Prospect Research: A Primer

When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them that I am a Freelance Grant Writer & Consultant I am sometimes met with skepticism. People usually ask me “What’s the catch” or “You are like that crazy guy on that free money commercial, huh”? These questions make me laugh and are slightly annoying.  I believe if people are educated about grant writing and the grant process then they wouldn’t be so skeptical and intimidated about searching and applying for grants, scholarships, and fellowship opportunities.

The first step of the grant writing process is to conduct prospect research, so let’s begin…..

The Process

Step 1. Prospect Research

The process can be long and arduous or short and sweet per it depends upon your knowledge of grant writing, where to find grants, and your commitment to an organization, business, or yourself if you are individual seeking grants.  Receiving grants can take as long as a month to one year or more depending on your cultivation strategies.

The process must begin with prospect research. What is prospect research? Prospect research is both an art and a science. It is the systematic approach in the collection and analysis of information to identify new major gift potential or to further qualify known major gift donors with the goal to advance a major gift fund-raising program. Through this system you will be able to not waste time in pursing potential donors that are not in alignment with your cause, project, or initiatives. Moreover, you will create a pool of prospects that will more than likely fund your initiatives, cause, or project.

Prospect Research Jargon:

Prospect = a prospective donor.

Suspect = someone who we suspect can give a major gift or fund our program, project, or iniative.

Pool = the place where researchers keep the suspects, albeit in a database or on paper.

Where do we start? Affiliation, Capacity, and Interest


We start by determining Affiliation status in other words… Who already has a relationship with this person, grant making agency, or nonprofit? Let’s make a list (a researcher would):


College Affiliates/Theatre Affiliates: ____ Parents of current students ____ Performers ____ Alumni who give ____ Subscribers who do not give ____ Trustees ____ Community leaders & wealthy local people ____ Former parents who are donors ____ Trustees ____ Alumni who do not give ____ Supporters of other art orgs ____ Parents of former students  ____ Attendees who give ____ Friends who give ____ Subscribers who give

Once you have determined affiliation status and create a pool of prospects to solicit then you can search for grants (local, regional, national level) that will fit your project or organization.


During the process, you must determine the potential donor’s propensity to give and the amount by conducting research into an individual’s net worth or organizations net assets. This process is crucial in order to determine and recommend “The Ask” amount.

Fund-raising adages about wealth and giving capacity say that a major gift donor can give:

–         20 times (sometimes 10 times) sustained annual giving

–         5-10% of annual income

–         5% of known assets

–         2-5% of net worth

–         10% of stock options of $1 mil+

–         1/2 of 1% of gross company sales

–         1.5-5% of net worth of the company


The key question: What is this individual passionate about? Moreover, you must determine if your interest is in alignment with the potential donor you are targeting. This element of major gift identification often requires information from the prospect.  To that end, it is very important to read grant guidelines very thoroughly per you can determine if you should proceed any further in regards to applying and seeking funding from that particular donor.

Once you are finished with this process then it is now time to draft your grant (Please go to the Learning Room and select Grant Writing 101).

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