If you’re in development, you probably recognize the value of good donor research. Good research can mean the difference between going into a donor or prospect meeting feeling at ease or on edge. It can mean the difference between asking a thoughtful question about something you know your donor cares about and sticking your foot in your mouth. In short, good research helps you build strong relationships with your donors and donor prospects.

I could talk for days about donor research—why to do it, how to do it, what to look for, and so on. I’m a riot at cocktail parties, let me tell you! But I’ll spare you for now.

Let’s start with the basics: you’ve got to get yourself some marble columns research tools.  

—  But Liz, those things are expensive! Are donor research tools worth the money?

If I had a dollar for every time I get asked that question, I would now own at least two more pairs of really cool shoes. Or maybe a marble column.

Basically, if you value your time, the answer is yes. These tools take a lot of information and put it all in one place for easy searching – the efficiency gains with these tools are huge.

Most research tools compile publicly available information from a variety of sources (such as business registrations, property holdings, political donations, nonprofit and foundation board memberships, and so on) and put it into an easily searchable format.

Research tool subscriptions generally cost several thousand dollars each year, but save a whole lot of time—which can easily pay for itself if you use the time you’ve saved to do things like donor meetings, thank you calls, and so on!

What kind of tools do you need? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for.

  • Looking for information on individuals?
    We use Wealth Engine and iWave pretty regularly around here for this purpose and find them very helpful. Other similar research tools include DonorSearch, and LexisNexis. Each of these tools pulls from different information sets and has different strengths, but all are very helpful as a starting point for individual research. These tools help you find address and contact information, real estate holdings, professions, board affiliations, political donations, charitable donations, and giving potential.
  • Looking for information on a current or lapsed foundation funder?
    Check out Guidestar.org. With a free registration, you can access the 990s of these foundations, which contain a wealth of information on application guidelines, giving levels, past giving, and so on. Check out my colleague Kyle’s great tips on key things to look for in a foundation’s 990 Form.

These research tools can help you find basic biographical, contact, and giving information for donor prospects. While not complete (and sometimes frustratingly inaccurate!), the information gleaned on these tools can provide important leads that help direct further web searching.

Did you find out that Bob Smith is on the board of the Bob Smith Foundation? Go look up the foundation’s 990s. Did you find out that he’s the CEO of the Awesome Company? Go look up his company bio on their website. Did you find out his wife’s name is Cindy Lou? Go look her up too.

As hinted in the above, internet searches are an essential complement to the information provided through research tools—so don’t forget trusty Google! You can often find news articles on your donors, contact information at places like whitepages.com, professional affiliations and background on LinkedIn, good biographical information from corporate and board member bios on company and nonprofit websites, useful family information through obituaries, and so on. The information gleaned through these means helps round out your understanding of your donor or prospect, giving you a leg up when getting to know them. 

We’ll cover more on donor research in coming months. But for now, happy hunting!

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It is my goal to help purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. Please let me know if and how I can be of help to you. Feel free to shoot me an email at lpalla@americanphilanthropic.com or check out our services online at AmericanPhilanthropic.com. We also have ongoing fundraising seminars and events throughout the year.