Direct mail prospecting, sending letters to strangers who have a reasonable chance of being interested in your mission, remains the cheapest and most efficient way to acquire new donors. By renting or exchanging lists of donors from like-minded organizations, you invest in a concentrated search for donors interested in your cause.
Sometimes, however, it is worthwhile to undertake a more deliberate and targeted search for major donor prospects. The first and obvious place to start would be your contacts. Ask board members and current major donors with whom you have a strong relationship if they have any friends that they might be willing to introduce you to.
But if that well runs dry, don’t give up—there is still a lot you can do to identify new major donor prospects:
1. Review the board members of like-minded organizations. The people who join the board of an organization usually believe deeply in the cause and more often than not have enough money to make a four or five figure minimum contribution every year. By finding three to five like-minded organizations and identifying their board members (usually listed on an organization’s website) you’ve already quickly identified a sizeable group of people who may be interested in what you do. Sometimes board members feel that there is a conflict of interest, and that they cannot give to organization A if they are on the board of organization B. They are still worth approaching, as they may be willing to refer you to other potential donors or support you down the road once they have left their current board position.
2. Review the annual reports of like-minded organizations. Often, if an organization has a giving club, it will list the members in its annual report; at the very least, it may give the names of some top donors or event sponsors, or profile one or two donors who have left a planned gift. Research these donors and determine whether they might be a good candidate to approach as a member of your own giving club.
3. Look at political giving history. Political donations are publicly disclosed. Though your organization may not have an explicitly political mission, there are often candidates or Political Action Committees especially known for championing some area like environmental or educational policy that aligns well with your organization’s mission. A quick google search should yield PACs or candidates that champion something related to your cause. Once you’ve found a couple, go on the Federal Election Commission website (fec.gov) and play around with the search feature. You can run a search for those who have contributed to the desired candidate or PAC. Though political donors tend to be different people than nonprofit donors, researching those who come up might offer some promising leads.
4. Be a connector. It is in the interest of like-minded organizations to work together. Reach out to other organizations who are doing similar work and develop relationships with them. When the time is right, be willing to introduce them to your donors and vice versa. Our first instinct is to shield our donors and feel that we are in competition for limited resources. But there is no better way to cultivate a donor than to give them a sense that their relationship with you is paying off. Introducing donors to interesting people or other organizations doing good work can actually make them want to get involved more deeply with your organization. Introductions can serve not only to bring in new donors but to improve the relationships you have with current ones.
5. Don’t forget about foundations. Look up the board members of foundations that give to causes like yours and research smaller family foundations that are in your geographical area or share similar interests. Reaching out to individuals is a very different experience from the more formal foundation solicitation process, but you might find that you can attract people involved in foundations as individual donors, or even forge a personal connection with foundation decision-makers, improving your chances of being considered at foundation board meetings. Here are 5 key things to look for in a foundation's Form 990 if you're seeking its support.
Once you have identified new prospective donors there is a lot to do. The first step after identification is donor research, which we will cover in a future Practicalities article.