Prospect Research (a.k.a. researching prospective donors) is a popular fundraising topic that can be fraught with questions:

  • Is it really OK for me to look up and share information about a potential donor?
  • With whom should that information be shared? With whom should it NOT be shared?
  • What if the prospect finds out we’ve been researching her — will she be offended?
  • Is it OK to ask the prospect’s friends, colleagues, or other connections to share information about him?
  • Where do I find information about someone who is really private or secretive?
  • How do I prioritize what kinds of prospects to research first: individuals, foundations, corporations…?
  • Once I do my research, how do I evaluate which people/foundations/etc. actually are good prospective funders for my organization?
  • Can Prospect Research help me figure out how much I should be asking for?

The list goes on! Questions about prospect research range from the technical (How do I use this research database? How should my organization safely keep track of all of this sensitive information?) to the ethical (All of the “Is it OK” questions above… and many more!). However, before falling down the Prospect Research rabbit hole (believe me, I’ve been there!), I think it’s helpful to ask a more fundamental question:

What am I trying to accomplish with this Prospect Research?

While the answer may seem obvious, it’s actually more nuanced than you may think. Sometimes, we are trying to find data and objective information, such as giving capacity, giving interests, or grant request procedures, that will help us figure out if we should even be asking this person or foundation for a gift and, if so, how, when, and how much. At other times, we are looking for conversation starters or points of connection. For example, you might find out that a person with whom you are scheduled to meet loves to play tennis, so talking to this potential donor about your community center’s tennis courts and tennis lessons for under-resourced youth — or even talking about the ups and downs of your own tennis game — will help the two of you connect more easily. Sometimes we are looking into our own databases and files to figure out who has made a gift in the past, who has stopped giving, and/or who might have an interest in giving more. In that case, we will look at giving patterns (among other things); not only patterns of giving to our organization, but commitments to other organizations.

Figuring out what you are trying to accomplish will help you focus your efforts and use the resources that are the best fit. If you don’t need to know if that prospective donor is interested in tennis, you don’t need to ask around about that. If you know that you just missed a foundation’s deadline, and there won’t be another one for nine months, you can focus on other immediate, deadline-driven Prospect Research first as long as you commit to getting back to researching this potential foundation in a couple of months. If you know there is only one person in your organization that is meeting a prospective donor for lunch, you don’t need to share the research with 20 people at the organization; you can be selective about who sees sensitive information.

I generally go by the guideline that publicly available information (e.g. IRS Form 990s, newspaper articles, etc.) is OK to share. But, I still need to be proceed with caution. Just because it is public information that someone survived an accident or illness, or had a company that went bankrupt, or is in a particular income bracket doesn’t mean that the prospect wants a lot of people to know that information. I have to ask myself “Would I want someone to know this piece of information about me? Would I be comfortable discussing this information if that person and I both were present at a dinner party?” I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule, but I let my gut be my guide, and I err on the side of caution and discretion.


When researching potential new donors, it’s easy to get mired in the “data,” to get lost in the thrill of the search. You can slide into endless searching as you keep putting off relationship building and asking. If you start with the right questions, and the one big question, you’ll conduct Prospect Research with intention, ethics, and good outcomes.



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