Dear Kim:

I work with a small college and I am trying to find information about our individual donors.  I want to know about their donor history and what they have been involved in.  Since I can’t access tax returns, do you know of any other resource that would help me find this information?

~Donor, who art thou?

Dear Art Thou:

There are endless ways to find out more about your donors, and I suggest that you either sign up for a prospect research workshop near you or buy lunch for someone in a bigger college or university who is in charge of prospect research and pick her or his brain.  You may want to check with your local Association of Fundraising Professionals chapter or go to the website of the national AFP (  I am a big fan of knowing as much as you need to about your donors, and research online is certainly important for that.

But first, you need to think about what is it that you need to know.  I find that organizations either know way too little about their donors and treat them like ATMS or they seek to learn (and sometimes find out) so much information that you’d think they could quit their day jobs and go into the biography or national intelligence business.

An example of the former is a letter I got a few days ago that started like this:

Dear Mrs. Klein, (a problem right there since I am not and never have been married)

Last year you helped us with a gift.  Would you consider giving more this year? 

The letter went on with some accomplishments of the organization but with no more information about what they want from me.  Am I to remember what I gave and then add some amorphous amount that would constitute “giving more”?  Not too effective.

On the other hand, I went to an organization recently that had accessed all kinds of information about one of their donors—all of it online and public and none of it particularly problematic, except that in the 30 pages of data there was very little the organization needed to know in order to approach this person.  He had given $1,000 and they wanted to ask for $2,000.  They were shocked when I said, “Just do it.”

You are from a college.  SO you need to know some or all of the following about your donors:

  • Alum?  If yes, what year did they graduate?  What did they major in?
    If not an alum, what is their relationship to the college?  Parent? Faculty?
    Other staff?  Hires a lot of graduates?
  • Who on your board of directors or among the faculty knows this person?
  • What is their main interest at this time?

You may also want to find out more about what their giving capacity is, rather than just asking them to incrementally increase their gift every so often.  To do this, it can help to use an online prospect research service, which uses sources of public information to provide you with information about your donors that would otherwise take you many hours to discover.  They can often tell you which other nonprofits (and political campaigns) they’ve contributed to, and what their business holdings are, if any.  One online service I’m familiar with is, but there are many others.

Make a list of what you would most want to know about this person before going to see them.  Then take the list of donors that you have and show it to people who would be likely to know your donors and find out what YOU NEED TO KNOW (not more, not less) from the people who know these people.

The main thing question you are always answering is: what is the next step for this donor?  You don’t need to find out everything you might eventually want to know in order to proceed with an ask, a visit, or some other communication.

And remember, when you visit your donors, you will find out more if you ask them about themselves.

Good luck!

~Kim Klein