Some Basic Tips for Beginning Prospect Researchers… | npENGAGE

Some Basic Tips for Beginning Prospect Researchers…

By on Jun 1, 2012


A brand new researcher recently asked me for advice on getting started. It really got me thinking about those who are just getting started in prospect research and what core fundamental information they would need to get started, so I wanted to share my quick initial thoughts with you all.

All research boils down to uncovering evidence of capacity and inclination to give.  A person with wealth (capacity), an interest in your mission (inclination) and linkages to your org (previous giving, volunteering, attendance at events, receiving the newsletter, etc.) is an ideal major gift prospect. 

Indications of wealth include:

  • Expensive real estate – you can usually find this through the county assessor websites.  You will often not find vacation homes this way, though.  There are fee-based services that allow for national searching (not just one county at a time).  These require a subscription.  The most popular vendors among prospect researchers are LexisNexis and Dataquick.  There is also a pay-as-you go service called KnowX where you can do a national search for real estate and other kinds of information. 
  • Private company affiliation – you won’t usually be able to learn what a private company officer’s salary is or how much of a personal investment he or she has in the company, but knowing that your prospect is a top officer in a large company – or that your prospect is the owner of a small company – is a useful indicator.  KnowX will help here if you want to pay as you go.  Hoover’s gives away some of this info on the larger companies and officers for free, but they want to sell you a subscription for a couple $Ks for more extensive searching.  Dun & Bradstreet is the industry standard for researching private companies.  Subscription required. 
  • Public company insider – Insiders are top officers, directors, or 10% shareholders in public companies.  These are usually the 1%, so you won’t run across one of them very often, but when you do, you can learn a lot such as the number of shares they have in the company, their options, their compensation, sometimes even their retirement benefits. 
  • Family foundations – you can’t add the foundation assets to the prospect’s personal assets because the foundation is a separate entity and often several family members and even non family members are involved.  However, the fact that one has a family foundation is a strong indication of personal gift capacity, plus you can learn a lot about the prospect’s interests and funding strategies by reading the foundation material.  You find these on the Foundation Center and Guidestar.  No subscription required if you just search for a foundation named after your prospect.

Indications of inclination:

  • Nonprofit affiliations – the boards someone sits on tells you something about the kinds of things they are interested in.  Find these at the Foundation Center and Guidestar.  Subscription required to search by director’s name.
  • Family foundations – discussed above
  • Philanthropic gifts – you  can sometimes stumble across these by Googleing the person’s name, but the most efficient way to find philanthropic giving is to use a service like  Subscription fee is $900/year for unlimited searching.  Mostly you don’t find major gifts in the NOZA list even if the person has made some major gifts (not all gifts are found by NOZA), but when you do see a 5 or 6 figure gift or greater, that can also be an indication of capacity.
  • Political donations – you learn something about the way the person leans politically from which you might be able to infer something about their social views.  You  can search this by donor name for free.   

You can get a lot of this through Google, but it tends to be hit and miss, and there’s lots of junk to filter out in a Google search.  Using targeted sources like these will make your research more efficient.  As you see, many of the most powerful resources require a subscription. 

Share your tips and what you learn with us! Prospect research is constantly evolving.  I also recommend that you connect with your local APRA chapter and, if possible, get to the APRA (Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement) International meeting which is in Minneapolis, August 1-4. 

*David Lamb is a senior solutions consultant for Target Analytics. You may reach him at


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