A lesson in donor research: when do potentials become prospects?

A lesson in donor research: when do potentials become prospects?

Matt Ashdown
Prospect research can be a tricky task. Your mind weaves through satisfaction and trembling fear as you add prized prospects to a list and then realise the enormity of that list. It’s a list that you give to the Director’s PA who is then given the task of formatting 67 pages of research. It is then given to Trustees, who, you imagine, drop their jaws at the pages of the 196 people they have to read about and see if they know any of them or, at least, circumnavigate their circles.

This, I suppose, is the wrong list.

I have a little flick through a similarly sized National Arts Fundraising School folder (possibly written on Mount Sinai) and read that I have given them a list of ‘potential prospects’. It begs the question, at what point do potential prospects become prospects?

Answer 1: When the timing couldn’t be any better.

It’s important to ensure that you have a database that works best for your fundraising purposes. If the database has functionality that enables you to filter potential prospects by various attributes, then you can easily pull off a list of people who are most relevant to upcoming fundraising activities – be it a certain project that needs funding or a cultivation event with a specific focus.

Answer 2: When potential prospects stand out.

If you are looking for prospects to build the strongest relationships with to fund ongoing activity or major projects, your research has to be detailed. You need to know who has capacity to give, who has given to charity before, what they support and what they are interested in. Vitally, you need to know who has the closest connection to your organisation or its Trustees. After all, turning prospects into donors is all about building relationships (cold calling is a last resort, or even a no-no).

Answer 3: When your Trustees tell you.

Ask your Trustees who they think might be prospects. Joking aside, it is fine to give Trustees a long list of potential prospects if you give them a snapshot of each individual. It may be that it is down to them to tell you who they want more information on at their next meeting. They may also be able to help you narrow down your long list by telling you straight away if anyone is not worth researching further. This is all about clarity and honing in on the relationship that you have with your Trustees. They are there to support and guide the organisation, and it’s sensible to make the most of that.


All potential prospects are prospects, just not at the same time. What it comes down to is well-organised research, choosing a suitable database and spending time on relevant detail so that you can easily gather a group of prospects at any given time. And when it’s time to produce the prospects, don’t forget to do the extra research on them, that’s why they’ve become prospects.

Do you have any more answers to when potential prospects become prospects? We’d love to know your thoughts.