Prospect research is vital to fundraising success and organizational sustainability – and it doesn’t have to be expensive.

You want to increase your prospect pipeline. You know you need to move beyond the usual suspects and uncover new prospective donors. You even have staff available to conduct the research. Frustratingly, you don’t have the budget for the database you need or the high-powered analytics tool everyone is talking about, so your research hits a wall. Sound familiar?

Let’s face it: budget will always be an issue for nonprofits. Regardless of how much you value prospect research and try to invest accordingly, no one has an unlimited budget to throw at it. But that doesn’t mean you need to limit your expectations or possibilities. In fact, a lack of financial resources can force you to take a fresh look at what you do have and get creative with your research.

Public and University Libraries
Never underestimate the value of your local library. Not only do you have access to a variety of electronic research resources, but if you opt for an in-library experience, you can take full advantage of the in-house expertise to assist you in your quest for information.

In Arizona, the Phoenix Public Library system offers free library cards to Maricopa County residents and provides remote access to some very useful resources such as Reference USA Residential & Business, Hoovers, Morningstar, and GaleOneFile. Additionally, the flagship branch, Burton Barr, has an extensive collection of in-library foundation and grant resources that are incredibly helpful when compiling potential funder profiles. Many libraries around the country offer similar resources, so take the time to explore your local library.

University libraries vary in terms of accessibility and offerings but are worth investigating since many are affiliated or have a partnership with the university foundation. In fact, if you perform a Google search of “university libraries” “prospect research,” you’ll find hundreds of websites that link to library resources targeted to prospect researchers. Michigan State University and Northwestern University are two popular sites; each one lists a plethora of resources and bookmarks and are monitored and updated on a regular basis.

Peer Screening
Sometimes the most valuable information on prospects comes not from technology, but from the people who know them best: their peers. Host an old-school peer screening, in which you gather a network of people – perhaps your Board of Trustees or an affinity group – and facilitate a discussion on potential donors and funders for your organization. Have your participants sign a confidentiality statement before you begin so they feel comfortable sharing personal insights, then let the discussion flow.

If you still feel you could benefit from access to a specific database, but don’t have the funds for a full license, consider collaborating with similar organizations. Can two or three of you share the cost of a license? Is there a group discount available that could make subscriptions more affordable for all of you? NOZA and LexisNexis for Development Professionals are two of the most popular research services; even if discount options are not listed on the vendor’s cost sheet, it’s worth your time to inquire directly with a representative.

Prospect research is vital to your fundraising success and the sustainability of your organization. But it doesn’t have to be expensive. Take stock of the free and low-cost resources at your fingertips and be creative about accessing available data. Robust prospect research is within your grasp, regardless of the size of your budget.

Technical Tips: Advanced Web Searches

By incorporating AND, OR, NOT, asterisks and parentheses into your web searches, you eliminate websites that aren’t relevant to what you are looking for.  With Google you can even search for specific file types and web site types such as .edu and .org.  See a quick overview of Google’s search modifiers online.

Here’s how this can work for you:  Type “free prospect research” filetype:pdf OR filetype:doc OR filetype:docx into Google search. This will return any pdf or Word document that contains the phrase “free prospect research.” Pretty amazing and best of all, entirely free.

The 15-Minute Search

  • Google (General search, Targeted news search)
  • Facebook
  • Who’s Who
  • LinkedIn


With more than 20 years of fundraising experience, Whitney Fulton has expertise in prospect research and management, donor relations, strategic planning, client relationship management, fundraising database systems, and analytics. She began her Advancement career at Thunderbird School of Global Management, where she established the prospect management and research function within Institutional Advancement, later becoming Vice President of Institutional Advancement. She is now a consultant and content expert with The Phoenix Philanthropy Group, an international fundraising consulting firm, and continues to stay involved in the prospect research industry.

Whitney Fulton is a Consultant with The Phoenix Philanthropy Group.

January 2020