The preface to Hogan, C. 2009 Prospect Research: A Primer for Growing Nonprofits, starts with a two-worded quote by Warren Buffet which simply but powerfully says “Brace yourself”.

In answer to the question of where to find donors, the statement asking us to brace ourselves is an apt way of framing the challenge of Prospect Research.

One could stay at the identification phase of prospect research and list the various sources of information such as donor directories and funding databases, consult these quarterly (if that), create a list to solicit and call it Prospect Research. But is that really enhancing the Advancement Operation? Is that really all there is to finding donors?

Prospect research starts with understanding the relevant organisational, programmatic or project cases for support and framing a prospecting strategy looking both internally and externally, proactively and reactively, locally and internationally, looking at broad trends and building specific profiles. It paints a picture of the potential donor landscape ranging from institutional to individual donors. It is the continuous process of, also as per Hogan, identifying, analysing and recommending avenues of financial support so that the fundraising goals of a nonprofit organisation can be realised.

But where to start, given challenging economic times and the intense demand for donor funding? It starts with strategies, e.g. the diversification of funding sources. Prospecting is a key function in enhancing an organisation’s attempts to diversify its funding sources. Diversification can be achieved by segmenting the donor landscape, looking at giving levels within Individual donors, Corporates, Trusts and Foundations, Embassies, Alternate Income Streams and so on.

Further, deeper levels of diversifying within each segment should take place, using a three-pronged approach, meaning that further prospecting should be done, looking closely and analytically at:

  1. The organisation’s existing pool of donors
  2. The organisation’s pool of lapsed donors, and
  3. Suitable prospective donors for the organisation, from which to build a new pool of supporters.

Looking at the existing & lapsed donor pool necessitates internal prospecting, analysing records within the database to find the potential for increased giving, repeat donations, and finding ways to enrich those records. Building a new pool of prospects requires a creative thinking-and-doing approach to external prospect research, drawing on various sources of information.

As first base, and before looking to external sources of information, the prospect researcher should consider consulting with its stakeholder and network contacts to brainstorm potential prospects. As per the third book in Inyathelo 2010 Attracting Support Kit for NPOs, networks could comprise the board, existing and previous donors and partners, volunteers, beneficiaries and community supporters, suppliers, foreign visitors and representatives from government departments.

Having a base to work from helps in directing the attention of the prospector, when using electronic resources such as radio, television, the internet and print media such as newspapers, magazines, local business journals, company annual reports, etc. It will also help a great deal to be focused when using donor directories. These could include, for example, guides produced and published by the Foundation Center, Chapel and York, Papillon Press and listings in publications such as McGregor’s Who Owns Whom, the Top 300 of a particular focus etc.

Other rich sources of information that are readily available include newsletters and Google Alerts from and on various local and international agencies and organisations such as Devex or The Chronicle of Philanthropy, to name but two of many. Read regularly and you will start to form mental networks. Names start to embed, and so a picture of the donor landscape emerges.

Following blogs such as Blackbaud’s Prospect Research blog ( help with refining approaches which often have come about as a result of trial and (t)error. Using social media such as Facebook and twitter, when strategically selecting which pages to “like” and which tweets to follow, can be enlightening sources of information.

With all of these potential sources of information available, defining what you are looking for, and having a clear concept of the broader strategy within which you are working, is key to making the sources work with optimum results for your organisation.

Lizel Shepherd, Programme Coordinator at Inyathelo | The South African Institute for Advancement.