Prospect Research-A Revelation for Small Organizations

We are  so  spoiled these days when we drive.

We have a GPS in our car or on our phone. So, if you’re dropped into some strange city you can find your way most of the time. I remember the days of something called a “Thomas Guide;” this was a map book, with tiny writing and a ton of pages. It was fine with my 20-yr-old eyes as I drove around the dark streets of Los Angeles, but I still found myself driving in circles sometimes. Today, I would go crazy trying to use that relic. But this is exactly what many small nonprofits do as they negotiate the byways of their fundraising journey.

What does GPS have to do with Prospect Research?

I believe this analogy shows us one of the biggest disparities in nonprofit fundraising between small and large institutions.  To some degree, it’s one of the reasons the small ones stay small. Prospect Research is your GPS on the dark streets at night telling you to “turn right.” Most small and medium institutions still insist on their Thomas Guides, struggling with the fine print they can barely read in the dark. Most don’t even know such a thing as Prospect Research exists; if they do they think it’s too expensive, others that have some research use it poorly.

Does the following scenario resonate with you?

You’re a small environmental organization with thousands of donors who give you $25-100. A $1,000 gift is a huge gift for you. Your budget with grants is $900,000. So, you have several dozen $1,000 donors. You write to your donors once a year and they send you a check. That’s it. One of the donors is Ms. Sanchez. You have met her at events; she is super supportive of your work.

Your local university, where Ms. Sanchez attended has a good prospect researcher who can see that Ms. Sanchez just sold her bio tech company for $350 million dollars!! You can’t see that and nobody is going to tell you. You’re going to be super happy when she gives you $1500 next year, but she gives her university $350,000 because a Development Officer from the university visited her. That’s a $348,500 mistake, potentially.

Remember when your Development Officer wanted $5,000 for prospect research in this year’s budget and your crossed it off? My mother-in-law used to say that’s “penny wise and pound foolish.” But this scenario, annoying as it is, is extremely common with small and medium size nonprofits. Board Members and Executive Directors reviewing budgets won’t fund a Prospect Research staffer or freelancer because they don’t see it as “fundraising.” And, believe it or not, many see it as ethically challenged. I know this because I speak to thousands of field fundraisers and prospect researchers every year.

So my point is simple. Without good, accurate and timely prospect research your fundraising will always be at a great disadvantage.

Knowing exactly whom you should be spending your time on is even more vital when you have a small staff. Would you rather be visiting, inviting, and writing a $5,000 prospect or a $500,000 prospect? How can you tell? A good prospect researcher will use ethical methods to identify public stock, the outlook for your prospect’s business, what they have given to other nonprofits and much more! If you have a first meeting with a prospect, discover their personal passion for your institution. Is it high? Or not? When you juxtapose that previous financial information I mentioned with gauging their affiliation with your institution the cream will rise to the top. You will know where your time should be spent for the maximum gifts to advance your institution/organization to new levels you didn’t know you could reach!

Good Luck! Write me if I can answer a question.

Armando Zumaya is a self-proclaimed ‘Prospect Research Geek’ and can be reached at: His website has a wealth of free resources that can help small and medium sized nonprofits grow.