Ready to Dive into Prospect Research? A Researcher Shares How to Get Started



Rannie McCants

Development Research Associate, The Public Theater


So you want to… [be successful/get that job/make a good impression/close that deal]… then don’t forget to do your homework.

How many times have you heard that advice in your lifetime? The answer is too many! While an eye roll may be a reasonable response, it’s an undeniable truth. And, in the case of launching or strengthening your major gifts program, it’s essential.  

If you feel like your major gifts program is treading water, you may find that diving head first into prospect research is just what you need to truly propel your donor relationships and your fundraising results forward.

Prospect research, done well and used smartly, can help you:

  • Determine more quickly whether a prospect is worth your time

  • Uncover previously unknown connections between prospects and your organization that can pave the way for exciting new avenues for engagement and giving

  • Focus your fundraisers on opportunities that will net them the biggest rewards – existing donors with upgrade potential

  • Deepen relationships and improve the donor experience

Investing resources in a full- or part-time prospect researcher can reap big returns for your program and help your frontline fundraisers stay focused on meeting with donors. Research can also be done by volunteers, support staff, or be outsourced.  

How do you put prospect research to work for your program?

We asked Rannie McCants, Development Research Associate at The Public Theater, to share her insights on leveraging the power of research to achieve results.


1.     Start with the big picture.

Prospect research is only as good as its usefulness to frontline fundraisers. Great prospect researchers take on frontline fundraisers’ goals as their own and tailor their work to meet specific needs.

That means the first step in setting up a new program is not research at all: it’s conversations. Spend time getting to know what each member is trying to achieve. Research requirements will become clear.

Rannie began by meeting with each team leader in her department individually. She asked:

  • What are your goals?

  • Where do you see potential for growth? What types of donors?

  • What do you need from prospect research?

  • How can I be most helpful to you?

From these conversations, she gained an understanding of each team’s distinct goals and growth strategies—and distinct needs from prospect research. The individual giving team, for example, believed growth would come from renewing and upgrading existing donors, so they needed Rannie’s help setting up a system to identify donors with more potential. The institutional giving team, by contrast, was looking to expand relationships with family foundations, so they asked if Rannie could provide lists of new prospects.

Overall, it became clear that the department would be relying on Rannie’s research to determine how to manage prospects. (Practically speaking: determine which team should manage the relationship to provide the best experience to maximize opportunities.) 

“Context matters,” says Rannie. “I think it’s important for me to understand why I’m qualifying a person.


2.     Get organized before diving into detail.

Prospect researchers specialize in detail. Upfront organization is key to making sure they can find the detailed information they need—but not get lost in it.  

Rannie recommends investing time at the outset to organize:

  • Reports: Set up reports in your database for lists you will need often.

  • Research Categories: Decide what types of research you’ll conduct—and make sure the team is aligned.

  • Templates: Design a research template for each category—and check with the team that it achieves the intended purpose.

  • Process: Determine and communicate how research will be requested, completed, and distributed. Be sure to set realistic expectations on turnaround times and when last-minute requests can be met.

  • Communications: Decide what information will you share, when, and with whom?

  • Tools: Set up subscriptions to databases and news sources.

Through a bit of experimentation, Rannie decided on three research categories for individuals and created a donor profile template for each:

  • Event bio: A very brief snapshot that is used to plan proactive outreach at an event. Rannie reviews the prospect’s capacity, career, family, board affiliations, gifts to other organizations, etc., but only includes the most relevant tidbits in the bio.

  • Snapshot: A short profile that can be used as a first look at a new prospect—or as a cheat sheet on a well-known prospect. Includes the same type of information as a full profile, just pared down and focused on the essentials. This is especially useful in preparing senior leadership for a meeting.

  • Full profile: A soup-to-nuts overview of all the information available on a prospect. Includes information gathered from public sources, as well as learnings from fundraiser conversations.

Rannie shaped her communications plan around the needs she heard about in her introductory conversations.

  • For the individual team interested in identifying upgrade prospects, Rannie shares two lists each week: new donors and renewal donors with additional capacity. She sets aside two hours each week to research the donors and prepare the lists.

  • For the department interested in refining how prospects are assigned for cultivation, Rannie shares a list of all donor profiles completed that week.

  • All completed donor profiles are stored in the database, accessible to the team at any time.


3.     Select the tools you need—which is not all of them.

Let’s be honest, prospect research tools are confusing! There are lots of them, and many seem to do the same thing.

Rannie recommends: be choosy.

She started by auditing the subscriptions her organization already had. She compiled a spreadsheet summarizing: what were the subscriptions? How much did each cost? What were they used for currently? What might she use them for?

From there, she weeded out the ones that were too expensive relative to their value and others that duplicated functionality. She kept the tools she felt would give her quality information in a user-friendly format.

Today, her toolkit includes:

  • Databases: LexisNexis, DonorSearch, iWave, Foundation Directory, and WealthX. (Pressed, Rannie says that if she could only choose one database, she’d choose iWave.)

  • Newspapers & magazines: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inside Philanthropy, ProPublica, etc.

  • Google Alerts: Set up on prospects and topics of interest.

  • Her organization’s internal database: Fundraisers notes about prospects.

In the end, she says, you want to make it easy to compile a mix of qualitative and quantitative information that helps you understand prospects and their philanthropic interests.

What makes a tool good?

  • You trust the information—keeping in mind that no tool can be perfectly accurate.

  • It’s distinct from the other tools you use, providing a new “lens” through which to view your prospects.

  • You actually use it!


4.     Curate, don’t narrate.

There are two aspects of quality research:

  • Complete information.

  • Logical organization of that information.

Well-designed donor profile templates are key. Rannie recommends keeping in mind that the reader may not want to read everything, so lay out information in a way that’s easy to skim. Avoid long paragraphs. Use bullets, bold or italicize important information, underline strategically.

“I’m not a biographer,” Rannie jokes, as she advises focusing on facts and avoiding narrative commentary.


5.     Research with a purpose: meaningful mission matches.

In the end, the purpose of all this work is to engage donors in fulfilling the organization’s mission.

That means starting with ethical research practices. “We only compile information that’s public,” confirms Rannie. Information is presented in a respectful, donor-centric way.

“My goal is to figure out what the donor is interested in,” Rannie says. “I use that information about mission alignment to qualify whether the person is a prospect.”

Her teammates then use that information one step further: how will partnering with us fulfill the donor’s philanthropic objectives? What type of engagement will be most meaningful?

Done well, research uncovers new connections between donors and the organization—equipping fundraisers to provide donors a fulfilling experience that moves the mission forward. 

Per Rannie: “You never know where someone’s going to find a connection.”


Rannie McCants is the Development Research Associate at The Public Theater. Prior to this role, she held development positions at the McBurney YMCA and Black Girls Smile. She serves on the Young Adult Advisory Board at Riverside Church and is a member of the New York Urban League Young Professionals.

Aperio Philanthropy LLC is a full-service fundraising consulting firm, specializing in relationship-based fundraising. Aperio exists to build the capacity of nonprofits to generate sustainable, growing mission funding. By distilling proven best practices into a clear investment roadmap, Aperio simplifies the path to growth. Aperio’s strategic counsel, turnkey resources, and project management services provide the support needed to move forward on that path—and turn bold visions into reality.