The Roles Prospect Research Plays in Securing Major Gifts 

The Roles Prospect Research Plays in Securing Major Gifts 

Major gifts are critical for moving your mission forward. They empower your organization to do everything from growing your internal team to improving your programming and completing large-scale projects. Plus, major donors can become enthusiastic ambassadors for your cause, getting involved in multiple facets of your work. 

But securing a major gift and developing lasting relationships with major donors is easier said than done. It’s a process that requires consistent communication, carefully-planned donation solicitations, and thoughtful stewardship strategies. 

Before you can kickstart this process, you have to conduct prospect research, also known as prospecting. Most nonprofit professionals hear the term “prospect research” and immediately think about discovering potential donors who haven’t yet given to their organizations. While this is the core purpose of prospecting, the prospect research findings can also play other roles in helping your organization secure major gifts. Let’s explore these roles together. 

Role #1: Aids in Finding New Major Donors

As mentioned above, the primary purpose of prospect research is to help your nonprofit identify new potential donors. 

Prospecting is sometimes confused with wealth screening—the process of using your donor data and external sources to examine your pool of current donors for individuals who may be able to give large gifts. In reality, the two processes are very different. 

Wealth screening focuses only on identifying donors’ wealth markers, as their interest in your cause can be inferred since they’re already involved with your organization. Prospect research, on the other hand, takes a more comprehensive look at the people outside of your organization’s current donor pool to examine both their capacity (wealth) and affinity (warmth) markers, as well as their propensity to give based on past philanthropic involvement. Here are some examples of what capacity, affinity, and propensity markers look like: 

  • Capacity markers
  • Business affiliations
  • Real estate ownership
  • Stock holdings

  • Affinity markers
  • Past involvement with your organization
  • Professional or personal connections to donors in your database
  • Demographics and other information 

  • Propensity to give 
  • Political affiliations and past donations 
  • Past involvement with other nonprofit organizations

Together, capacity, affinity, and propensity markers like these provide a more holistic view of potential donors that can help you feel confident in selecting who to reach out to. 

Many nonprofit organizations want to conduct thorough prospecting but don’t have the time or the knowledge about various prospect research tools to make it happen. Donorly recommends working with a prospect research consultant who can help you conduct prospect research and design an actionable strategy around your findings. Partnering with an experienced consultant will make your efforts to lock down major gifts much more effective!

Role #2: Supplies Useful Data for Building Strong Relationships

Another role prospect research can play in securing major gifts is giving your team a wealth of data to leverage in building strong relationships with potential donors. Once you’ve learned a little about who your prospects are, you can start to reach out to them to share your organization’s story, introduce them to your cause, and learn how they would like to be involved. 

Specifically, prospect research can set you on the right track by giving you insight into your prospects’:  

  • Relationships with your other supporters: Cold outreach never works as well as leveraging a connection that a prospect has to someone who is already involved with your nonprofit. You can discover these friendships, familial relationships, and professional connections while prospecting. Then, you can ask the current supporter to introduce you to the prospect. The advantage of using existing connections to get to know new prospects is that social proof will work in your favor—when the prospect sees the current supporter’s passion for your cause, they’ll be inspired to get involved, too.  


  • Professional and educational history: A great starting point for getting to know your prospects is to chat with them about their professional and educational achievements. Prospect research can supply you with information about your prospects’ employment history, college education, and more, which you can then use to kick off a conversation. Plus, you may discover that a prospect has expertise in an area related to your cause, which can lead to conversations about how they can use that expertise to contribute to your organization’s work. 

  • Values and interests: Through prospect research, you can learn about the values and interests that your potential donors are passionate about. For example, you might learn from social media that a prospect is very family-oriented, or see that they’ve given to many animal welfare organizations in the past. Knowing a thing or two about what a prospect truly cares about can help you personalize your outreach and craft conversations around the things that matter most to them.   

Of course, as you interact with prospects, you’ll continue to learn more about them. Make sure you treat your prospect profiles as living documents that you can add to over time, and practice data hygiene to keep everything organized. You can also have your data appended to ensure all the information you have about your prospects is up-to-date, accurate, and ultimately going to help you create lasting connections. 

Role #3: Informs Your Solicitation Strategy 

Donorly’s guide to finding major donors emphasizes that it takes time and patience to build trust with a prospect and to get to know them as an individual. But when the time is right, your prospect research findings can also inform how you go about asking the prospect for a donation! 

The data from prospect research can help you set up your solicitation strategy by: 


  • Giving you an idea of what size of donation to ask for. With an understanding of a prospect’s financial capacity and a record of past charitable and political giving, you can make an informed donation ask that your prospect will be comfortable with and that will help your organization reach its goals. 

  • Informing you of a prospect’s matching gift eligibility. During the prospecting process, many organizations lean on matching gift software to learn whether prospects’ employers offer matching gift programs. If you know that a prospect is eligible, you can, after they agree to donate, encourage them to start the gift-matching process with their employer so that they can double their donation’s impact. 


  • Helping you come up with ideas for additional involvement. Prospect research empowers you to learn about prospects’ past involvement with your organization or similar organizations. This can help you involve your prospects beyond just asking for a donation. For example, if you learn that your prospect has led teams of volunteers at other nonprofits, you could invite them to get involved in a similar way shortly after they give their first donation. 

When it comes to asking a prospect for a major donation for the first time, information is power. Using your prospect research findings, you can build on the work you’ve already done to cultivate a strong relationship and make a donation ask that will communicate to your donor that you need their support and are making an informed, intentional ask. You can also go beyond securing dollars and encourage your prospect to help out your organization in other ways!

Whether you’re looking to launch a capital campaign, expand your organization, or fill your annual fund, major donors can be a great source of revenue for your nonprofit and can empower you to do more for your community. 

As you work to discover more major donors through prospect research, consider the roles that your findings can play throughout the cultivation and stewardship processes. Leveraging your data throughout your entire major gift-seeking journey will lead to success!

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