Get inside their head: 5 ways prospect research can help how you communicate


Guest post by Sarah Tedesco of DonorSearch

Effective communication is how nonprofits keep up long-term relationships with their donors, but it’s tough to know exactly what to say and how to say it - especially when your campaign’s success is on the line!

Luckily, there’s one simple truth you can follow when crafting your messages: The more personalized your communications with donors are, the more likely they are to respond positively to them.

To personalize your messages, you need to know something about your donors besides just their names. That’s where prospect research comes into play. It’s the perfect way to find everything you need to know about your donors in order to build the most engaging communication strategy possible!

You can draw a direct line between solid prospect research and improved donor communications, and here’s how:

Even small details make a big difference.
Well-chosen communication channels inspire engagement.
Smart segmentation informs your ask amounts.
Donors’ interests guide your outreach.
Corporate connections open doors.

Not sure how to jump into prospect research? Download and personalize DonorSearch’s prospect profile templates to kickstart the process.

Once you’ve got the basics of prospect research under your belt, let’s make the connection to effective donor communication.


1. Even small details make a big difference.

Imagine it’s your birthday. You check your mailbox, and inside is a birthday card from your aunt, your brother - and the nonprofit you donated to last year. How special would that make you feel?

Using prospect research to discover small personal details about donors and including those details in your communication strategy can show your supporters that you care about them as individuals.

And donors who feel like you care about them are more likely to donate again!

Making your donors happy with birthday cards isn’t the only way that knowing their birth date can help you communicate more effectively with them. Consider providing opportunities for supporters to raise money for your nonprofit as a birthday gift to themselves. Peer-to-peer fundraising models are perfect for this sort of campaign because they center around one main person, just like a birthday!

Birthdays are a great piece of information to guide effective communication, but don’t let your imagination end there. Some other ideas:

  • First names: Address your letters and emails using your donors’ first names. A letter addressed to “Sandy” instead of “Ms. Johnson” feels more personal and is more likely to be read all the way through.
  • Marital status: If you decide to go with surnames, make sure you know which title to include. If Ms. Johnson is actually Mrs. Johnson, using the correct title will make your communications feel less like form letters.
  • Location: Messages about events should only be sent to donors who can feasibly attend. You might even have to translate some messages if you have international donors. Don’t overlook this metric in your prospect research!

These small details aren’t just important during prospect research, though it’s during that stage that you’ll pay most attention to gathering them. For this data to build up your communication and not break it down, the information still has to be right months and even years into your fundraising efforts.

Your supporters may move, change their phone numbers, or get married and change their name at any time. As that happens, contact information changes, too. Make sure your database is updated regularly. After all, you can’t send effective communication to a wrong number!


2. Well-chosen communication channels inspire donor engagement.

The occasional wrong number won’t be your only problem if you don’t include communication channels as a consideration in your prospect research. Not everyone wants to be called, and making that mistake can cost you the relationship you’ve been building.

It’s important to know how your supporters want to be reached. Effective donor communication is a two-way street, and donors won’t respond if you don’t reach out in a way that’s convenient and engaging for them.

Your communication options are practically limitless:

  • Phone calls
  • Emails
  • Direct mail
  • Social media

The best way to find out your donors’ preferred communication channel is to ask and file this information in your donor database. Specifics, when you can get them, are always best.

If that’s not an option, there are other details from your prospect research that can give you a hint about how your supporters might best be reached.

For instance, age can be a strong indicator of a donor’s receptability to online communication. Because teens spend more time online than other generations, they are more likely to respond to social media campaigns than other donors might be.


3. Smart segmentation informs your ask amounts.

Especially if you’re collecting a lot of information for your database, it’s not always possible (or smart) to analyze every donor individually. That’s where segmentation can come in handy.

Segmenting your donors into groups allows you to send messages directed to those groups, so that every donor gets a personalized message based on some characteristic that’s important to them.

One of the most important times segmentation can work to your advantage is when you send out donation requests. Since asking for a realistic amount is half the battle of securing a donation, you can use your prospect or donor data to determine your request.

Consider these opposite scenarios:

  • Asking major donors for smaller contributions is leaving money on the table. Keeping major donor relationships going is important; in fact, many organizations even bring a new member onto their leadership team to help manage them.
  • Requesting a major gift from a low-profile donor is unlikely to pay off because they probably don’t have the extra resources to give. Plus, they might think that they can’t contribute less at another time if you don’t show them that it’s an option.

Prospect research will help you categorize your donors by their giving type by taking into consideration their ability and propensity to give.

Age and profession, as well as history of giving, play a large part in this process. Baby boomers are statistically more generous than younger generations, so you can reasonably expect more from them than you can from young professionals just starting their careers.

When it comes to reaching out to these segments of your donor database, keep in mind not just the amount but the kind of donation you’re asking for. Your older supporters probably wouldn’t be able to participate in a highly physical volunteer activity like building a house, while younger people might be.

Plus, there is more than one kind of financial gift you can consider asking for. Donors in their 20s might be surprised if you ask them about planned gifts, but you could reach out to donors in their 80s about them!


4. Donors’ interests guide your outreach.

One of the most important pieces of information you could collect in your prospect research is the philanthropic histories and other hobbies of your donors. And while it’s obvious that this information would be important when planning future fundraising campaigns, it’s equally important when deciding which causes to contact which donors about — and which not to.

There are many downsides to contacting donors with messages that don’t apply to them. Here are only some:

  • You could offend prospective donors by asking them to support causes they have strong negative feelings about.
  • The one request that would attract a supporter could get lost in a sea of messages they aren’t interested in.
  • An influx of unrelated asks could lead a donor to unsubscribe from your messages or, in the worst-case scenario, decide to stop giving to your organization altogether.

It’s not all clouds with no silver lining. Applied well, information about your donors’ philanthropic interested can guide you to the messages they are most likely to respond to.

Knowing your donors’ philanthropic history and general interests can help you communicate with them intelligently. You can send them information about fundraising that they care about without annoying them with the causes they don’t care about.

For example: University fundraising follows this strategy when reaching out to alumni. Alumni are more inclined to give to causes connected to organizations they were involved in while they were on campus.

Messages requesting donations for the basketball team probably won’t be as well received by the former president of the book club as they would by a former cheerleader. The former president of the book club might even start to ignore all fundraising requests, even the ones related to the library, if she receives tons of messages about clubs she didn’t join while on campus.

When in doubt, put yourself in the donor’s place to get a sense of the right balance!


5. Corporate connections open doors.

Knowing where your donors work can sometimes lead to increased donations without the donors themselves having to up their individual gifts. Seem mysterious? It’s actually simple!

Many companies offer matching gift programs to their employees. Employees who participate in these programs submit paperwork to their employers whenever they make a charitable donation, and the company donates to the same charitable organization. Companies often match donations exactly, but some will even donate double the amount.

Discovering your donors’ employment information is an essential element of prospect research because it allows you to pay special attention to donors whose employers match gifts.

Communicating matching gift information to applicable donors is very important. Think about how you can incorporate this info into your donor communications:

  • Preemptive: Once you’ve identified donors that work for companies that match gifts, immediately send them an informative message about the program.
  • Post-donation: If a new donation comes in from a matching gift-eligible donor, contact them quickly and encourage them to submit the necessary paperwork to their employer.

Besides matching gifts, corporate connections can pay off in the long term in the form of partnerships, which can be especially useful when you organize a large fundraising event. So although your organization might not initially think to include employment information in its prospect research, collecting this data can really pay off in the long term.

Prospect research is just the first step in strengthening your relationship with your donors. Following up with the knowledge you have now is the next step, and it’s an important one.

If you allow the data from your prospect research to inform your communications with donors, you’ll be sure to see the benefits!



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