For smaller or mid-sized nonprofit organizations, the idea of conducting donor research might seem intimidating, especially if you've never before solicited the support of a major donor. You already know that attracting sustained philanthropic support from a higher level of donors is an essential part of nonprofit work, but the process of identifying these new prospects and then finding the right donor prospecting tools can be incredibly time-consuming.

Your team has enough on their plate as it is! That's why it's crucial that you learn the basics of nonprofit donor research before devoting serious time to sifting through resources or compiling prospect lists. 

Donor research is the key to accurately pinpointing the individuals who will be the most likely to help you achieve your mission. Taking the guesswork out of that research -- that's our mission here at Donorly. Familiarizing your team with these key donor research concepts and fundraising research tools can go a long way to streamlining the process once you're ready to get started:

  1. Who uses and conducts donor research?
  2. What kind of data is involved in major donor research?
  3. Where can I find some common donor research tools?
  4. When should I find a donor research consultant?
  5. Why should I use a donor prospecting team for my research?

Read through these common donor research questions and take note of all the tips and resources outlined in each section. We think they'll come in handy to help you streamline your decision-making process and feel prepared to get started with donor research!

 Who uses the core donor research tools and concepts?

1. Who uses and conducts donor research?

Let's start with some donor research basics. Since a nonprofit's operations, annual fund, and special projects or campaigns must be funded by external sources, it's crucial that no effort is wasted in finding the perfect match. An ideal prospect will have the proven ability and desire to support your mission. 

Think of donor research like a metal detector. You can exhaust yourself digging everywhere, or you can use the right tool for the job and find exactly what you've been looking for in a fraction of the time.

After all, for nonprofits, there's typically very little time to spare. Conducting effective donor research more often than not means the difference between a successful campaign and a tightened budget for the next several years. 

Who conducts nonprofit donor research?

Three main groups conduct donor research, each with their own strategies and tools. These include:

  • All types of nonprofits that solicit major gifts or conduct capital campaigns. These commonly include universities, healthcare institutions, arts and cultural organizations, faith-based nonprofits, and advocacy groups. Any organization that hosts fundraising events, galas, or auctions can easily use their events as springboards for further major donor research. 
  • Donor research consultants and prospecting teams. Consultants can provide access to heavy-duty prospecting resources and a personalized touch. This in-depth approach is often the most time- and cost-effective for nonprofit organizations in the long run.
  • Wealth screening services. By screening your donor lists against wealth and property databases, these services can quickly identify existing donors with the capacity to give more. They deliver fast results but those results often require further vetting to provide the deeper context and nuance necessary for successful solicitations.

Donor research plays a central role in the nonprofit world, connecting nonprofits with the philanthropists who provide continued support. Understanding all the actors and services at play is important to make the best decisions for your organization as it seeks to grow its prospect list and secure more funding.

Wealth screening vs. major donor research?

As you research the field of donor prospecting, remember that wealth screening and donor research are two different processes.

Wealth screening provides a specific view of your prospects by examining their wealth markers, property records, and investments. Donor research takes a more comprehensive view in analyzing an individual's wealth, philanthropic habits, and professional background.

The difference can be substantial, as wealth alone doesn't necessarily indicate a prospect's desire to make major gifts.

Wealth screening is a good choice for larger nonprofits with dedicated development teams who can work on prospect research internally. Comprehensive donor research is a smart move for nonprofits of all sizes but particularly small- to mid-sized organizations. Whether your nonprofit chooses to conduct some DIY donor research or find research consultant to guide the process, the bigger picture is essential for revealing the professional and personal connections that result in major prospecting insights.

 Comprehensive data is an essential donor research tool.

2. What kind of data is involved in major donor research?

The point of comprehensive donor research is to give you and your nonprofit a full sense of your prospects as individuals. This translates into a diverse array of data points that, when compiled and analyzed, can help your research team make some decisions about the best ways to contact, interest, and engage that individual prospect. 

The most effective metrics and data used in donor research include:

  • A donor's existing relationship with your nonprofit. Check your database. Have they given in the past?
  • Donations made to other nonprofits. These will reveal which causes motivate the prospective donor.
  • Involvement with other nonprofits. Have they served on an organization's board of directors? 
  • Political contribution history. This is a great indicator of a prospect's desire to support their values and see them in action.
  • Professional networks. An individual's career can reveal much about their giving capacity and links to corporate philanthropy.
  • Personal information. Background and contact information is essential in philanthropy work to build lasting relationships.
  • Wealth markers. Traditional markers of wealth are a great first step in identifying potential prospects to focus on.

Remember, ethical donor research is not about invading privacy. Rely on publicly available information and fundraising research tools to craft a strategy that will genuinely engage the prospective donor. After all, a major donor becomes a valued partner for your nonprofit, not a blank check.

 There are tons of donor research tools out there that can be accessed easily online or through other databases.

3. Where can I find some common donor research tools?

Effective donor research involves a blend of easily-accessed tools, public records, and more heavy-duty industry databases. For instance, here at Donorly we use the comprehensive DonorSearch databases to complement our prospect research and ensure the most accurate results possible.

Check out some of the donor research tools that reliably deliver useful prospecting insights:

  • Internal donor records. Your nonprofit's CRM contains a wealth of data and analytics that can reveal important trends.
  • Internet archive tools. Tools like the Wayback Machine are helpful in searching past versions of websites for crucial information.
  • Social media platforms. LinkedIn can be especially useful for finding valuable professional connections with your prospects.
  • Government records. SEC investment records and political contribution information from the FEC are invaluable resources.
  • Matching gift databases. Corporate philanthropy tools like Double the Donation can help you identify prospects to focus on.
  • Google and Wikipedia. It may be surprising, but a simple search is usually the most effective way to get started!
  • Prospect generator tools. These can provide you with the donor lists of other organizations with a similar mission to your own.
  • Prospect research databases. Full databases like those from DonorSearch are the most exhaustive resources for donor data.

For instance, here's the kind of data that can be accessed quickly and easily through a charitable giving database:

donor-research-guide-donorsearch-database.png

Using a variety of data sources like these is a best practice for donor research. Ensuring a fully-rounded view of your prospects, their interests, and their philanthropic habits, you can both confirm that they'll be interested in your work and develop a personalized strategy for contacting them.

 A consultant can point you to the best donor research tools and guide the prospecting process.

4. When should I find a donor research consultant?

When you need to identify major prospects for your upcoming projects or campaigns, finding a team of donor researchers is generally the best move to make. This is not only because they have access to a full range of research resources but also because they'll save you invaluable time in the long run.

Most of all, a donor research consultant will prevent your team from wasting any effort on pursuing potential major donors who turn out to be completely uninterested in supporting your work. Contact a donor research consultant when:

  • You're planning a capital campaign or are looking to substantially grow your organization.
  • You have little experience with prospecting or few contacts with major funding sources.
  • You're ready to pull from your community or network to cultivate new annual fund donors.

However, in some situations you can easily get started on DIY donor research using public tools and records. This stage is great for completing some initial connections research, or identifying all the first and second degree connections (both personal and professional) between the prospect and your nonprofit. Get started conducting preliminary research when:

  • Your nonprofit already has some experience with identifying new prospects.
  • You have some specific individuals in mind for your next campaign.
  • A new prospective donor has approached you and expressed interest in making a major gift.

Even after refining your prospect list, though, it's still often a good idea to confirm your findings with a donor research consultant before making a move, since more comprehensive resources can reveal a more foolproof solicitation approach. In any case, a donor research consultant can ensure the fastest results for your nonprofit but also (more importantly) help you build supportive relationships with major donors that will last for years. 

 A team of consultants can be the ultimate donor research tool for your nonprofit.

5. Why should I use a donor prospecting team for my research?

There are some major benefits to recruiting a prospect research team to guide your process. A donor research consultant or team of professional researchers can effectively compile and analyze all the resources at hand to review a list of prospects and help you identify which may have the capacity to give and be strong matches for your nonprofit. 

Consider how these benefits could help your nonprofit to reach new levels of success with its major donors:

  • Access to heavy-duty donor research databases. The combination of major fundraising research tools, tricks of the trade, and team insights makes a crucial difference in the quality and efficiency of your nonprofit's donor research.
  • Fully customized services. Consultants can provide you with exactly the level of research support your nonprofit needs to meet its goals. Check out Donorly's membership plans for an example.
  • Time-effective solutions. Faster research turnaround means more time for your nonprofit to hone its prospect development strategies and work on segmenting your new prospect list.
  • Training for your staff and board. A donor research consultant can share insights with your organization that help it continue using smart resources and building strong donor relationships for years to come.

The value that a donor prospecting or research team can bring to your nonprofit is immense. Any level of external guidance can provide the final boost you and your team need to break through to the next level of support from your donor base.


Donor research can be an intimidating process for small and mid-sized nonprofits to undertake for the first time. That's because the stakes often feel incredibly high! While there is often a significant amount of support on the line, understanding the purpose, process, tools, and researchers involved can go a long way to help your team make the best possible prospecting decisions.

Building lasting partnerships with generous major donors is a goal for every nonprofit; knowledge and guidance are the best ways to get there. For more information, continue your research with these additional resources: