How to Identify Prospects in a Small Shop

sugar plums

When it comes to identifying prospects, many otherwise intelligent people enter the world of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The notion is that they will research individuals with high net worth, determine an appropriate six-figure gift “ask”, find out where these people live, and then go request a donation. This is the Sugar Plum Fairy part: These people will be delighted to have been stalked in this way and will make the donation. 

In fact, effective prospect research has to start with people to whom you have access: your own friends and family, your board members and their networks, your organization’s current donors, and your donors’ friends and family.  Many famous people might, in fact, be interested in your organization. However, getting your message in front of them requires a messenger: someone you know has to know them. 

So, we start with who we know. Then we must determine: Of the people we know, who gives away money?  About 70 percent of the adult population makes donations to nonprofits, so we have a good chance that the people we have access to are givers. However, there is no point in asking someone for money who doesn’t give money at all. Once you have a list of people you know who give away money, you have prospects to research. And if you hang out with high net worth individuals who are also generous donors, then you may want to do more research on them and eventually ask them. 

When thinking about prospect research, keep these observations in mind:

1)  Wealth has little relationship to generosity.  Many wealthy people give very generously, and many more give relatively little compared to their ability. The same can be said for middle class, working class, and poor people. Don’t confuse having with giving.  

2)  You are not the first person to think of asking high net worth individuals for money.  These people are offered endless opportunities to give away their money and, like all people, are more likely to give to an organization where they know someone than an organization where they don’t.  

3)  A person’s ability to give changes over time.  People get better jobs or inherit money or make good investments. Someone who starts out at a $35 donation may be your biggest donor five years from now. But I can tell you that this person won’t be your biggest donor if you don’t respect the gift he or she gives now. The same is true for your biggest donors: The market crashes, their house goes underwater, they are a victim of a Ponzi scheme, and they have to stop giving.  

Prospect research involves a high degree of networking. Working your networks is what will lead you to more donors and to ones who can make very large gifts. 

Learn more in my upcoming webinar with Foundation Center, "Prospect Research for Small Development Shops", on July 1, 2:00-3:00pm ET (11:00am-12:00pm PT).

KIM KLEIN is an internationally-known speaker and author recognized for her ability to deliver information in a practical and humorous way. She has more than 35 years of fundraising experience as a volunteer, staff and board member. Kim is the author of five books, including Reliable Fundraising in Unreliable Times and Fundraising for Social Change. She is a lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.