Research beyond Google

April 5, 2017

“Can we get the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund this?” “We just need to get Mrs. BigDonor to donate to us. This is such a great cause.” Have you ever heard those words, or thought them?

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of hoping that your charity will be the lucky recipient of donations from a wealthy individual. But hope is not a strategy. And if you spend your time chasing after wealthy individuals, you’ll be exhausted and probably not have much to show for it.

What’s a better strategy? Building relationships with your existing donors, and finding new potential donors who may be inclined to give to charities like yours. That all starts with research.

Donor and prospect research can be a powerful tool in your development office. Ideally, you have donor software to track gifts, pledges, and relationship information. If not, you can start by keeping good gift records including the donation amount and date. You also want to record what program or event the donor funded, who has the best relationship with the donor, and any notes from personal calls or visits you’ve had with your donor. It may seem time-consuming to track and maintain this information, but it will be useful later on when you start to analyze it.

Then, start somewhere. Create a list of the top ten people you’d like to know more about. Choose one donor to research, and set aside an hour or two dedicated to that person.

I like to do my research on Friday afternoons. At the end of a busy week, I find it easier to do research than to write grants or call to set appointments with donors. Find a day and time that work for you. The point is just get started. Turn off the phone, stop checking email, and tune out the distractions nearby. Spend one hour and see what you can learn about the donor’s interests, ability to give, history of philanthropy, and community involvement. Add the information to the donor’s profile when it seems relevant to your cause.

A final point to keep in mind. When we’re researching, we need to balance our curiosity with ethics and courtesy. Although we are searching publicly available information, we may find sensitive information. We must act ethically and with the donor’s best interest in mind. Ask yourself if the donor would be embarrassed about reading anything you have found or have added to their donor record. If so, that information should be deleted from their file.

To learn more about how donor and prospect research can help you in development and fundraising, check out the TCC Academy for Nonprofit Excellence’s Donor & Prospect Research on a Limited Budget class coming up on April 12, 2017.   

Allison Bough, MBA, CFRE is President of SparkNonprofit, LLC, a fundraising consulting firm serving clients across Virginia. You can reach her at