Skip to content

Research Alert: Corporate and Foundation Profiling is Easy!

Writing a profile 072714

By Jen Filla, CEO of, Prospect Research Institute and President of Aspire Research Group

Corporate and foundation information is structured information easy to find and present. An article on profiling should be about two paragraphs long, right? That’s like saying that you only need to know size and color to successfully buy someone a pair of shoes. Sure, we could get away with that, but careful customization will help us save time and achieve more.

Corporate and foundation research has a lot of potential to strengthen an organization, but unfortunately it often gets brushed aside with… Read more

Optimism and Prospect Research: The Lifeblood of Fundraising

Optimism monkey and elephant 072414

By Gil Israeli, Director of Prospect Research and Senior Writer, American Technion Society

It takes a remarkable degree of optimism to be a fundraiser since rejection by prospects is a normal occurance… part of the business. One grant-seeking professor told me that his (better-than-average) rate of success was getting one out of every five proposals funded by government agencies. Prospect researchers are one degree removed from the action as fundraisers interact directly with prospects and they require an even stronger dose of optimism in their constitution and daily desk work… Read more

The Challenges of Proactive Research for Major Gifts


By Gil Israeli, Director of Prospect Research and Senior Writer, American Technion Society

Today, having a major gifts fundraising program has become the top priority (and sometimes wish) of many fundraising organizations. After all, you can spend two difficult years raising small gifts of $5,000 to meet a $1,000,000 campaign goal, or, you can cultivate the same number of prospects all with $5,000 to $1,000,000 gift potential and target a much higher campaign goal.

The strategy to achieve the latter requires multiple developments in your [organization] culture and a confluence of at least three critical groups of people in your operation: board members (which include donors and volunteers), fundraisers and prospect researchers. A healthy web of relationships here bears directly not only on your annual fundraising revenue but also the robustness and longevity of your organization.

Besides the high priority of having these ongoing healthy relationships, what are the universal challenges involved in major gifts fundraising? Here are ten elements of the overall process that may illuminate why it’s difficult for fundraisers and researchers to identify viable prospects and also why it’s difficult for fundraisers to bring the process to its final successful solicitation. When you reach the end of the list, reflect back on these ten elements and you may better appreciate the differences between raising periodic major gifts and having a vital major gifts program.

– Assets: first, the prospect must have the right level of assets. Of course, this can vary as a prospect can make a major gift to fund a multi-year museum exhibit for $50,000 or a $5,000,000 gift to name two academic chairs.
– Affinity: is the prospect somehow connected or attracted to your organization? What is the “social distance” it will take to bring him or her into your community? Are his or her interests already defined (and not in line with yours) or can you introduce the prospect to a new project and generate a level of interest and commitment that results in a critical level of affinity?
– Propensity to give: is the prospect philanthropically inclined? Does he or she have a history of giving – to anyone? With someone who gives, you may be competing for a gold or silver medal. Someone who has never given first needs to even consider philanthropy as a “do-able” act for him or herself within their means. The first hurdle is the hardest.
– Capacity: major gift funders are concerned that their gift will be fully utilized. Not all organizations can take full advantage of a $20,000,000 gift and leverage it in every possible way. Smaller organizations (think of regional theaters) can accomplish a great deal (even radical change) with one of today’s increasingly common seven-figure gifts.
– Donor Recognition: this item regards your organization’s capacity to publicize and celebrate a major gift. Some donors expect serious recognition and are used to getting it: tribute dinners, honorary doctorates, and full-page ads in select publications. Measure your own relative capacity to generate donor recognition next to the needs of the prospect. If you fall short, then research (and the subsequent outreach) is likely moot.
– Donor Fatigue: if the prospect is highly visible, then he or she may simply be too tired of being approached to even consider new charities. New and experienced philanthropists often receive dozens of requests throughout the year, e.g., to attend special events – more than their calendars could ever accomodate. The right special events and fortunate timing can make a difference here.
– Access: how well “guarded” is the prospect? Are there professional gatekeepers? These individuals have marching orders and your email or phone correspondence may never reach the decision-makers. With larger foundations, your proposal may not warrant any unique attention and it may be sorted into a yes/no/or maybe pile for consideration along with others.
– Access Person: do you have a door-opener to help you start a meaningful dialogue with the prospect? Foundations often note: “the foundation does not consider unsolicited proposals.” But this is typically meant for the general public that has no viable connection to the foundation. If you know a board member (or someone who knows a board member), the door may open and that first valuable meeting may be within reach.
– Family: major wealth can often be managed (or mismanaged) by a group of family members who may (or may not) agree on their philanthropic interests. This can work against you if a family fails to focus on a philanthropic mission or set of agreed-upon interests. However, in some unique cases, senior family members (who generated the wealth) may spin-off separate foundations for their independently-minded children. Opportunities may then present themselves.
– Liquidity: markets vary, people get divorced, products flounder and fail, e.g., initially promising drugs don’t get final FDA approval. From the project perspective, capital projects require immediate cash outlays, while other projects can be funded with a payment plan or even an estate gift. Liquidity is a factor in the most insightful prospect research; good fundraisers are always alert to liquidity issues as they help their new donors develop payment plans.

Given these challenges, it is no wonder that procuring major gifts remains the most challenging area of fundraising. Every strategically-informed organization understands that while completion of a successful campaign driven by major gifts may create valuable momentum and visibility, it does not ensure success in the next campaign. Fundraising is not a business in which stellar past performance guarantees similar future performance.

On a more micro-analytic level, consider the role of the fundraiser who has a bottom line to meet and that it can take as much as two years or more to bring a new major gift prospect all the way to the finish line of successful solicitation. Seemingly, the most successful strategy for a fundraiser is to return to the prospects with significant capacity – the donors who have already given. Assuming good stewardship, they already have affinity and propensity to give. Yet, while this serves the needs of the organization’s immediate fundraising targets, the prospect pipeline can easily suffer in the long run. For this reason, many smart fundraising organizations conduct wealth screenings (by working with external vendors) to map the prospects in their database by capacity and propensity to give and to also pinpoint hitherto unidentified major gift prospects with significant assets and their likelihood to give to their organization.

Prospect researchers need to consider the above ten challenges as they conduct research so that they ultimately, proactively deliver the most realistic major gift prospects to their colleagues. (Of course, fundraisers are already much more directly aware of these challenges as they encounter them in their daily meetings with prospects.) Prospect research that doesn’t account for the above criteria can become nothing more than an exercise in meeting a report quota.

After considering all the above, fundraisers and researchers will spend more time examining genuine possibilities, while eliminating those that don’t make the cut. Valuable time will then be directed to valuable research as fantasy/dream/wish prospects such as Bill Gates, Charles and David Koch, Michael Bloomberg, David Geffen, Sandy Weil and the other folks on the Forbes 400 list are recognized as unlikely prospects for those of us who lack genuine access to them – the opportunity to gain an initial meaningful meeting with these prospects. With a good sense of orientation, your focus on the real good prospects (the viable ones) will become sharpened.


Fill that Pipeline! Getting Started With Proactive Research

The Alaska oil pipeline reflected in a beautiful lake at sunset

By Sarah Bernstein, Consultant, Prospect Research and Database Support for Non-Profits

Proactive research – identifying and qualifying new prospects for your organization, and just as important, disqualifying and tabling people who will never make a major gift to your mission – is never easy, and very often does not come with a roadmap. All too often, other tasks take priority and it is frequently easier to complete tasks which have a clear path to execution, and to put off those which do not. To make matters worse, it requires both skill and management support to present newly identified prospects to fundraisers so… Read more

The Two Faces of Prospect Management

two face 061514

By Mark Egge, Senior Manager, Prospect Management, Greater Twin Cities United Way

I am a complete and total “two face.” It’s a work thing. Sometimes I’m outgoing, gregarious, and personable; other times I’m inwardly focused and lost in my thoughts. Sometimes I am everybody’s best “office friend” and focused on learning all about their user needs and problems. Other times, I focus all my energy on thinking through systems and about how data is structured. In short, I am the Prospect Management Guy.

There is a reason for each mode of thinking, and it’s always to advance the prospect management program at my organization. In fact, I have to play these different roles in order to effectively run the prospect management system. Read more

Data Mining: Searching Your Database for Gold

finger print goes digital 060114

By Faön Mahunik, Executive Director of Research and Analytics, CCS

Data mining, or the process of collecting researching and analyzing data to determine patterns and trends, can be a useful exercise to provide information and usable knowledge to your non-profit organization. It can be used for development professionals to uncover potential “gems” in your database, or to find new prospects through a variety of free and paid-for resources. Today, I’ll review two common excavation techniques: donor profiling and simple scoring, as well as discuss why data mining can be helpful to your organization.

Donor Profiling or “Surface Mining”

It can be incredibly helpful to skim the surface of your database to conduct very basic donor profiling for your organization. Research and exploring data for this purpose can help you define what the best constituent or “prospect” looks like for… Read more

Under Investing in Fundraising: The Myth of the One Person Development Shop

handshake 051314

By Armando Zumaya, Vice President at BRIDGE Housing Corporation

That title sounds pretty wonky, but it’s one of the most crippling and common afflictions that hampers the non-profit world. Now there are many variants of the “One Person Development Shop”. Some organizations are well served by a single development officer for a range of reasons. Some have stable and long term donors who only need maintenance. What I am focusing on is the institution with growing financial needs and one development officer that supposedly does all aspects of development.

Few CEO’s or Board Members think their organizations have grown enough and it’s time to plateau fundraising. If you want more impact, you will invariably need more money. If you want more money you have to ask honestly “are we staffed effectively to fundraise?” Read more

It’s About the Relationship!

Graphic-tree 042314

By Hillel Korin, Korin Development Associates

As a fundraiser, what’s the single most important skill that one can have? No, it’s not working through a complex  calculation about a CRUT or a CRAT. It’s not running an income projection and it’s not even writing the most breathtaking proposal a donor may be inspired by. It’s about how well as individuals we manage the relationships we develop and nurture.

After you first meet,  it’s also about knowing how best to “move” a prospect through the process. Some of the details can seem mundane – making sure that a note or card is written at the appropriate time.  Sometimes it’s about waiting for the right moment with the prospect (and also telling a boss or a colleague to have patience to let  the process unfold)… Read more

Shopping for a New Prospect Research Tool? 7 Steps to Help Guide your Purchase

pliers 032014

By Megan McMillan, Marketing & Communications Manager, iWave Information Systems

Recently, I shouldered the task of researching and evaluating new software for our marketing department. With a number of vendors vying for a considerable chunk of my budget, the shoe was suddenly on the other foot and I felt the pain of every researcher who was ever tasked with “scoping the options” for a new research tool. With that in mind, I created the following guidelines:

Step 1: Destination unknown
You can’t start mapping the course for a journey with no final destination, just as you can’t purchase a new research tool without knowing first and foremost what your goals are. Do you need a one-stop-shop tool? Is list building important? Are customized prospect profiles important? Do you need to screen your database first to identify top prospects? Are you looking for… Read more

Finding Access People is Key to Advance Major Gifts

figuresinsilhoutte 031914

By Gil Israeli, Director of Prospect Research and Senior Writer, American Technion Society

Currently, appearing in APRA’s online magazine Connections, Volume 25, 1-Q1. The article is a review of Israeli’s session at APRA’s International Conference, August 2013.

Years ago, a fundraiser send me a research request with minimal data: an individual’s name and residence. He noted (with an exclamation point) that the family foundation had assets exceeding $100 million. Responding too quickly, I reviewed the list of grants for the past three years and placed each gift in one of three categories that I had decided represented the foundation’s giving: higher education, medical causes and social welfare. I generated statistics on the foundation’s interests and multi-year giving trends. Then, I listed board members, contributors to the foundation and changes in their investments. I sent this insightful research to the fundraiser and his response was to the point: “Great stuff, but what I need to know is how to access the foundation president.”

To download the entire issue click here: APRA – Connections Vol. 25, No. 1: Q1 2014

Additional articles in this issue include… Read more