
But we all know prospect research happened MUCH earlier in the process, right? Somehow Mr. and Mrs. Eskanazi were identified and qualified for a $250,000 first gift. President Vargo’s amazing feat was to establish high affinity in one meeting. Granted, there was luck involved (they were looking for a legacy opportunity), but Vargo was ready. Mr. and Mrs. Eskanazi were identified and Vargo told a really powerful story. Pair that up with luck and presto! The Wishard Foundation received a $40 million gift. That is success!

Do you want a Professional Prospect Researcher?
If you don’t have a prospect researcher in-house, do not lament! Aspire Research Group can help you from identification all the way through to the ultimate solicitation. Check out our rating, profile and consulting services. Unfortunately, our magic wand is out for repair so we can’t manage the luck part right now, but we’re working on it.