Bringing on an expert guide to help your team with one or more aspects of your prospect research strategy is a smart move for any organization!

A prospect research consultant can take your donor prospecting to the next level. From supporting one element of your data collection to guiding the whole prospect research process, a consultant can help you hit your fundraising targets faster than ever. Plus, they'll help you lay the groundwork for long-term relationships with new major donors.

Choosing the right consultant can make a huge difference for your campaign or project in the long run. Keep these 5 considerations in mind as you search for the best prospecting consultant or research team for your organization:

  1. The scope of your organization's needs

  2. Time and location requirements for your consultant

  3. The track record of the prospect research consultant

  4. Cost considerations for your organization

  5. How the prospect research consultant will fit with your culture

If your team is looking to hire a prospect research consultant for the first time, like for your organization's first major campaign, make sure to familiarize yourself with the prospecting process! Start with our introductory overview of prospect research fundraising strategies. Understanding the process will help you to prioritize all your needs as you get started with a new consultant team member!

Understand the full scope of your needs before hiring a prospect research consultant.

1. The scope of your organization's needs

Generally speaking, nonprofits engage a prospect research consultant to guide them as they identify key major donors to solicit for support. Their expertise on the donor research process can lead to breakthrough insights for your team and highlight new long-term strategies to pursue.

Within this broader purpose is a huge variety of specific tasks and services that prospect research consultants provide to nonprofits. Understanding your exact needs will go a long way to help you find the best possible research partner. The most common services that nonprofits need from a prospect research consultant include:

  • Reviews and screenings of existing donor lists to find key areas for growth

  • More comprehensive guidance on the prospect research process

  • Support in one or more niche areas, like planned giving or wealth screening

  • Reviews of current in-house prospect research techniques

  • Heavy-duty guidance around a specific campaign or event

  • Data management guidance during a sudden influx of new donors

  • Full-time services to replace an in-house prospect researcher

  • Structured monthly support to address any elements of the research process

Each of these needs entails a different scope of involvement. Before choosing a prospect research consultant, you need a clear vision of what you want accomplished and what targets you need to hit. Understanding your exact needs will go a long way to help you find the best possible research partner.

A prospect research consultant can help in several areas of your donor prospecting, but you need to know exactly what you're hoping to accomplish.

There's no magic spell to get immediate prospecting results; effective research and strategy development requires some considerable grunt work. Misaligned expectations are a major reason why fundraising projects miss their targets or even derail! Understanding your goals early will greatly reduce the chances that your team or consultant will waste any effort or time.

While prospect researchers who specialize in niche areas are often effective, they might hold you to inflexible time or price structures. Most quality prospect research consultants will be able to handle any of the services listed above, so try to find an effective all-in-one service that offers a more flexible membership structure. We'll explain why this is your best bet when we discuss cost considerations.

Consider your time requirements and location preferences for any prospect research consultant you recruit.

2. Time and location requirements for your consultant

The time and location requirements you'll have for any prospect research consultant you engage are another essential consideration to take into account early. They relate to both the scope of your needs and the individual preferences of your organization. Start by asking yourself and your team these key questions:

Ask your team these key questions to determine what requirements you'll have of a prospect research consultant.
  1. Depending on the scope of my project or campaign, about how much time do I expect to need from a research consultant?

  2. Do I need consulting for a short amount of time or a regular amount of research support on a monthly basis?

  3. Is it necessary that my consultant be in-office, or will remote research support work for my team?

These questions are fairly straightforward, but your team's answers can greatly impact your choices as you research consultants. For example, some consultants or services might resist offering remote research support even if it better suits the scope of your needs. Flexibility should be the top quality of any prospective researcher that your organization considers taking on.

Carefully considering the level of access that you'll need and want of your prospect research consultant is an important early step in the process of finding the best fit for your mission and goals.

Research the track records of any prospect research consultants you consider.

3. The track record of the prospect research consultant

Whenever recruiting a consultant or other special support of any kind, researching your candidates' track records is a best practice. This can give you a good sense of the quality of their work as well as any areas of expertise in which they can really deliver.

For prospect research consultants specifically, there are a number of ways to review the quality of their work and the approach they take to research:

  • Ask the consultant for samples of their past work. They likely have a case study or portfolio on hand for just that purpose.

  • Look up their past clients and briefly research their fundraising histories. The consultant will probably list a few past clients on their website.

  • Reach out to past clients and ask for feedback. This strategy won't always work, but it can yield some valuable insights.

  • Simply start a conversation with the consultant or service to discuss the scope of your project and their approach to research.

  • For major projects, ask the prospect research consultant to put together a project proposal.

If you're considering the last point, keep in mind that many individual consultants might hesitate to create a full proposal for your organization unless they can be assured of your interest and intention to hire them. If you're planning very far in advance for a major campaign, this might not be so inconvenient.

However, if you're eager to get started and want faster help, smaller-scale support, or recurring guidance on a regular basis, look instead to a smaller consulting firm or boutique service. These consultants have more time to discuss their services in a way that fits your schedule, not just theirs. 

Another key point to look for: a consultant who prioritizes data hygiene. That is, an effective prospect research consultant will understand that staying organized and developing tidy reporting protocols in your database is essential for generating meaningful insights. This way, their work remains fully actionable for your team even after your campaign draws to a close.

What is your team's budget for a prospect research consultant?

4. Cost considerations for your organization

The cost for the services of a prospect research consultant is a major determining factor for your team and will vary depending on the scope of your organization's needs. Again, it's essential that you and your team clearly identify and communicate what you're hoping to accomplish as you move closer to making a choice.

There are a few common ways that prospect research consultants, as individuals, teams, and services, structure their pricing:

  • Customized per-project fees based on the scope of your campaign

  • Goal-based fees based on the final results of your project

  • Flat monthly or annual fees for retained services

  • Hourly pricing structures to provide scheduled research support

  • Memberships for structured all-in-one support plus add-ons

The most reliable pricing structures for smaller and mid-sized nonprofits tend to be a mixture of the last three points listed above — fees for retained services, hourly research support, and membership plans. These options in particular will offer your organization the flexibility to direct the focus of your research on an hour-by-hour basis, while allotted membership or monthly hours gives your prospect research consultant the time to develop a big-picture strategy. 

Donorly's membership plans are a great example of the flexibility to look for:

Prioritizing flexibility and a collaborative approach in your prospect research consultant will help ensure that you won't be held to a time requirement or price tag that's out of line with the scope of your needs. Hourly and membership structures are an indicator that a research consultant values giving their clients options, not just one-size-fits-all solutions.

Your prospect research consultant should understand your culture and work well with your team.

5. How the prospect research consultant will fit with your culture

Finally, your nonprofit's team should simply like working with any prospect research consultant that you recruit! 

Building a relationship of trust and respect is essential for exchanging information, guidance, and direction in productive ways. Your organization's culture and your consultant's approach should complement one another. Take these kinds of factors into consideration:

  • Your mission and constituency

  • The goals of your campaign or project

  • Your consultant's track record

  • Their areas of expertise

  • Their age or the age of the firm, if applicable

Here's an example: Let's say your arts and culture nonprofit that serves a younger constituency is planning a major campaign to expand its operations and launch new programming. You could certainly benefit from the research services of a legacy consulting firm, but a younger consultant or firm with direct experience in your sector and region could provide you with the perfect connections to build more productive, long-term relationships with new donors.

Most importantly, a collaborative attitude tends to be a reliable marker of quality in a consultant. Your prospect research consultant needs to really understand the unique needs of your organization and mission. They should adapt their techniques to fit your goals, not simply apply a general method that's worked for their larger clients in the past.

Choosing a prospect research consultant, team, or service to guide your organization as it undertakes an important new project is no small task. Keep all these essential points in mind as you begin to narrow down your options!

The right consultant will become an invaluable partner for your team. Take your campaign or fundraising project to the next level by putting plenty of careful thought into these first steps. Continue your research with more information on major donor prospecting and the work of nonprofit consultants: