The Importance of Donor Research

Thomas Edison once said, “A genious is a talented person who does his homework.”  I often like to think of this quotation when encouraging clients to create a strategic plan.  If you have a goal to increase your organization’s overall impact but don’t understand the audience of donors necessary to get there you will likely fall short of your goal.  During this time of quarantine, when you may have more time than usual, this advice should be a good spur to engage in donor research.  By doing so you’ll be more prepared for the time when you can engage more fully with Major Gift prospects.  The following are some steps you might consider that can lead to significant financial growth in support of your mission:

Invest in Wealth Screening Tools:  One of the most difficult steps in Major Gift prospecting is determining who in your list of hundreds and thousands of current donors has the ability to make a major gift.  Once you’ve decided what gift level defines a major gift for your organization (a smaller organization may choose $1,000 while a larger organization may choose $50,000) your team should engage with current donors at those giving levels to ensure they renew or increase those gifts in the future.  

Trying to determine what donors to contact who may be able to increase their giving to Major Gift levels takes time and, in many cases, money. There are dozens of good wealth screen programs that are available to non-profits that choose to utilize them.  If your organization hasn’t budgeted to spend money on donor research many programs offer a free option (with limited screening capabilities) that can identify major gift prospects based on things like giving patterns and residency (high net worth zip codes).  For those who have the ability to purchase a wealth screen program they are well worth the investment.  They utilize public information including donors’ credit account history, residence, political and charitable giving that help fundraisers prioritize their lists of donors when determining outreach and engagement strategies.

Donor Patterns: When considering who might be your next major donor one of the best pieces of evidence to guide your engagement are their patterns in giving.  A donor who has increased their giving amount or frequency of giving might be giving you a clue about their passion for your mission.  A donor who made one gift of $100 a year ago who has recently made 3 gifts totaling $500 could be in a great position to make the jump to a major gift.  Reaching out to these donors to thank them and ask what motivated their increased giving may open the door for a larger solicitation tailored to their particular passion.  A donor who makes one gift a year but has increased the amount of that gift each year may also be sending the same sort of clue.

Donor patterns are also great ways to identify potential planned gift donors.  Study after study show that the best candidates for planned gifts are the most loyal donors in your file.  A donor who has been giving smaller but consistent gifts to your organization could be a “millionaire next door” who can make the kind of transformative gift to take your organization to the next level. By segmenting these donors and engaging them in the mail, through email or on the phone could provide significant return on that investment.

Study Interests/Passions: During the current quarantine many academic institutions are using the time that would otherwise be spent visiting donors to research their alumni and document their interests during their time as a student.  Reviewing yearbooks, programs for theater and musical performances or honor society lists could provide valuable information when pursuing future campaigns.  If a school is planning to raise funds in support of their girls’ basketball team in the future, a list of former players who are donors or who have a high wealth score could be a great place to start that campaign.  Schools are similarly requesting feedback from teachers to learn what students were top performers in their classes.  Opportunities to endow chairs or programs in honor of favorite teachers or professors is a great way to engage with donors based on their own passions.

Listen: Finally, the best way to qualify and research a prospective donor is to listen to them.  As gift officers reach out to donors they should have a list of leading questions that they can ask donors.  What part of our organization are you most passionate about?  What is your most proud accomplishment that you’ve achieved during your life?  What is your view of philanthropy, do you like to make immediate impacts or do you hope to see your giving have a more lasting impact?  Do you hope to pass your philanthropic values on to your children and grandchildren?  Asking these kinds of questions and letting donors fill that space with their interests, concerns and passions will be the foundations of many successful solicitations in the future.

So, as you look for new and creative ways to spend the time that this current quarantine has provided, I encourage you to take Edison’s advice to heart.  If you do, studying your donors and mapping out the steps needed to achieve your goals for the coming months, you’ll come out of the current circumstances looking like a fundraising genius.  But as you and Edison will know, in reality, it was your talent and hard work that will be the springboard that leads your organization to receive significantly higher levels of investment in support of your mission.  

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top