What to Know Before You Ask: Talking Shop with a Veteran Prospect Researcher


Suppose you’re a nonprofit board member or staffer trying to increase your support from individual donors. You figure: “Hey, if someone has a lot of money, they’ll give to us because of the good work we do. Now, all we have to do is find a wealthy person, write a good letter, and the check will be in the mail.”

This may be a longshot, but there are a number of ways to increase your odds, according to Barbara Shear, an independent consultant and prospect researcher who spent 17 years as the Prospect Research Manager at the New York Philharmonic, a premier performing arts organization, and now advises nonprofit clients in the arts, education, and social service fields. 

Shear acknowledges that fundraisers are understandably eager to close the deal with a likely prospect, often as soon as possible—sometimes on their way out the door to meet with them.  She counsels taking some time to find out all you can about the potential donor. And to pay attention to the power dynamics at the meeting. She’s heard from a number of married female philanthropists who arrange the couple’s cultivation meetings with fundraisers, and then feel overlooked when most of the attention is directed toward their husbands.  

So, what’s a development person or board member supposed to do to prepare for requesting a personal donation? Barbara Shear sat down with Inside Philanthropy to share her toolkit of questions and resources.

Homework 101

The first step seems obvious, but Shear says before you engage a prospect, “get to know how they’ve contributed to your organization—when, how much, and for what purpose.” Also, be sure you have the correct person—there are often several people in the database with the same name, and watch out for “Juniors” and nicknames. (Mitt Romney’s first name, she points out, is Willard.) Remember that women may use maiden names or professional names, and various cultures have different naming conventions.

Be on the lookout for repeat donations. Research suggests that the best prospects are those who have already given. It’s important to identify those supporters who have demonstrated loyalty to the organization and who have an investment in your success.     

Carrying out this in-house prospect research is a good time to expand your database with more information. What do we want to know about our donors?

Shear suggests finding the kinds of information we can use to build relationships with previous and current donors. There are the obvious ones: “Where do they work? What else do they support? Do they have a family foundation or trust? What year were they born? Where did they go to school?” 

It’s not just a matter of connect-the-dots. Gathering useful information about donors is about “locating the dots,” Shear says, “then connecting them.” Even better, if we can find a particular interest (is he a book collector?), or an interesting life story (was she a piano prodigy?), our approach can be more effective.

Second step: now that you’ve compiled a useful profile of your recent and current donors, how do you “play it forward” and find new donors? How do you identify prospects who are more than just suspects?

Unless you’re a large nonprofit with widespread recognition (such as a major health organization, a university, or a well-known cultural institution), you’re probably not going to be able to attract support from distant and unfamiliar strangers who happen to be wealthy. Instead, the best place to start is with a network of connections and relationships that grows from the inside out. For small, statewide or regional nonprofits, start building your roster of potential donors by asking everyone (staff, board, advisors, clients) to identify contacts: bankers, brokers, auto dealers, real estate agents, accountants, attorneys, people who might have the ability to give or who might know such people. 

“Follow the money,” Barbara Shear advises. “Don’t hesitate to follow seemingly random leads.” During her time at the New York Philharmonic, she recalls, the Orchestra received an out-of-the-blue offer to endow a musician’s chair. After some in-depth research to confirm the donor’s identity, the gift was secured. Not every road is paved with gold, however.  Shear said that while researching a potential donor’s swimwear company, she found a tab labeled “foundations.” “I thought I hit the jackpot,” she said, “but all I got was a screenful of lingerie.”

What Can They Give?

The third step involves finding out what a prospective donor might be able to give—that’s the “what are they worth” question. There’s a great deal of public information available about the net worth of prospective donors. You’re looking for public records, approximate annual salary, any record of actions in court and any record of involvement with a company and its stock. Shear named “real estate holdings, stock sales, corporate annual reports, and income listings such as those in Crain’s New York annual “Fortunate 100.” If your organization can’t afford the pricey prospect research tools like WealthEngine, then it’s time to explore the mysterious worlds of Dun’s business directories, D&B Hoover’s, one or more of Forbes’ 70-plus lists, local chamber of commerce membership rosters, and county clerks’ records rooms. There are also government-sponsored websites, such as SEC-EDGAR (for stock transactions). Public libraries may offer access to fee-based services like Lexis-Nexis and many others. 

Shear says she’s interested in net worth but also “a person’s propensity to give, what are they willing to give, and what have they given to.” Did your prospect sign the Giving Pledge? If so, they probably wrote a statement about their motivation and focus for their philanthropy. Is your prospect’s name on a donor wall at a local college or church or Y? For local nonprofits and local prospects, what can you learn about the person’s volunteering, memberships on committees, political activity? (don’t overlook the Federal Election Commission’s database, which is online).

Shear says that (depending on the side of your research budget and the scope of your search) you might consider purchasing mailing lists from a direct marketing firm. These companies can help you target likely donors. For example, you might want to find families within certain zip codes who have visited a museum in the past year. You might also look into using sophisticated market segmentation programs that categorize various groups according to their income, residence, interests, consumer behavior, and lifestyle. The goal, she says, is to “find something of interest about that prospect that relates to your organization and its work.”

For organizations willing to invest the time and expense, electronic screening services offer a high-tech way to understand your database. These companies use proprietary algorithms to sort through large data sets to predict which donors have the greatest philanthropic potential. Although these wealth screenings can be relatively costly, Shear believes that they can provide invaluable insights into how to frame your cultivation strategy.

The Element of Surprise

Shear began her prospect research career around the turn of the millennium, “back in the era of books,” she mused. At that time, the challenge was to find enough information in the various printed directories and reference material that filled her office. “We even had bookshelves,” she said. As the digital age dawned, the amount of information available online became incalculable. The prospect researcher’s task now is to be sure that the information presented is properly vetted. Social media adds another dimension to the researcher’s portfolio: Has your donor posted photos of her paintings? Would she be willing to donate her artwork to your organization’s silent auction?

Shear acknowledged that even the best sleuthing and the most robust database might miss something important. Her “best worst example” is the case of Herbert Axelrod, a controversial entrepreneur who built a fortune as the publisher of books on tropical fish. A classical music enthusiast, he amassed a collection of vintage stringed instruments. He donated a quartet of these instruments to the Smithsonian and sold about 30 others to the New Jersey Symphony at what was considered a bargain rate. Naturally, nonprofits were interested in contacting him, but these attempts failed. Later, it was revealed that some of these instruments were not as he described them, and his entire collection had been vastly over-valued. The reason no one could locate him is that he had fled to Cuba—after failing to appear in federal court on an unrelated tax charge.  

She pointed out that (even if not as dramatic as the Axelrod story), the element of surprise is always there in a thorough prospect research process. But what about smaller nonprofits that can’t afford a research staff or even subscriptions to data services? Shear suggests engaging a graduate student, an intern, an interested volunteer, or perhaps a board member to do some basic research at a school resource center or public library.

What about the ethics of delving into someone’s financial and private life? There are protocols: Barbara Shear points to organizations such as Apra, the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement. Apra’s code of ethics requires members to safeguard confidential information and to guarantee the ethical collection and use of that information.

Another issue that confronts prospect researchers—whether they are on an organization’s staff or working as a volunteer or an independent consultant—is to deal honestly with negative information. “Our job,” Shear says, “is to be an honest broker of information.” Some fundraisers may want to press on with the approach, but development professionals “should be aware that these issues exist.” There are many unfortunate instances of gifts being returned after a scandal or legal tangle was exposed.

Barbara Shear summed up the prospect researcher’s role as “giving fundraisers the information they need to be successful with a potential donor.” If fundraisers can spend some time getting to know what might animate a donor, their asks can be much more rewarding on many levels.