We are delighted to share this article containing strategies for finding major donors for your nonprofit from Sandra Davis of Donorly.


Finding major donors who are excited to support your organization is important for every nonprofit, but it can feel like a more pressing priority for small organizations that have yet to establish a robust development program. Prospect research, the process of researching and selecting potential major donors, is vital because it’s what enables you to start and maintain your major gift pipeline.


However, prospect research takes time and money, making it a common challenge for small nonprofits with limited resources. But it doesn’t have to be! With these tips, your organization can successfully conduct prospect research no matter how small your budget may be:


  1. Familiarize yourself with the basics
  2. Start with your own data
  3. Leverage free research tools
  4. Use effective search tactics


Once you learn to leverage these tips, you’ll be well on your way to cultivating relationships with prospects, securing major gifts, and thanking new major donors in no time. Let’s dive in!


1. Familiarize yourself with the basics


According to Donorly’s prospect research guide, it’s crucial for nonprofits trying do-it-yourself prospect research to understand the essentials of the process before they begin. Prospect research is an endeavor that takes time and dedication, but the right preparations can help any organization on a budget find success.


The basic process involves developing prospect research goals, researching using your own database and public records, and cultivating relationships with qualified prospects. Remember that research is only the beginning—you’ll need to devote plenty of time to selecting prospects and slowly building up those relationships before you ask for a donation.


As you research potential major donors, look for these three types of markers:


  • Capacity: First, verify that prospects have the financial means to give sizable gifts. High-income careers and ownership of stocks, real estate, or businesses indicate that a prospect has a high financial capacity to give.
  • Affinity: Check that potential donors have an established personal interest in your cause or causes like yours. Affinity markers include past involvement with your organization, a history of volunteering, political affiliations, and personal connections to other supporters.
  • Propensity: Lastly, ensure that every prospect has demonstrated their willingness to give by regularly donating to charities. Look for data that points to a habit of giving, such as nonprofit board membership, fundraising event attendance, and frequent donations.


As a small nonprofit with limited resources, you’ll want to focus on quality over quantity in your research. Try to find a handful of prospects with multiple markers in each category, rather than many prospects who only have a few. This way, you can be confident that every prospect you approach will be a good contender.


2. Start with your own data


The best place to start researching is your nonprofit’s own donor database. After all, you’ll have much better luck cultivating prospects who already have a connection to your nonprofit than trying to introduce your organization to someone for the first time.


Double the Donation explains that most organizations already have valuable data like donors’ employment details, giving habits, engagement history, and social media handles. You can gain plenty of insight into potential major donors from this data alone.


Look for capacity, affinity, and propensity markers in your database that indicate a supporter could be interested in giving a major gift. For example, say that you have a prospect named Maria who just signed up to attend your upcoming fundraising gala. According to your records, she works as a pediatric surgeon at the local hospital, and she gave a $700 donation at last year’s holiday event. Based on this information, you determine Maria may be a good prospect and plan to research her further using other tools.


3. Leverage free research tools


Beyond your nonprofit’s donor database, there are a variety of free, publicly available resources you can use to dive deeper into your prospect research. Simple Google searches can provide a good starting point. Then, tap into the following tools to learn more:


  • Property records: Real estate websites like Zillow make it easy to find information about a property’s purchase price, which helps you determine a prospect’s giving capacity.
  • Political contributions: To find out if a prospect has made donations to political campaigns that relate to your cause, check the FEC’s list of individual contributions.
  • Social media platforms: Many prospects post their employment information on social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. These are also good places to find any personal connections they may have to your board members or other major donors.
  • Other nonprofits’ annual reports: Search the donor lists in peer organizations’ annual reports to discover if your prospect has a habit of giving to similar causes. Here, you can also find out if prospects serve as board members for other nonprofits.
  • Salary reports: Job sites like Glassdoor often include salary information for specific companies and roles, helping you estimate a prospect’s financial capacity. However, keep in mind that these salaries are self-reported and could be skewed by outdated information.


Combing through all of these resources for information about each prospect takes time, so be prepared for the commitment. If you find some extra room in your budget and want to upgrade the tools available to you while saving your team time, consider partnering with a budget-friendly nonprofit consultant who has access to better tools and strategies.


4. Use effective search tactics


Finally, you can save your staff time and get better results from your prospect research simply by knowing the right search tactics to use. For example, you can level up your Google searches by following these easy best practices:


  • Use quotation marks. When you search without quotation marks, Google gives you results for any terms that are similar. By adding quotes around a name or phrase (for example, searching “John Smith”), you’ll only get results that contain that exact phrase.
  • Perform a site search. If you’re looking for information about a prospect from a specific website, add “site:” then the name of the website to limit results to that site. For example, if you can’t find a prospect’s Instagram profile, you could search “John Smith site:instagram.com”.
  • Search within nonprofit sites. Site searches are also valuable for finding data from other nonprofits. By adding “site:.org” to your search, you’ll only see results from nonprofit websites, helping you find out if a prospect has affiliations with other organizations.


Additionally, make sure to verify every piece of information you find online with multiple sources, and pay attention to post dates. If a prospect’s LinkedIn page hasn’t been updated in two years, for example, the employment information you found there may not be accurate. Cross-reference it with the data in your own database, a more recently updated social media profile, or the company’s website.


It can feel overwhelming to jump into prospect research when you don’t have a large budget, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! With these tips and the right amount of determination, any nonprofit can leverage prospect research to find the major donors they need.


Sandra Davis author of Prospect Research on a Budget: Tips for Small NonprofitsAbout the Author: Sandra Davis of Donorly


Founder and President Sandra Davis leads Donorly with 30 years of fundraising experience and leadership. Sandra has consulted on numerous capital campaigns, led strategic planning and feasibility study efforts, and managed board development and recruitment efforts in addition to overseeing planned giving, special events, and annual giving programs. Under her leadership, Donorly has grown to support the fundraising efforts of over 75 clients to date.